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Self-Portrait of John Slemmons Stevenson (1807-1867)

1832
Origin: America, Maryland, Snow Hill
Other (Unframed): 13 3/4 x 10 11/16in. (34.9 x 27.1cm) Framed: 15 5/8 x 12 9/16 x 1in.
Oil on wood panel
Museum Purchase
Acc. No. 2010.100.1,A
A bust-length portrait of a man turned in three-quarter view towards the viewer's right, his head and gaze aligned with his body. He wears a black, high-collared coat; white ruffled shirt with an upturned collar; a yellow waistcoat; and a white neckcloth. A small red-and white flower-form stick pin appears stuck in his shirt ruffle. His short brown hair is brushed forward. His eyes are blue. The background is a warm brown. Infrared photography and x-radiography reveal several earlier, abandoned, portrait attempts on both front and back of the primary support. (See the conservator's report on file.) On the verso, several lines of a graphite inscription were written over a partially obscured and rubbed out bust- to half-length portrait. Some vestiges appear to be early versions of the artist's self-portrait, but it is not certain that all were.

No frame was on the portrait at the time of acquisition; flecks of gilding adhered along the lower edge of the companion portrait suggest that both pictures were once in gilded frames.

A new, 1 1/8-inch gilded, cyma recta frame (2010.100.1,B), fabricated by Black Dog Gallery, Yorktown, Va., was placed on the portrait in September 2012.
Label:Selfies are made at the click of a button today, but creating a self-portrait in the 19th century required both patience and artistic ability. Self-portraits by untrained artists are rare, and several features make this one by John Stevenson extraordinary. An inscription on the back confirm’s his authorship, provides the date, and notes that this was only the third painting he ever attempted.

Stevenson was born at Newtown (now Pocomoke City) on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. At a young age, he went to Baltimore to learn silversmithing from Samuel Kirk, then to New York City to study watchmaking. At 20, he settled in Snow Hill, Maryland. Over the course of his lifetime, Stevenson was also a merchant, a farmer, and a postmaster. He engraved, sketched, cut silhouettes, painted political banners and portraits, and fashioned furniture as well. According to his grandson, Stevenson “could make almost anything with his tools, and if necessary make the tools too.” Their daughter described Harriet her “as a woman of excellent judgement… She was a close observer and had a remarkable ability to judge character. He (Stevenson) was quick and impulsive, she was patient and deliberate.”
Provenance:The earlier part of the following provenance for 2010.100.1 and 2010.100.2 is speculated based on genealogical data and a presumed line of family descent: From the portrait subject to his daughter, Mrs. John McMaster (Elizabeth Grace Stevenson)(1831-1903) of Worcester County, Maryland; to her daughter, Mrs. Herbert Henry King (Harriet Ann McMaster)(1853-1926) of Worcester County, Maryland; to her daughter, Mrs. Charles Russell Higgins (Lulu King)(1883-1969) of Worcester County, Maryland; to her daughter, Mrs. John Daniel Helm, Jr. (Sarah Grace Higgins)(1916-1996) of Worcester County, Maryland; to her husband, John Daniel Helm, Jr. (1915-2009) of New Providence, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania; to an unidentified dealer who is said to have acquired the pair from "a house in York County, Pennsylvania"; to dealer Kelly Kinzle of New Oxford, Pennsylvania, who was AARFAM's source and who kindly identified the last family owner (Helm) for AARFAM reference.
Inscription(s):On the verso in script in graphite across the upper third of the panel is: "The Third Painting that I ever/ undertook which is a likeness/ of myself/ John S Stevenson/Painted February 1832".