Deming, Charlotte - portraits of a husband and wife

The pair of miniature portraits acquired recently, and showing here, are examples by a rarely encountered American female artist, Charlotte Deming, (Aka Charlotte Denning, as there has been confusion over her name.) However, the pair are both clearly signed "C Deming 1830" on the reverse, so it is possible to confirm the spelling of her name.

The pair were housed in simple wooden frames, of 19C style, but the frames are probably no more than 20 years old, with the other writing on the reverse appearing to be framing instructions. The condition of the miniatures is less than ideal, with warping and stress fractures, caused by the ivory being stuck onto card. As ivory dries, it shrinks across the grain, whereas the card does not. Hence leading to stress fractures.

However, as signed examples by Charlotte Deming are very rare, especially as a pair, the miniatures are a welcome addition to the collection. Little is known about her. Blattel notes that she worked in New York and was active from 1833-1874. She also exhibited at the National Academy of Design. The date of these two miniatures extends that period a little earlier. Being early works, one might expect that later paintings will have less of a folk-art look.

In 1834, Dunlap records her under the heading; "Painters of whom my limits will not permit a more detailed notice, or who have refused information, or, lastly, have passed into obscurity". It is not clear which category she falls into, perhaps the first, but Dunlap notes; "Miss Charlotte Denning [sic] miniature painter of Plattsburg".

That at least provides a start point. Ellet also says in 1859 "Miss Charlotte Denning [sic] of Plattsburgh is spoken of as a clever miniature painter". There appears to be this portrait by her in Canada "Charlotte Deming, John Fletcher, 1845, aquarelle sur ivoire, 10,7 * 8,7 cm, Ottawa, Bibliothèque et Archives". She is also described as an itinerant artist, which suggests she was perhaps a spinster or a widow who needed to earn a living.

To be fair, it is hard to see any similarity of style between the examples showing here, but they are from quite different time periods and thus show how an artist's style can change.

And Skinners sold this; "Portrait Miniature of a Young Child wearing a Purple Dress Holding a Rattle, attributed to Charlotte Deming, (American, 19th Century), signed "Miss CO Deming" u.l., watercolor on ivory showing a half-length portrait of the ginger-haired child, 3 x 2 3/8 in., mounted in a red leather hinged case with gilt brass mat. Condition: Very good. Estimate $1000-$1500. Sold for $2700"

There was a Charlotte Deming who was born 18 October 1808 and died 23 December 1887, perhaps sister of George 10 Sept 1806-21 Apr 1860 and Charles 8 Dec 1812-19 Nov 1813. They appear to have been children of Lemuel Deming 9 Jul 1782-12 March 1841 and Clarissa Thompson (17 April 1785-1 Oct 1870) of Wethersfield, Hartford, CT. She reportedly married George Gabriel in New Haven 8 September 1826.

A Charlotte Deming of Wethersfield was born Oct 12, 1805 in Savoy, MA and married Daniel Hoxie on July 5, 1828. Another Charlotte Deming was born c1793 the daughter of George and Phoebe Deming. She appears not to be the Charlotte Deming of Litchfield CT who married James Humphrey born 3 Dec 1837. There was a Colonel Henry C Deming who spoke at a convention of "Deaf Mute Instructors" along with the noted deaf mute miniature artist John Carlin MA, probably in 1866, which provides a possible connection.

She may be related to Adelaide Deming (1864-1956), an artist and educator whose interest in her town's past provided subjects for many of her paintings. She was a descendant of a prominent Litchfield family of the post-Revolutionary War period, and a nationally known landscape painter.

At this stage, from a geographic point of view, the most likely Charlotte Deming seems perhaps to be the one born 28/29 October 1810 in either Onondaga or Suffolk County, NY, as daughter of David Deming and Elizabeth Ann Curtis. According to the IGI she married George Poulton about 1830. That location being the closest to Plattsburgh, NY. It is noticeable that the two signatures are slightly different in style, as if written at different times. It may not be too fanciful to suggest that the miniatures are a self-portrait of Charlotte painted shortly before her 1830 wedding, together with one of her husband for their 1830 wedding, to make a marriage pair.

Her face is looking direct at the artist, as would be expected for a self-portrait painted looking into a mirror, whereas the man looks to one side. Having signed as C Deming, she may then have continued to use that name for her paintings even after her marriage. As Dunlap refers to her as Miss Deming, it would seem that Deming was not her married name. However, any new information would be gratefully received. 1419a/b

Vallee, P.R. - Unknown man of circa 1807

At first glance this is another miniature portrait of an unknown man by an unknown artist, and thus of lesser interest, even though the artist is very competent. [Much later - as noted in the comments section, a kind visitor has identified the miniature as by P.R. Vallee, also known as Jean-Francois de la Vallee.]

When purchased the miniature had dark water staining at the left and upper right, and both the front and rear glasses were missing. Hence the condition was generally poor. Some minor restoration has been undertaken and temporary "glasses" of PVC plastic have been cut to an appropriate size.

The interest is more in the case. I have previously opined the Embargo Act was a major factor in the development of American case making, even though some American experts have doubted that view. I hold to that opinion and have provided here more images of this miniature than usual, to illustrate the reasons for that opinion. Those interested should also read an earlier post at 2008 - Additions and Comment: Case study - The Embargo Act of 1807 ...

I sought opinions of two experts about the case for this miniature.

An expert based in Europe said; "This miniature is probably done by a French miniature painter that has emigrated to the States. The frame is definitely not French but looks American to me, whereas the miniature is evidently done in the French technique."

Whereas an expert based in America said; "The frame is ifs, ands or buts. I have handled well over 200 european miniatures in similar cases. The fact that it is missing the rear lens is due to mishandling, probably when someone opened the case at the time the water damage ocurred or even just dropping the case. This was not a cheap case when new and it would have been brightly gilt over base metal. The large rear compartment meant complex hairwork and probably cut gold initials. The simple truth is that I have never seen a miniature that could be provably painted in the US that was cased in this type of frame."

I do value the advice and knowledge of both these experts, who know far more about miniatures than I do! However, it would be hard to get two more contrasting opinions. Hence, I am left to arrive at a decision as to when and where the case was made.

While accepting that some American case makers did continue to make high quality cases throughout the period 1807-1817, and hoping not to upset the American expert too much, I feel I have to go with the European expert and say that in my opinion it was most likely made in America during the Embargo Act period. Having said that I need to justify my opinion.

Firstly, the artist is European, and most likely French. The key to this is the background done in gouache rather than watercolour. He (she) was competent as an artist. French artists working in America around this time had fled from the upheavals in France. They included Adolph Ulrich Wertmuller, Philippe Abraham Petticolas, Pierre Henri, P R Vallee, de Clorivere, de Guiran, Belzons, Binsse, Collas, and Gimbrede. I do not think the miniature is by any of these artists, but it was from seeing works by artists such as these that encouraged local artistic talent to emerge.

The work of such competent artists would be normally housed in expensive fitted casework. But if we look at the ivory, there are straight top and bottom edges, which are not both concealed when housed in the case. Hence, for some reason when it was framed a proper case of the proper size was not available. There was no reason for this to happen in France or Britain, but there was in America during the period of the Embargo Act when trade with Europe was so restricted, some towns in NE USA were close to starvation.

I think the reason that the ivory does not fill the case, is that the size of the case itself was determined by the size of an available front glass. It was easier to make a case to fit an available glass, than grind the glass down to size. Hence, the case ended up being a little too large for the miniature.

This view is supported in that the ivory is painted right to the edges, so as to fill the maximum viewing space under the glass. If a case of the correct size had been available the ivory would have been still painted to the edges, but would not have needed to retain a straight top and bottom edge.

While not always in 100% of instances, a common characteristic of American made cases is a front opening bezel. I am not sure why this developed, but as a guess I would say it made it easier to manufacture a fitting case with the relatively lesser skills and materials available in early 19C America, compared to Britain. Especially during the time of the Embargo Act! This miniature case has a front opening bezel.

In addition, a front opening bezel made it easier to open and restore a miniature where there was water damage, or if the owner (perhaps female?) wanted to be shown with a different hairstyle. A number of miniatures of 1815-1830 can be found with an apparent halo around the sitter's head, a clear sign that the hairstyle depicted has been altered to reflect changing fashions!

Around 1800-1805 some British cases began to be held together with four pins, but those tended to have flat side panels, whereas this miniature has a curved side panel held together with four pins (two showing). The hanger is also very simple, apparently original, and small in design, unlike European hangers.

In my opinion the American design of case grew out of the impact of the Embargo Act. Probably with the first cases made after about 1807, as with this one, copied from prevailing British designs as had been recently imported, but with alterations made to suit whatever locally available materials and glass sizes could be obtained. I refer to these as "make-do" cases and my other post shows a number of examples.

The disruption to trade leading to the War of 1812, meant that fewer miniatures were painted 1807-1817 and there was a diversity of casework, as various styles of cases were tried. Although the front opening bezel did help as a means to keep cases together, the rear glasses are often missing from American miniatures of 1807-1840.

An unfortunate side effect of these make-do cases is that a high proportion of American miniatures from 1805-1820 have been re-framed. A far higher proportion have been rehoused compared to British made miniatures of the period. This can be demonstrated by referring to the Metropolitan Museum catalogue. In the Met catalogue among others, see 74, 121 (a make-do case), 126 (a make-do case), 129, 130, 131, 133, 148, 149, 151, 152, 156,158, 159, 165, also 187, 189, 190, 191, 193 and etc. which do not have their original frames, implying failure of the early cases.

A recent sale on eBay which was housed in one of these early cases, probably made around 1820, is shown here. This miniature attracted a premium on sale as it is clearly by an American artist and may even be attributable to a specific artist. Primitive or folk-art type American artists are often more popular than traditional artists, perhaps because those styles are distinctively American. The case has a front beaded bezel and original glass, and the rear aperture also is present and original. These are expensive to replace.

I have heard of dealers who rehouse American miniatures of this period, where there are incomplete make-do cases with missing parts, into newer cases, or instead use British cases from lower value miniatures of the period, to enhance the visual appeal and hence justify a higher selling price. This used to be a common practice in Europe, with one example being the Hapsburg Collection at the Albertina in Vienna, where all 580 miniatures are now housed in identical cases, but the case-making history of many of the miniatures has been lost. 

I cannot condone this, as the history of case-making in America and elsewhere is an important and overlooked aspect of miniature portrait history which far deserves more research. (In fact, it is an opportunity for someone, as at present it is effectively completely unresearched!) I therefore implore collectors of American miniatures in particular, to tell dealers when purchasing that they want American miniatures of the period to remain in their original cases, so that future study will remain possible. 1420