Belzons (?) - portrait of a gentleman

Unfortunately this miniature portrait is unsigned and unidentified. However, it is definitely American in style with a fine early 19C case, where there are beaded bezels both front and reverse.

Inside, the packing includes part of a trade card which reads;
"constant supply, of the best quality, .nd of Segars and, .d perfume, which, of weak nerves, .id will be duly, Oct 25, 1804."

Correspondence with Tony Hyman, the owner of the National Cigar Museum has established that this is part of a trade card previously unknown to him and thus a rare trade card.

During our correspondence, I was able to send him copies of a number of early cigar advertisements taken from copies of J Russell's Gazettee dating from as early as 1800, which are held as part of this collection as they support a miniature of the newspaper publisher, John Russell himself, see View which was painted by Henry Williams.

The miniature was acquired at a rural auction in Georgia, only about 90 miles from Charleston. Thus initially, there was a thought that it might be an early work by Charles Fraser. Fraser's later work tends to be more stippled, but his earlier work was influenced by Edward Greene Malbone.

Backgrounds as dark as this are more associated with artists trained in France, but the pose is similar to miniatures painted by Fraser in 1803 and 1804 as shown in the Carolina Art Association catalogue. For example see the portrait of James Reid Pringle.

The early date was supported on opening it and finding the 1804 trade card, which while not being firm evidence of an 1804 origin, does fit with the date of the costume worn by the sitter which is commensurate with a date of 1804-1810.

Initially, a kind visitor expressed the opinion that the miniature may be by John Marras who was born in France, but worked in New York between 1801 and 1808, before moving to Constantinople where he became painter to the Sultan.

In 1994 Christie's sold as Lot 146; "JOHN MARRAS, Dated 1804 portrait miniature of Mrs. McAwly Watercolor on ivory, signed l.l. John Marras fecit 1804, the case inscribed, "Mrs. McAwly, Temora," 3 1/8 in. high. John Marras was a French portrait miniaturist working in New York City during the first decade of the 19th century. He later appeared as a court painter to the Sultan in Constantinople." Unfortunately no photograph is available.

Little is known about John Marras. In his book William Dunlap refers to a M. (presumably for Monsieur) Maras, but is not complimentary, saying "A Frenchman by birth, M Maras visited America about the year 1800. In 1801-2 he painted poor miniatures in New York. A poor or bad artist flourishes best where the people are most ignorant; and M. Maras, with great judgement, transferred himself to Constantinople, where he is at the head of affairs in the department of the fine arts, and painter to the sublime Sultan."

Although it is known that Dunlap could be very uncharitable with his comments, there must be doubt that he was referring to the skilled artist who painted this miniature. Additionally from the sale example above, Marras seems to have signed his work. The skill demonstrated in the miniature seems broadly comparable with the work of Malbone and Fraser from around 1805.

There were few artists with this degree of skill working in America at this time and the Charleston connection has raised another possibility for the artist.

Recently, I came across a reference with respect to Charles Fraser in Huger Smith commenting; "We are told that a French painter, named Belzons, was his first master, but from lack of knowledge of Belzon's own work we cannot estimate his influence on his pupil's style, but of Malbone's influence there can be no doubt."

Appearing facing page 20 of Huger Smith and shown here for comparison, is Fraser's 1827 portrait of Charles Winthrop (1800-1833).

The pose, the manner of painting the hair, and the general appearance of the two miniatures are similar. This suggests Fraser was influenced by, if not trained, by the painter of this miniature.

Adding the 1804 date of the trade card and the acquisition of the miniature from a country auction only 90 miles from Charleston, seems to make an attribution to Belzons a reasonable proposition.

Belzons (sometimes Jean Zolbius, for example it was the name he used when he married) was a respectable artist and a leading scene painter of the Charleston theater. He advertised as having been a student of the famous French painter, David. Belzons worked in Savannah, Camden, Georgetown, as well as Charleston. In 1795 he "established his price at five pounds for a likeness and will furnish plain gold elegant setting for the additional price of two pounds."

He also acted, but his profession was miniature painter and as a drawing master he operated a school from 1800-1812. Apart from teaching Charles Fraser, Belzons was also first master to Thomas Sully.

In fact, Belzons was a brother-in-law to Thomas Sully, as Jane Sully married Belzons on 25 Nov 1794. Thomas did not like his brother-in-law Belzons, who is thought to have died in Savannah about 1816.

Thus, this miniature may be by Belzons, due to the similarities with some early work by Fraser. However, until we see some signed pieces by Belzons, a firm attribution to him will have to wait. 1300

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