a portrait painter, worked in New England during the early nineteenth century. Born in Hull, Massachusetts, the artist was the son of Mary and John Greenleaf. Hemarried Abigail Greenleaf Rhoades (Rhodes) of Dorchester, Massachusetts, on November 20, 1799. Greenleaf’s career as an artist is defined primarily by his portraits, which give an indication of where he secured commissions, the nature of his clientele, and the stylistic features of his work. Paper labels attached to backing boards, as well as a handful of diary references, offer additional insight into his career.According to biographers Arthur and Sybil Kern, Greenleaf worked within a small circle of contacts; several of his sitters were acquainted or interrelated throughmarriage. Predominantly made up of members of New England’s middle classes, the artist’s known subjects were doctors, military officers, clergymen, and their families. Dating from 1803, the portrait of
a Weymouth, Massachusetts resident, as well as Greenleaf’s great uncle, is the artist’s earliest knowncomposition, and is executed in oil on canvas mounted on board, a technique common to his initial experiments with portraiture. Over a career spanning at least fifteenyears, from 1803 to 1818, Greenleaf principally used reverse painting on glass (a folk art tradition also common in eighteenth century Germany and America in which the artist paints “in reverse” or on the back of a piece of glass) to capture hisclients’ appearances. Because the image is viewed from the front side of the glass, the artist must paint highlights and details first, followed by larger areas of color and background forms. As in the likeness of
Mrs. Lydia Waterman,
dating from 1810, the artist first noted fine details, then applied broad strokes of color to contour facial features and costumes. Typically, he recorded sitters in profile, as in Mrs. Waterman’s portrait, but occasionally he painted them in three-quarter view as well.Greenleaf’s portrait of the young Henry B.McCobb is another reverse painting on glass.In addition to working in Weymouth, extant portraits indicate that Greenleaf traveled extensively in New England, making trips to Boston and the surroundingvicinity; Hanover and Hopkinton, New Hampshire; and parts of eastern Maine, including Phippsburg, Paris, and Portland. He may have secured lodging as partial payment for his portraits, as Bath resident Dr. Samuel Adams recorded in his diary for 1816 that Greenleaf’s board was paid up, and Adams’ portrait was finished.Although little is known about these business transactions, a year later Dummer Sewall, another Bath resident, paid Greenleaf nine dollars to make his portrait in oil onglass. Not many years later, in 1821, Benjamin Greenleaf died of apoplexy in Weymouth.
Painting, American Folk; Reverse-Glass Painting
D’Ambrosio, Paul, and Charlotte M.Emans.
Folk Art’s Many Faces: Portraits in the New York State Historical Association.
Cooperstown, N.Y., 1987.Kern, Arthur and Sybil Kern. “Benjamin Greenleaf: Nineteenth-Century Portrait Painter.”
(spring/summer 1985): 40–47. ——. “Who Was Benjamin Greenleaf?”
vol. 3 (September 1981): 38–47