HAMBLIN, STURTEVANT J.
was one of the namesakes of the Prior-Hamblin School, a small group of Boston-based artists who were related by marriage and who painted in a markedly similar style. The two families were united when William Matthew Prior (1806–1873) of Bath, Maine, married Rosamond Hamblin of Portland, Maine, in 1828. Prior, whowas already practicing as a portrait and ornamental painter, joined a family with a long tradition in the artisan trades, primarily as glaziers and painters. Of the four Hamblin brothers however, Sturtevant seems to have been the only one listed in public records as a portrait painter, while his brothers were successful real estatedevelopers whose row of four Greek Revival houses built in Portland in 1835 now enjoys landmark status.It is not known whether Sturtevant Hamblin painted portraits before his association with Prior. The beginning of Hamblin’s artistic activity is usually cited as 1837,when he took up residence with his sister and brother-in-law in Portland. His earliest documented paintings, however, date from 1841, when the Priors and Hamblinswere living together in brother Nathaniel’s house at 12 Chambers Street in Boston. At this time, Hamblin portrayed several members of the Jewett family in a bold,confident style that was heavily influenced by Prior, yet he already exhibited trademark characteristics that differentiate the work of the two artists. The following year,the families moved to Marion Street where they continued to share a residence until 1844. By 1846, the Priors and Hamblins were living separately. Following the leadof his brother-in-law, however, Sturtevant Hamblin continued to pursue a career as a painter until 1856, when he entered the “gent’s furnishing” business in partnershipwith his brother, Joseph. The federal census of 1860 lists Hamblin as a 42-year-old male in the “furnishing goods” business with real estate holdings of $12,000. Theother members of the household included forty-three-year-old Harriet B. (possibly his wife), Elizabeth P., age twenty, Effie, age four, and a sixteen-year-old domestic,Mary Toburn.In 1948, when Nina Fletcher Little (1903–1993) first published her research on the artists of the Prior-Hamblin school, she had identified only four signed extantworks by Sturtevant J.Hamblin, all depicting the members of the Jewett family. By 1976, Little had increased this number by two to include
Portrait of Ellen,
then inher own collection, and
Woman and Child by a Window,
dated 1848. In the intervening years a small number of signed and dated portraits have surfaced, including
A Rosy-Cheeked Girl
(c. 1840) and
Dr. and Mrs. Smith of Dover, New Hampshire
(1848). Based upon these documented examples, specific characteristics have been identified that distinguish Hamblin’s portraiture from that of Prior’s. These include prominent “rabbit” ears; hands with heavy, dark outlining that taper to a point atthe index finger; a smudge of paint that defines the chin; and a trailing line at the corners of the mouth. Details of lace, curtains, ropes, and edges of leaves are often painted wet-on-wet in thick white strokes applied on a wet ground, and a heavy, white impasto delineates the areas under brows and along the length of noses.Background views often exhibit a rosy, sunset hue, and trees starkly limned against the sky, with shadow on one side and highlighted in white on the other. Children aremost frequently portrayed in a frontal pose looking straight ahead and holding a prop, such as a basket, flower, fruit, or pet, while adults are depicted in three-quarter poses. When painted on small academy board, the subjects are usually portrayed to just below the waist; oils on canvas are sometimes full-length, and may have more than one figure in the composition. While Hamblin is not known to have painted fancy pictures, as did William Matthew Prior, he did complete at least one portrait of a historicalfigure, based upon an esoteric eighteenth-century mezzotint engraving.
General Israel Putnam
is signed on the front “S.J.Hamblin Artist.” In this landscape with trees,lines of soldiers, grass, and sky, Hamblin introduces a technique more usually associated with the work of decorative painters: the texture of the bark is achieved withthe use of a combing tool.In Boston, Prior and Hamblin had established themselves as the primary practitioners of a schematic style of portraiture that could be completed quickly and at littlecost to the client. Although no advertisements placed by Hamblin have come to light, Prior’s ads clearly indicate his willingness to paint in either an academic or “flat”style, based upon a price structure that ranged from about $2.92 to $25 a portrait. The scope of style in Hamblin’s body of work illustrates that he too probablyfollowed this approach, although he never reached the same level of academic proficiency as Prior did.
Nina Fletcher Little; William Matthew Prior
Chotner, Deborah, et al.
American Naïve Paintings: The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue.
Washington, D.C., 1992.D’Ambrosio, Paul S., and Charlotte Emans Moore.
Folk Art’s Many Faces: Portraits in the New York State Historical Association.
Cooperstown, N.Y., 1987.Little, Nina Fletcher. “William M.Prior, Traveling Artist and His In-Laws, the Painting Hamblins.”
The Magazine Antiques,
vol. 53, no. 1 (January 1948): 44–48. ——. “William Matthew Prior and Some of His Contemporaries.”
Maine Antiques Digest,
vol. 4, no. 3 (April 1976): 19A–21A.Rumford, Beatrix T., ed.
American Folk Portraits: Paintings and Drawings from the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center.