Calvin Balis


artist of more than thirty known likenesses, worked as a portrait painter in central New York state during the mid-nineteenth century. A native of Oneida County, Balisspent his documented professional life as an artist in this region. He was probably the son of Calvin and Sally Cogswell Balis of Whitestown, New York, a community just outside of Utica. The artist’s practice of signing his work using the word “junior” after his name supports this supposition. According to the 1850 census for Whitestown, Balis is listed as a portrait painter, married to a woman named Mary, with four children.Inscribed 1834, the portrait of Smith Dewey is among the artist’s earliest known compositions, dating from when Balis was just seventeen. By January and Februaryof 1845, he was working in Hamilton, New York, where he placed a newspaper advertisement in the
Democratic Reflector
soliciting patrons for portraitcommissions. In this notice the artist proclaimed that he had been in the profession for ten years. The likeness of Mrs. M. Knapp, dating from 1856, is the artist’s last documented canvas. His output alsoincluded landscape, historical, and genre subjects, as indicated by paintings titled
Philocles in the Islands of Samoa, The Morning Walk,
The Old Oaken Bucket,
though their locations are unknown.Balis had significant ambitions for capturing the appearance of his middle-class clientele and their children in complex, dynamic compositions. Several of his large-scale group portraits record multiple family members on one canvas, such as the
Nellis Children of Sherburne, New York; Eliot and Julia; Adelbert Monroe;
consider also
Harriet Howes; George and Emma Eastman;
or the
Cadwell Family,
in which six figures are portrayed on one canvas measuring six feet across. Inthese scenes, men read newspapers and women hold babies, as individuals gather for portraits that depict families in parlors decorated with fashionable furnishings of the period. Children often stand or sit in outdoor scenes complemented by attenuated trees, rock formations, and distinctive clouds overhead. They frequently holdflowers and grapes while others wrap arms around siblings in gestures of comfort and companionship. Family pets, most notably dogs, sit obediently at their feet or areheld lovingly in their arms. Other distinctive features include dark, penetrating eyes, flat ears showing little spatial recession, and tightly pursed lips.
See also
Painting, American Folk; Painting, Landscape
D’Ambrosio, Paul, and Charlotte M.Emans.
Folk Art’s Many Faces: Portraits in the New York State Historical Association.
Cooperstown, N.Y., 1987.Jones, Agnes Halsey.
Rediscovered Painters of Upstate New York.
Utica, N.Y., 1958.Sutherland, Cynthia. “The Elusive C.Balis.”
The Clarion
(fall 1984): 54–61