(c. 1734–c. 1809)
was a portrait painter whose earliest known work is a mezzotint portrait of a Boston pastor, painted about 1765. Educated at the Boston Latin School, where hisclassmates included a son of painter John Smibert (1688–1751), Jennys’ mezzotint bears a similarity to Smibert’s work, raising the likelihood that he received sometraining from the older artist, or, at least, had used Smibert’s portraits as self-teaching aids. Jennys married Sarah Ireland in 1770; the union produced five children,including William (1774–1859), who trained as a painter with his father and accompanied him on painting trips.Debt probably prompted Jennys’ moving to Charleston, South Carolina, where he advertised “Portrait painting in all its branches.” He made a trip to the West Indiesand another to Boston, before moving to Savannah, Georgia, where he stayed from 1785 to 1791. Despite his long sojourn in the South, none of Jennys’ portraits fromthe area have been identified.About 1787 Richard and Sarah Jennys divorced, and in 1791 Jennys left Savannah for New Haven, Connecticut. There, besides his adding of “chaise and other painting” to his repertoire, Jennys advertised the opening of his school, where he offered to teach “Drawing and Painting Flowers, Birds, Landscapes, or Portraits.”Clearly, Jennys found it difficult to sustain a livelihood from portraiture alone in New Haven, and like so many other artists, he turned to other branches of painting for income.From 1794 to 1798, however, Jennys, along with son William, enjoyed modest success painting portraits in New Milford, Connecticut. His sitters were among NewMilford’s most prominent citizens, and the success Jennys achieved in New Milford indicates that the local gentry embraced his realistic style. The portraits follow theformula he used for his early mezzotint portrait: half-length likenesses in three-quarter poses, with dark backgrounds and surrounded by painted spandrels. Jennys wasadept at creating well-modeled faces with blended facial tones, although arms and hands are unconvincingly rendered.Despite his itinerancy, which often characterizes folk painters, it would be erroneous to classify Jennys as a folk painter. He was aware of academic models, andfollowed them more closely than painters of lesser ability. Jennys’ competent, if prosaic, portraits fall within a gray area, which may explain why his work has notreceived greater attention.Jennys worked in Newburyport, Massachusetts, and the surrounding area from 1804 to at least 1809. The place and the date of his death are unknown.
William Jennys; Painting, Landscape;
Benes, Peter, ed.
Painting and Portrait Making in the American Northeast.
Boston, 1995.Little, Nina Fletcher.
Paintings by New England Provincial Artists, 1775–1800.