Reuben Moulthrop


Moulthrop was a Connecticut portrait painter and proprietor of a waxworks exhibition. He was born in East Haven, and lived in that vicinity for most of his life. Although little isknown of his early years or training, he achieved recognition both for his portraits of eminent Connecticut citizens, such as Ezra Stiles (1727–1795), president of YaleUniversity from 1778 to 1795, and for his successful waxworks of life-size figures staged in dramatic vignettes that traveled throughout Connecticut, New York City,and as far as the West Indies.Moulthrop began painting in a plain style, which emphasized the personality of the sitter in a simple setting, in the wake of the American Revolutionary War, a periodin which Connecticut emerged as the new center of American portraiture. Stylistic conventions appearing in his early portraits suggest that Moulthrop was familiar withthe works of John Durand (active 1765–1782) and Abraham Delanoy (1742–1795), two artists who were active in Connecticut during the 1780s. Only a handful of paintings are signed by or can be firmly attributed to Reuben Moulthrop. These include the earliest documented portraits of Job Perit and Sarah (Sally) Perit (1790), Ezra Stiles (1794), Thomas Robbins (1801), and the portrait of Robbins’ father, Ammi Ruhamah Robbins (1812). These commissions demonstrate howMoulthrop’s work in wax influenced his approach to painted portraiture, displaying a thick plasticity in the handling of drapery and clothing, as well as a fascination withskin texture that Moulthrop evinced from his earliest portraits through his last works of 1812. Based upon these and additional documented works, a steadydevelopment of skill and format is traceable. A number of additional works that have been traditionally attributed to Moulthrop, however, show a second stylisticlineage that has led to some lack of clarity in establishing the artist’s oeuvre. These include the portraits of John and Mary Reynolds (c. 1788), Hannah Austin Street (c. 1789), and Amos Morris (c. 1785–1789).Reuben Moulthrop was the subject of a major exhibition at the Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford from November 1956 through February 1957. TheSociety was an appropriate venue, as one of its founders was Thomas Robbins, whose penetrating portrait shows the elegant simplicity of Moulthrop’s mature and fullydeveloped style. Family correspondence that Robbins left to the Society details some of the Moulthrop’s activities during a five-year period in which Robbinsattempted to commission portraits of his father and other family members. These commissions were interrupted first by Moulthrop’s thriving waxworks business andthen by a bout of “tipus fever,” which left the artist too weak to work. Some interesting facts emerge from this period: it took Moulthrop seven weeks to paint seven portraits, including two of the elder Reverend Robbins, who complained to his son, “I had no idea it would take so long.” The clients were expected to supply their own canvas or other material suitable for the portraits. In addition, the house was open to visitors while the portraits were being painted, leading Reverend Robbins towrite, “Our pple [sic] came in plenty day after day as into a Museum—all agree that the likenesses are admirably drawn.…”