I spent a fair part of the day today talking with a conservator about evaluating and treating the two paintings that my cousin Carole McMurry let me borrow for a year to research and conserve (introduced in parts one, two and three of this series). It’s usually quite an enriching experience talking with a conservator, and today was no exception. In just a few short hours I learned several key facts about the two paintings:
- The paintings had almost certainly never been rolled to make them easier to transport;
- The paintings were almost certainly not restretched onto their current stretcher bars;
- The canvases were almost certainly bought already stretched and primed (rather than being stretched and primed by the artist);
- The paintings were almost certainly painted while the canvases were on their current stretcher bars;
- The paintings appear more consistent with having been painted in the 1880s than in the 1860s to mid-1870s, as I had expected;
- The style of the paintings was described as American Folk, but a sophisticated type of American Folk that indicates the painter may have received formal training at some point.
These observations about the paintings, when combined with the fact that the woman alleged to have painted them—Elizabeth Miller McMurry—died in 1876, bring into question the true identity of the painter.
As discussed in the previous post in this series, the stretchers on the canvas of the larger painting (the pastoral scene) are marked with a patent date of September 1884. If the canvas was painted only after it was stretched on those stretcher bars (as now seems the case), then these paintings were not begun until at least September, 1884, and thus Elizabeth Miller McMurry could not be their creator.
But if Elizabeth McMurry didn’t paint them, then who did? The most likely candidate I can think of is Grace S. Aitken, Elizabeth’s daughter-in-law through her marriage to James Miller McMurry. At some point in the mid-1880s, Grace moved to Port Townsend, Washington, where she met and married James Miller McMurry, a druggist and an acclaimed photographer (his photography will be the subject of a future post). Grace and James were both listed as photographers on the 1900 census, and presumably ran their McMurry photo studio together.
The image above, a scan from a color photocopy made in 1990 from an original print, is the only image I have of Grace. The man just to the viewer’s left of Grace is her husband, James McMurry. I estimate this photo was taken around 1905, when both James and Grace were photographers.
Grace S. Aitken was born in New York in February, 1855, to John and Margaret Aitken. John Aitken was a successful lawyer in Brooklyn, New York. From the value of his property and real estate listed on the 1870 census ($12,000 and $7,000, respectively), it’s clear that John was a man of means and that his family lived a comfortable life.
New York City would certainly be the kind of place where a young lady from a well-to-do family could be formally trained in art. Furthermore, in the 1863 and 1865 city directories for Brooklyn (below), there were only 5 other people with the last name of Aitken, including a James F. Aitken who was a supplier of artists’ materials:
I have yet to determine whether and how James F. Aitken might be related to Grace Aitken, but with such a small number of people sharing this surname at the time in Brooklyn, it’s not unreasonable to imagine that they may have been related.
In the mid-1860s, there were also numerous accomplished painters with studios in New York City, many of whom may have taught painting as well: Frederic Edwin Church, Albert Bierstadt, Sanford Robinson Gifford, John Frederick Kensett, Samuel Colman, William Hart, William Stanley Haseltine, Martin Johnson Heade, Jervis McEntee, and other painters of the Hudson Valley School as well as perhaps the Barbizon School. The founding of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York also dates to this time period (1866–1870).
Several prominent New York painters, including Albert Bierstadt, Sanford Robinson Gifford, and Thomas Moran, travelled west to the Washington Territory, a fact which may help explain why Grace Aitken herself chose to move from New York City to Port Townsend, Washington, in the 1880s.
If Grace Aitken is indeed the painter of the three paintings currently attributed to Elizabeth Miller McMurry, she would have painted them in the Washington Territory shortly after her arrival there. Whether the paintings were painted by his mother when he was young, or by his wife around the time they met, they would have held great sentimental value for James McMurry, the man who owned these paintings until he passed them along to my great grandparents.