JF has a painting that has me stumped. I welcome any help from my readers. Let’s see if YOU can help me appraise this painting. Here’s the background: JF writes that he found this painting of a young Native American girl at the Unity Shoppe in Santa Barbara about a year ago. She is very well painted, (more about that later), and is decked in a strand of long coral beads, and what appears to be a wool poncho decorated with images of Plains animals. The stretcher bar is older, and is marked with a stamp from Glendale NY. In marking pen (modern), it is inscribed with a name (unreadable) and an address on Kolding Ave in Solvang. (Someone wanted to indicate ownership.) I sent a letter to this address to no avail. I searched my databases for artists in the area, under the assumption that artist usually know artists in their neighborhood, present and past. I got nowhere.
The painting seems to be signed “Sophie,” and, indeed, our area had a great artist with that name, Sophie Marston Brannan (1877-1960) but the signatures do not match. And neither does the subject matter.
And it is the subject matter and handling of the canvas that makes me think JF might have found something good.
First, it's well painted, but not finished; the details (since the technique of the painting aspires to realism, details would've been crucial) haven't been hashed in. Yet an experienced artist of traditional painting methods wouldn't sign an unfinished painting. So maybe that “Sophie” is the name of the sitter or the name of the owner.
Anyone who has ever tried to paint in oils knows that the face is almost the hardest thing to create in a portrait, second only to hands. Yet this head and face are believable. The position is fluid. Although not finished, the artist has flowed in some nice background such as that shadow behind the left side of the face. That indicates to me that the painter knew about the importance of light source and accompanying shadow. The background to the left is darker than the background to the right, also a mark of a trained painter as the illusion of depth is created. Although bearing the bones of a good painting, I see the odd hair from the brush stuck into the impasto of the painting, which indicates a true sketch, done quickly. You will see the artist was capable of suggesting movement, which is a gift. Paintings are two-dimensional representations of three dimensions, and the suggestion of movement and mass are tough. Not only that, the Edward Degas quote makes sense here: “Art is not about seeing, it is about observing. Don’t just see, observe.”
The subject matter makes me think JF might be onto something. The subject matter, if the painting is truly dating from the early part of the 20th century, is a thing of legends. The portrait of the Native American, although today fraught with the smack of colonialism, was perfected in a certain place at a certain time: The Taos Society of Artists and the School of the American West that grew there. The colony that formed included the father of the Taos Society of Artists, Joseph Henry Sharp (1859-1953), who studied the Plains Indians (I suspect this painting is of that People), following the Plains People into Montana, where he created over 200 portraits. He was still painting when he retired to Taos again at 93, leaving at his death thousands of portraits of the First Peoples, including from the California desert.
When you see a painting, either you start your research at the top of the heap of possibilities or you don’t. Listen to your intuition, and go from that. For JF, I looked at the Taos artists and found no match in the brushstroke and composition department.
Another clue of the value of anything: SOMEONE has deemed it important enough to leave to someone. The back of this painting says in pencil, “This picture is for Darlene, with love.” If you are a hunter, that is called provenance. Even a battered Persian Rug, repaired repeatedly, will give you a clue to its value in the very FACT that it has been repaired.
I would love to be able to share with JF that he has found something here, as he writes that he paid $39 for this painting. Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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