What you see: A Joseph Whiting Stock portrait of an unknown sea captain, rendered circa 1847 in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Eldred’s estimates it at $12,000 to $15,000.
The expert: Joshua Eldred, president of Eldred’s and head of its fine arts department.
Who was Joseph Whiting Stock? Do we know much about him? We know a fair bit. He was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, and like most itinerant artists, he went where the work took him. He had an accident as a kid [when he was eleven, an oxcart fell on him, paralyzing his lower body], and his doctor encouraged him to take up painting. Most of these people were self-taught. It was before photographs, so there was a demand for portraits.
How prolific was he? Has anyone done a census of his works? I think it’s more in the hundreds than the thousands. He died young, at 40, of tuberculosis. Looking at auction records, only 27 Joseph Whiting Stock paintings have sold over the last 25 years.
Did he make a specialty of painting sea captains? No. For the most part, he painted children, women, and family portraits from what I’ve seen.
Do we know who the sitter is in this Joseph Whiting stock portrait? We do not. I wish I did.
This Joseph Whiting Stock portrait follows what seems to be a template for sea captain and ship owner portraits–the sitter is pictured indoors, in a well-appointed room. He holds something connected to his work: a letter, a sextant, or a telescope, like we see here. And over one shoulder is a window that looks out on a harbor. What do we know about this painting convention? Was it invented in America? I would say it started in Europe and America adapted to it. You can tell [what it is] without knowing he’s a sea captain or a ship owner. I think he’s a sea captain because he’s holding a tool of the trade–a telescope. He’s an expert navigator. He’s sitting in an Empire chair, which would have been fashionable. He’s well-dressed, so he’s a man of importance. Stock put a ship there. Whether it’s his ship or not, he is of the seafaring trade.
But the ship Stock painted in the background offers no clues as to who the sitter is? There’s no name on the ship that we can read, and no figurehead that could help identify it. If we can figure out the name of the ship, we can figure out who the captain is. Unfortunately, we can’t ascertain that. With a lot of diligence, it [the identity of the sitter] could be figured out. We have the clue of New Bedford, Massachusetts, which narrows it down a bit.
How do we know that the Joseph Whiting Stock portrait was painted in New Bedford, Massachusetts? Purely the card on the back. [Stock’s artist’s card is attached to the back of the painting.] We can see remnants of it, and it gives a New Bedford studio address.
How do we know the Joseph Whiting Stock portrait was painted around 1847? We know from research that he was in New Bedford in 1842, and it’s very similar to a work he executed in 1847. We figure it was painted between 1842 and 1847, but it’s impossible to know for sure.
When did this style of sea captain portrait disappear? Late 19th century? It faded out toward the Victorian era. This was painted right in the height of it. In the 1830s and 1840s, it was most prevalent.
How would the sitter have used this Joseph Whiting Stock portrait? What did he want it to communicate? And would he have displayed it in the same room where he sat for the portrait? Quite possibly. There’d be artistic license, but it’s quite likely this was a room in the sitter’s house. He’s trying to show he’s a man of importance and wealth.
How is the artist’s card attached to the painting? There are four old brads patching it on. Someone put plastic over it, so it’s not going anywhere. It’s incredibly unusual to see that.
So, Joseph Whiting Stock portraits don’t usually have an artist’s card fastened to the back of the canvas? In my experience, I’ve not seen another with a card. I can’t say there’s not another example out there. We also don’t know who put the card on there. We’re not sure if it was the artist or the owner of the painting.
Are Joseph Whiting Stock portraits usually unsigned? Yes. He and most portrait painters [of the era] did not sign their works. Many were not considered trained artists. They fulfilled a need. We have to identify it by its stylistic similarity to other Stock works and this card on the back.
Maybe the clients generally didn’t want the artists to sign the works? I don’t know that it had anything to do with the clients. These were traveling artists. I don’t think they’d be considered important artists on either side. This was a trade. These artists weren’t showing at the National Academy.
What is the Joseph Whiting Stock portrait like in person? I think the photograph represents it pretty well. The only thing I’d say is when you walk around the room, the eyes tend to follow you a bit. Obviously, it’s an optical illusion, but he does have a presence to him.
What’s the world auction record for a Joseph Whiting Stock portrait? It was set back in January 2008 at Christie’s by A Portrait of Martha Otis Bullock (Girl in a Blue Dress). It sold for $145,000, and it’s a bit of an outlier. The next year, Sotheby’s sold one for $68,000. Those are the only two to exceed $50,000.
I understand that Joseph Whiting Stock was disabled, and used a wheelchair. Do you see any collectors seeking his work for that reason? I haven’t heard of that interest in him, but maybe it’s an angle to play up.
Why will this Joseph Whiting Stock portrait stick in your memory? Other than not knowing who the sitter is, this checks a lot of boxes. It’s a known artist, from the right period for this sort of work, and it’s a classic example of what you look for in this type of portrait. And the sitter is a handsome man with distinctive muttonchops.
Image is courtesy of Eldred’s.
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