The present pair of paintings comprise a self-portrait of the artist and a portrait of his wife Elizbeth Henderson, painted soon after their marriage in Philadelphia on the 8th of January, 1801. The peripatetic Wertmüller had left his native Sweden, and after studying in Paris and Rome, he settled in the French capital in 1781. Although being named Premier Peintre du Roi to King Gustaf III in 1783/4 (see the carte de visite sold with the present lot; see fig. 1) and having been commissioned to paint a monumental Portrait of Marie Antoinette and her Children (Nationalmuseum, Stockholm), the artist found commissions somewhat scarce, so moved first to Bordeaux, then Madrid, and finally Cadiz. In March 1794, he boarded the Swedish brig Aurore and landed at Philadelphia. There he rented rooms from Mrs. David Henderson, the daughter of the Swedish émigré painter Gustaf Hesselius, and integrated himself into that city’s artistic and Swedish communities. He painted a celebrated portrait of George Washington, which he replicated (see for example, the signed and dated 1795 canvas, Metropolitan Museum, New York, inv. 24.109.82) as well as exhibited other works. It seems at this time he became attached to his landlady’s daughter “Betsey” Henderson (circa 1762-1812), and despite a trip to settle business affairs in Paris in 1797, he returned in November 1800 to marry her a few months later.
These two oval panels are of a size and format that was favored by the artist in a number of portraits of his family and intimates from the mid-1790’s onwards.1 A Portrait of Mrs. John Hesselius, Betsey’s aunt, is dated 1796 and painted on panel of the same dimensions and shape (Baltimore Museum of Art, BMA 1979.167). A number of these portraits descended in the family of Amos Slaymaker (1755-1837) who was the executor of the Wertmüller estate, and were still with his descendants in the middle of the last century. These included a presumed portrait of the artist’s mother-in-law, as well as a younger Self Portrait of 1796, which in a photograph of circa 1946 still retained the same style frame as the one still on the present portrait of the artist’s wife (see fig. 1).2 Another dated portrait of 1795 of this type depicts Betsey, younger and in more girlish dress befitting an unmarried woman, is in the Nationalmuseum, Stockholm. By far the closest comparison for the present Self Portrait is another example, painted in 1799 while Wertmuller was in Sweden, which is now in the Konstakademien, Stockholm; that painting is of the same format and size, with only a slight variation in his dress and hairstyle.3
1 Although there is a Portrait of Washington of this type recorded.
2 For a number of images and a discussion of some of these portraits, please see M. N. Benisovich, “Portraits de la famille Wertmüller aux États-Unis,” Konsthistorisk tidskrift, no. 1/2. 1953, pp. 11-17.
3 See A. Gauffin, Svenska Konstnärsgestalter, Stockholm, 1944, illus., opposite p. 108.
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