This arresting portrait, long obscured by overpaint, is an exciting rediscovery. The confident execution belongs to Nathaniel Dance, while the sitter, dressed in a bright salmon-colored coat and adorned with elaborate Masonic regalia, is Joseph Montfort, one of the most important Freemasons in American history.
Montfort was a wealthy and successful businessman, merchant, and civic official who lived in North Carolinia. He settled there in 1752, in his mid-twenties, and by the 1760s he had established his prominent Masonic reputation. He was instrumental in founding the Royal White Hart Lodge in Halifax, North Carolina and also securing its second warrant from the Grand Lodge of England, whose Grand Master from 1767-1772 was Henry Somerset, 5th Duke of Beaufort. In January 1771, after the death of the Provincial Grand Master for North and South Carolina, Benjamin Smith (1715-1770), the Duke of Beaufort appointed Montfort as Provincial Grand Master of and For America. Montfort’s prestige in this position endures even today in the epitaph on his tombstone at the White Hart Lodge: “The highest masonic official ever reigning on this continent . . . the first, the last, the only Grand Master of America.”
Nathaniel Dance studied under Francis Hayman before setting off in 1754 for Rome, where he worked with Pompeo Batoni from 1762 in the production of Grand Tour portraits. Dance returned to London in 1765, after which time he painted some of his finest portraits, characterized by vivid palettes and engaging renderings of sitters at leisure. It was on Montfort’s second trip to England in 1771 that he likely sat for the present portrait, probably upon the recommendation of the Duke of Beaufort, whose son, Charles Somerset, had also recently been painted by Dance. However, after the first sitting, contact between Dance and Montfort diminished, as with the latter’s failing health and subsequent death, he never returned to England.
Dance seems to have kept the portrait in his studio, though, later reworking it by adding a simple and elegant green coat so as to increase its commercial appeal. The painting then descended through various British collections and was miscatalogued in 1888 as an anonymous portrait of Laurence Sterne. By the time of its sale in 1924, Dance’s name returned to the portrait, but the erroneous identification of the sitter remained until a recent X-Ray examination and cleaning revealed the original intention, now once again visible in the present image.