American Artist: John Roberts
Massachusetts Ship's Captain of the Federalist Era
Identified by the Initials "S. S."
John Roberts (ca. 1768-1803)
1 3/4 x 2 1/4 inches (sight)
watercolor on ivory; housed in an ornately engraved gilt metal pendant frame
with a bright cut engraving of the subject's initials ("S. S") on the reverse
(This miniature was sold by descendants of the subject. While they were unable to identify the subject by name, a verbal family history passed down throught the family maintains that he was s ship's captain who lived in Massachusetts.)
A photograph of the miniature portrait held by hand and viewed in filtered sunlight:
About the Artist: The work of Scottish immigrant John Roberts represents the height of early American folk/provincial painting. His portraits are simultaneously detailed and simplistic, both naive and charming -- characteristics that are highly sought out by collectors of early Americana. Surviving works by Roberts are very rare nonetheless (less than a dozen miniature portraits by him are currently known to exist). It has long been mistakenly believed that he primarily worked in Portland, Maine and that he mostly painted sailors. Recent research has revealed, however, that he was active in a number of cities along the eastern seaboard. He advertised his services as a miniature painter in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (June - September 1796), Charleston, South Carolina (December 1796), Newburyport, Massachusetts (October 1800 - February 1801), Portsmouth, New Hampshire (April - May 1801), Portland, Maine (March - April 1802), Augusta, Maine (August 1802), Kennebunk, Maine (September 1802), and again in Portland (March 1803). All the while, concurrent with his work in these various locations, records also show him to have maintained a primary residence in New York City from 1797 to 1803. Most interestingly, however, in New York City directories for each of those years, he was listed not as a miniature painter, but rather as an engraver. Indeed, it would appear that Roberts' greater skill was engraving, primarily on copper and wood. He was particularly well known for his engraved prints used to illustrate books (mostly educational and literary). He is also known to have engraved copies of portraits by other artists, most notable of which was a portrait of George Washington (considered today one of the rarest of Washington portraits), copied from a miniature painted by Benjamin Trott. Despite his frequent commissions for engravings, however, he occasionally departed New York City, traveling to other cities to paint miniature portraits (a form of art he is said to have been less fond of, but felt compelled to turn to as a means to further supplement his income). He was also an avid tinkerer and inventor. He made his own engraving tools and printing presses; he invented a new mode of stippling, said to have resulted in prints of an exquisite finish; he developed an improvement on the steam engine for use in propelling boats; he invented an economical method of manufacturing iron stoves; and he developed improved methods for creating optical lenses used in glasses and scopes. Not surprisingly, he was described by his contemporary, William Dunlap, as a universal genius. Genius aside, however, he was known to have been quite eccentric, to have had an often disagreeable personality, and to have imbibed too frequently of hard liquor. Roberts met his end in 1803, at a young age of about 35, falling down a flight of stairs at his home and fracturing his skull. It was said that his fall was the result of a stroke, but Dunlap maintains that his fall was more likely caused by alcohol than a sudden onset of apoplexy. Listed by Benezit, Blättel (pages 768, 769), Bolton (page 134), Fielding (page 789), Foskett (page 629), and Schidlof (page 682).