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 John Ritto Penniman  (1782 - 1841)

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Lived/Active: Massachusetts/Maryland      Known for: portrait, ornamental, lithography

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John Ritto Penniman
An example of work by John Ritto Penniman
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
A painter in the Boston area known for his ornamental work, lithography, portrait and landscape painting, John Penniman has been described as "perhaps the most skilled, inventive and versatile ornamental artist and draftsman of his time in America." ("Antiques" magazine, July 1981).  As a portrait painter, he did realistic canvases that reflected the influence of Gilbert Stuart whom he knew in Boston. One of his early paintings, circa 1796, is a self portrait, and another portrait painting, The Family Group owned by the Boston Museum, has several figures in one painting.

Penniman was also an art teacher, and among his students later recognized for their painting abilities were Alvan Fisher and Charles Codman.

His birth date and place are undocumented, but likely he was born in Milford, Massachusetts in 1782 and baptized in 1783.  Showing much talent as a youngster, he apprenticed at age ten to an ornamental painter.  In 1803 at age 21, he opened a shop in Roxbury, Massachusetts where he did ornamental work on looking-glasses, frames and clocks, and tried to get established with his easel painting.

In 1805, Penniman married Susannah Bartlett in Boston.  Five years later, he became an active member of a Masonic Lodge and did numerous portrait commissions for members.  However, in 1821, he was expelled for excessive drinking.

In 1819, Penniman completed what he regarded as his finest achievement, a 15-foot painting on glass of the Exchange Coffee House fire in Boston, and five years later, he recreated the same scene on canvas.

As a lithographer, in 1826, he did the "first drawing on stone ever done in the United States." (Zellman, 94)  This achievement was a result of his working as a designer and copyist for the Pendleton Lithographic Press owned by William S and John B Pendleton and established in Boston the previous year.  This business was the introduction of lithography to America.

However, Penniman's life was consistently troubled with debt and alcoholism, and in 1830, he was briefly in the Boston House of Correction.  One of the inmates there said that Penniman agreed to serve from 1830 to 1833 on the frigate "Independence".  Following that time, he lived for a short time in Worcester, Massachusetts, and then by 1837 was in Baltimore where he died in 1841.

A descendant of Penniman writes that the artist completed a painting of Christ from the Last Supper that "hangs in the chalice of the Old North Church in Boston. He also did the calligraphy of the Ten Commandments, etc. that hangs there as well.  If I am not mistaken, he invented the sofa bed and designed one of the Boston Crest.  I am sure about the Old North Church but the other things I am saying from memory and the information can be found in the Braintree's Historical Society's Penniman family book set beginning in 1630."

Peter Hastings Falk, Editor, Who Was Who in American Art
Michael David Zellman, 300 Years of American Art, p. 94. (Includes "Antiques" magazine reference.
Email message to AskART of 11/02/2004 from Penniman family descendant

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
John Penniman was born in 1782, probably in Milford, Massachusetts.  He apprenticed at age ten to an ornamental painter.  In 1803, he opened a shop where he did ornamental work on mirrors, frames and clocks.  He was an active Mason and did numerous portrait commissions for members.  He designed the Boston city seal.  However, he was expelled for excessive drinking. He was also put in jail several times for non-payment of debt.

In 1819, he completed what he regarded as his finest achievement, a fifteen foot painting on glass of the Exchange Coffee House fire in Boston.  As a lithographer, he also did the first drawing on stone ever done in the United States. He died in 1841.

From the Internet,

Written and submitted by Jean Ershler Schatz, artist and researcher form Laguna Woods, California.

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