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 Moses B. Russell  (1809 - 1884)

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Lived/Active: Massachusetts/New Hampshire      Known for: portrait usually miniature, figure paintings

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Ad Code: 3
Moses B Russell
from Auction House Records.
A Miniature Portrait of a Girl in a Blue Dress With a Book of Flowers
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Born either in New Hampshire or Massachusetts, Moses Russell was known for his miniature portraits and figure painting.  From 1834 to 1853, he lived in Boston and later lived in New York and Philadelphia.  He exhibited at the Boston Athenaeum.

In 1852, he traveled to Italy. He was married to Clarissa Russell, also a miniaturist, and the son, Albert Cuyp Russell, became an engraver and illustrator.

Source: Peter Falk, Who Was Who in American Art

Moses B. Russell was a native of North Woodstock in the wilds of New Hampshire's White Mountains, he went on to become one of Boston's leading miniaturists in the 1830s and 1840s.  His small watercolor likenesses on ivory, though usually signed, are sometimes confused with those of his wife, Clarissa Peters Russell, who painted ethereal portraits of children.

Moses Russell captured a fascinating range of subjects with exceptional clarity, luminosity, and color, and demonstrated a surprising ability to execute both folk and academic portraits.  His most successful images, exquisite and gemlike, are a striking visual legacy from a vanished world, and ensure his place in the annals of Boston's rich artistic history.

While little is known about his early years in New Hampshire, the stone obelisk that marks his grave in North Woodstock reveals that Moses Baker Russell was born on April 5, 1809, and that he was the son of Peletiah Russell (d. 1809) and the grandson of Peter Russell (1731-1814), thereby establishing his descent from a family originally from Andover, Massachusetts.  Peter served in the American Revolution, and Peletiah appears in the Peeling (now Woodstock) town records as a surveyor of highways in 1809, the year he drowned in the Pemigewasset Rivera tragedy recounted almost seventy-five years later in Moses Russell's obituary in a New Hampshire newspaper in 1884.  The identity of his mother and his maternal ancestry, however, remain a mystery, and the extent of his schooling and artistic training, if any, is also unknown.

Russell was in Boston by 1829, the date on his earliest known work, a delicate oval likeness of Edward Gordon Odiorne, the firstborn son of a successful iron and nail merchant.  Thus he was in Boston at the age of twenty, several years before he is first listed in the city directory in 1833.  Fortunately, Russell's predilection for signing his miniatures started early because the blue-brown stippled background in this initial attempt is completely atypical of his style and technique and gives no hint of the sophistication and coloring that characterize many of his later works.

An advertisement in the Boston Daily Evening Transcript in 1834 documents that in his early years Moses Russell shared a studio at 46 Washington Street with one S. Russell, a long forgotten portrait and miniature painter who was possibly his brother.  The Boston directory of the same year reveals that the initial "S" stands for Sumner, whose death from consumption in New Hampton, New Hampshire, on June 14, 1835, at the age or twenty-seven was widely reported in the Boston newspapers.  Nothing is known of Sumner Russell's life beyond the bare facts that he attended the New Hampton Academical and Theological Institution form 1829 to 1831 as a student in the "Senior English Department" and was listed in that school's annual catalogues as being from New Hampton.

Quite miraculously, a miniature of Sumner Russell by Moses Russell survives.  Painted about 1832, it casts Sumner in the romantic pose of an aspiring artist, palette and mahlstick at hand, his distant gaze both engaging and poetic as he looks toward unseen worlds.  His face, almost in profile, shows a high coloring that is close to feverish and no doubt reflects his consumptive state.  Russell has started to let the light in, thereby achieving a brightness in the face that gives the subject a more solid presence within his rectangular space.  The background is still quite dark, but the purple hue that would later become the signature color in Russell's backgrounds can be seen here in two of the paint daubs on the palette, and is also faintly visible in the shadow of the dark ringlets falling over the subject's forehead.

As Moses Russell became more established in the Boston artistic community and more confident in his abilities, he actively contributed to the various art exhibitions in the city. His miniatures were displayed at the Boston Athenaeum (1834-1836 and 1838-1846), the American Gallery of the Fine Arts (1835), and the Boston Artists' Association (1842-1844), of which he was an original member along with Washington Allston (1779-1843) and Chester Harding (1792-1866).  The triennial fairs of the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association in Boston attracted citywide celebration and fanfare, and Russell entered miniatures in 1841 (winning a silver medal as best miniaturist), 1844 and 1847.  As he gained considerable publicity from these exhibitions, Russell also found favor with newspaper editors, particularly those at the Daily Evening Transcript, who regularly lauded his latest portrait in their pages.

While he never became the artistic heir of Edward Greene Malbone (1777-1807), thought to be one of the greatest of all American miniaturists, Russell was held in high enough regard that he could rely on reputation and word of mouth for his new business. Only occasionally did he advertise his services, as in a simple "card" published in the Boston Daily Mail of January 13, 1841.

An early example of Russell's work from about 1834 contradicts today's prevailing notion that his clientele was restricted to men in black coats with severe expressions. Woman in White is unsigned but exhibits the unmistakable characteristics and subtle coloring of his hand.  The attractive young lady with corkscrew curls and a floral brooch sits high on the ivory, her large eyes accentuated by the heavily outlined lids and eyelashes.  Her full lips are well defined and her nose and forehead are highlighted.  The drawing is tight, typical of Russell's early work.  The contrast between the hatched slate-blue background and the sitter's dress gives her an immediate presence, which is further enhanced by the subtle details and coloring.  The blue of the background and pink in the face blend to dusky purple in the chin, neck and shoulder.  The background color is also deftly carried out in the folds of her dress.

No doubt the merchantile middle class provided many commissions for portrait painters such as Russell, and the "touchstone of success in this art was fidelity, for all the merchant demanded was a likeness."  A faithful representation took on even greater urgency and meaning for nineteenth century Americans after a loved one passed away.  Portraits of deceased relatives eternalized their image and memory, and provided a way to "mitigate death's finality through art."  Children were most often the subjects of posthumous mourning portraits and Russell's wife was well known for her ability to render deceased children in poignant poses and animated color.  Post-mortem portraits of adults were less usual.

Moses Russell won praise from a letter writer to the Daily Evening Transcript in 1838 for his soulful portrait of a young lady immediately after her death: "None but those who have made the attempt, can realize the difficulty of painting a likeness where all that remains of the individual are features rendered cold as marble by the icy touch of death. Yet, in this attempt, the artist succeeded.  He has called back, as 'twere, the soul that had departed, and transferred its expression to the admiration of her afflicted friends.  The eyes express 'a lingering, longing look' of tenderness and affection, and the mouth, as perfect as though it could give utterance.  He that can be successful in a likeness under such circumstances, must be expected to be equally so whenever he would paint the living form; and claims from me the admiration of the art he professes."

Russell's background coloration underwent a great transition by 1836, as seen in the portrait of Peter Frederic Williston, where it is sky-like and multicolored.  The touches of purple that are often the key to identifying the artist's hand are plainly visible above the sitter's shoulders and more delicately discerned in his facial coloring as a mix of blue and pink.  The distinctive iridescent background, which Russell used frequently, though not exclusively, in his miniatures, creates an atmospheric effect best seen in the sumptuously rendered Gentleman with Dotted Cravat of about 1850.  Here the background pulses with a prismatic aura incorporating a rainbow of Russell's favorite tints while emphasizing the huesorchid, violet, and plumof his signature purple.

By 1839, the year that marks both his marriage to Clarissa Peters and the invention of the daguerreotype, Russell was painting miniatures of exceptional clarity, composition, and color and which stand as some of his finest examples. Lieutenant Samuel Fales Hazard portrays an accomplished naval officer and native son who was the scion of a distinguished Rhode Island family that included one of the original founders of Newport.

Of all the portraits Russell executed for public recognition, none elicited more of a sensation than his colorful, full-length depiction of the Seneca Indian chief, Soo-nong-gise, also known as Tom or Tommy Jemmy.  Visiting celebrities were often prevailed upon to have their likenesses recorded, and Russell painted Soo-nong-gise in December 1841 when the Indian appeared with an entourage of warriors for a series of dramatic performances, replete with "war whoop and scalp yell," at the recently opened Boston Museum and Gallery of Fine Arts, which featured entertainment as well as cabinets of curiosities and art objects.

The seventy-year-old chief had fought on the American side in the War of 1812, and so it is no coincidence that his headdress reveals the unmistakable suggestion of an American flag as part of its plumage.  In 1821, Soo-nong-gise had been charged with, and eventually cleared of, murder in a highly publicized trial.

Boston miniaturists of the 1830s and 1840s tended toward dark or monochromatic backgrounds, so Russell's blended, multicolored treatments were considered unusual and prompted one contemporary commentator to remark on his "peculiar style of coloring pictures."  Most of his subjects were adults, so his use of color is, by necessity, restrained, lest the dignity of the sitter be compromised.  It is not surprising, then, that we see his most impassioned use of color in his likenesses of children.

Children were, of course , the special artistic province of his wife, and though Moses Russell arguably did not achieve the transcendent quality that infuses Mrs. Russell's portraits, their shared studio at 21 School Street produced stylistic similarities, as well as differences.  (By 1850, Russell was clearly imitating his wife's commercially successful portraits, thereby creating considerable confusion in some instances).

Her preoccupation with patterned dresses is evident in his portraits Boy in Raspberry Dress and Mrs. Otis C. Norcross and Son Otis.  While Mrs. Russell had a consistently recognizable style over time, Moses Russell's likenesses of children are surprisingly dissimilar from one another in both execution and coloring, possibly reflecting an unease with young sitters.

One of Russell's most colorful and endearing miniatures is the locket portrait of Emma P. Pickering. Little Emma, daughter of Boston car builder Washington Pickering, died at the age of five months in 1846.  Although executed as a memorial, the portrait depicts the infant as very much alive, animated in large part by the riot of bright color that envelops here, from the green-checkered dress and coral necklace to the piercing blue and peach background.  Her oversized, innocent eyes speak to the viewer and suggest her continuing presence, confirming the belief that her passing "was but the mortal breath suspended and the spiritual inspiration begun."

Against the backdrop of successful exhibitions, favorable notices from the press, and steady demand for painted likenesses, loomed the lengthening shadow of daguerreotypes, photographic miniatures that would soon displace their ivory predecessors.  The Boston artist Samuel L. Gerry (1813-1891), at one time a miniaturist himself, reminisced in 1891: "About fifty years ago (in 1839), Daguerre succeeded in attaching science to the chariot of art, and speedily came to an end the production of miniatures on ivory, hitherto favorite means of portraiture. The art died outright when the photograph began to multiply and cover the face of the earth."

Faced with declining prospects for his artistry at home, even though at the height of his powers, Russell departed in 1852 for Italy, leaving behind his wife and twelve-year-old son, Albert Cuyp Russell (1839-1917.  Inexplicably, neither the sudden death of Clarissa Russell in 1854, nor the subsequent guardianship proceedings regarding Albert brought the artist back to Boston, although he did eventually return in 1861, after extended sojourns in New York City and Philadelphia.

Russell's career as a professional miniaturist, however, was effectively over, despite the occasional piece executed for family members.  He continued to list himself in Boston directories as an artist until his death, painting easel portraits, landscapes and still lives, but his medium in these later works was oil, a direction in which "his talent was not so marked."

When Russell died in 1884, the obituary published in the Transcript reminded readers that "thirty years ago the name of Moses B. Russellstood high as an artist(whose) accuracy of drawing and beauty of coloring placed him at once in the foremost rank of painters of that day."  But the bright days of his accomplishments, the sheen of his silver medal, were long past.  Although eclipsed by the talent of his wife and the changing artistic taste of the public, Russell's work, at its best, still stands as a realistic portrait of Boston, and a tribute to all that is delicate and lasting.

Source: Randall L. Holton and Charles A. Gilday, The Magazine Antiques, November 2002

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