Mystery painting confounds historical society

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling

October 01, 2018 – 12:01 PM

HANOVER, N.H. – As soon as the art appraiser finished inspecting the back of the canvas, Cynthia Bittinger and Betsy Gonnerman delicately wrestled the heavy wooden frame upright on the blanket-covered table to reveal the 19th-century oil painting of Daniel Webster, whose fame and importance stand out even when measured against the long list of famous and important Dartmouth College alumni. Knowing that dropping the recently donated portrait could result in disastrous damage, they gingerly laid the gilded frame on its back, eager for the appraiser, Mary Jane Clark, to continue her work. Clark’s report would determine how much insurance the Hanover Historical Society should purchase for the painting, but Bittinger was more interested in the opportunity to learn more about the history of the society’s latest acquisition, including precisely when it was painted. “Me being a curious person, I’ve done a lot of research in my life,” Bittinger said. “I reached out to people to help me with this.” The research by Bittinger and her network of contacts had ranged from the archives at the Omni Parker House in Boston to the diaries of Webster’s wife during a trip abroad to France. A member of the Dunfey family, which used to own the Parker House, donated the painting to the historical society’s Webster Cottage Museum, a 1780 farmhouse tucked into the Dartmouth campus along North Main Street, where Webster rented a room for a year before his 1801 graduation. Bittinger soon established with confidence that the picture was painted by Joseph Desire Court, a French artist whose work was commissioned by Louis-Philippe d’Orleans, reigning king of France from 1830 to 1848. “But I couldn’t see how Daniel Webster and Joseph Desire Court could ever get together,” Bittinger said. No one knows whether Court met Webster, who was born in Salisbury, New Hampshire, in 1782, represented New Hampshire and Massachusetts in the U.S. House, served as a U.S. senator from Massachusetts, ran for president in 1836, and was appointed secretary of state by three different U.S. presidents before his death in 1852. It’s possible that Court, who died in 1865, used a portrait painted by someone else, or took advantage of a newly emergent technology — daguerreotypes, the first photographic process that was widely available to the public. “If it’s painted from the daguerreotypes, it’s not as valuable,” Bittinger said. “But if it’s painted from life, it’s more valuable.” She hoped that Clark would confirm the painting’s authenticity (she’d learned that Court’s other paintings sell for anywhere between $4,000 and $22,000), and perhaps give more clues as to the exact date of the painting. “I’m not an authenticator,” said Clark, bending to guide an ultraviolet penlight over the surface of the painting in an inch-by-inch search pattern. “But I’m looking for any signs that there’s something quirky, or wrong, just any red flags.” The 68-year-old Clark, of Wilder, has been studying and working in the art world since she was 20, including a stint teaching art history at Dartmouth. Today, she operates Art Care and Appraisals, a Norwich-based firm, to do assessments. “This pulls together all of the different skills and experience, my teaching, my research, my time studying art history,” she said. “I have to draw on every skill I ever learned. It’s really something that I couldn’t have done when I was 25.” Within just a minute or two, Clark’s light revealed a discolored splotch of paint near the bottom of the painting, a vaguely hourglass shape about the size of a finger that is invisible to the naked eye. “You all can see,” she said, playing the light across the blotch, which indicates a difference in the chemical composition of the paint. “This just screams attention. So there’s an example of where this painting’s been touched up.”