SPECIAL ADVISORY: The Yale University Art Gallery is open to the public with expanded hours on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays and offers access to Yale ID holders on weekdays. Learn More

American Paintings and Sculpture
PrevNext1 of 2
Photo credit: Yale University Art Gallery
PrevNext2 of 2
Photo credit: Yale University Art Gallery
Artist: John Henry Brown, American, 1818–1891

Catherine Bohlen (probably 1830–after 1880)

November 1850

Watercolor on ivory

4 7/16 × 3 3/8 in. (11.3 × 8.6 cm)
John Hill Morgan, B.A. 1893, LL.B. 1896, M.A. (Hon.) 1929, Fund
1998.21.1

John Henry Brown’s prolific career typifies that of the antebellum miniaturist. He established himself first as a portraitist and sign painter, but by the 1840s devoted himself exclusively to miniatures, initially with enormous success. In 1845 he settled in Philadelphia, where he painted members of the middle class. Brown’s depiction of Catherine Bohlen epitomizes his forceful portraits, which updated the tradition of miniature painting by borrowing elements from both oil painting and photography. The artist’s saliva-working technique allowed him to control and blend strokes to create a rich array of colors and subtle surface textures, introducing a polished finish and intensity of detail—particularly in Catherine’s exquisite lace collar—that could compete with photography. Brown’s professional success during a time when the miniature was being eclipsed by photography demonstrates the persistence of demand for miniatures after the introduction of daguerreotypes.

Catherine Bohlen, the daughter of a merchant and importer who had emigrated from Germany to Philadelphia, was one of many members of the extended Bohlen family Brown painted in 1849 and 1850. The artist’s journal and account book records miniatures of Catherine’s mother, Jane, in March 1849, deceased father, John, in July 1850, and “Miss Catherine Bohlen” in November and December 1850. Perhaps the recent deaths of Catherine’s father and of a young cousin, also painted posthumously by Brown, motivated the Bohlens to preserve the living likenesses of remaining family members in the precious medium of watercolor on ivory. Brown lavished attention on Catherine’s portrait, which he worked on for nearly a month. The artist charged accordingly: Catherine Bohlen cost $210, far more than Brown’s other Bohlen miniatures. In one of his most exacting likenesses, Brown treats Catherine’s profile, her plain features and recessed chin, with a frankness often reserved for the new medium of photography.

As an art collector herself, Catherine may have collaborated with the artist in the choice of pose and props, which include an ermine stole and a small bouquet arranged in a silver tuzzy-muzzy. Although Catherine’s flowers allude to romance, she never married. After her mother’s death in the 1850s, Catherine was listed in the census of 1860 as a member of her married brother’s household. Her name is buried among those of the domestic servants, a poignant expression of the diminished status over time of unmarried women like Catherine in the nineteenth century. By 1860, Brown’s level of patronage began to decline. He joined a firm that specialized in coloring photographic portraits, but he eventually returned to miniature painting.

Geography: 
Made in Indianola, Texas, United States
Status: 
Not on view
Culture: 
American
Period: 
19th century
Classification: 
Miniatures - Jewelry
Provenance: 

Descended in the sitter’s family; acquired in the 1930s by a private collector; sold April 22, 1998, lot 234, by the William Doyle Galleries, New York, for Bonhams, Knightsbridge, to the Yale University Art Gallery. Note that at time of sale to Yale University Art Gallery, the miniature was misidentified as "Jane G. Bohlen."

Bibliography: 

“Acquisitions, 1998,” Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin (1999): 169, ill.

Robin Jaffee Frank, “Telling Tales: Three Small Portraits Punctuate a Bigger Story,” Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin (2001): 32, fig. 3.

Note: This electronic record was created from historic documentation that does not necessarily reflect the Yale University Art Gallery’s complete or current knowledge about the object. Review and updating of such records is ongoing.