FREDERICK BUXTON
S. A. Shute & R. W. Shute
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  • FREDERICK BUXTON
  • Samuel Addison Shute (1803–1836) and Ruth Whittier Shute (1803–1882)
  • Lowell, Massachusetts
  • c. 1831
  • Watercolor, gouache, pencil, and ink on paper with applied gold foil
  • 18 1/4 x 15 1/4 in.
  • American Folk Art Museum, gift of Ralph Esmerian, 2005.8.6
  • Samuel Addison Shute and Ruth Whittier Shute were an unusually talented, prolific, and enterprising pair of artists. They were married in Sommersworth, New Hampshire, on October 16, 1827. Ruth was a double first cousin of the celebrated abolitionist poet John Greenleaf Whittier, their fathers being brothers and their mothers being first cousins. She was born in Dover, New Hampshire, the eighth of nine children, on October 3, 1803. Samuel was born on September 24 of the same year. He attended the Governor Dummer Academy in Byfield, Massachusetts, and went on to Dartmouth College. He was a physician and a Freemason and was cited in a history of Weare, New Hampshire, as giving the oration at a Fourth of July celebration in 1827.

    After his marriage, Dr. Shute’s focus shifted away from medicine, and he joined his wife in an artistic partnership that took the couple through the hamlets and small cities of northern New England and New York State, selling their services as itinerant portrait painters. Their efforts met with considerable success until Samuel’s untimely death in Champlain, New York, in 1836, at the age of 32.

    An advertisement placed by the young artists in the (Newport) New Hampshire Argus and Spectator (April 15, 1833) shows one of their methods of attracting clients: “PORTRAIT / PAINTING! / MR. AND MRS. SHUTE / Would inform the Ladies and Gentlemen of Newport, N.H. that they / have taken a room at Nettleton’s Hotel, where they will remain for a short / time. / All who may employ them may rest assured that a correct likeness of / the original will be obtained. If not the work may remain on our hands. / Prices will be regulated, according to the size of the portrait. / CALL AND EXAMINE THE PAINTINGS / Price from 5 to 10 dollars. / April 15, 1833.”

    The Shutes employed a highly unusual method of painting in that they simultaneously directed their creative energies to the same portrait. Although the great majority of their pictures are unsigned, a number of watercolors and oils are inscribed on the reverse: “Painted by R.W. Shute and S.A. Shute.” In a few watercolors, their contributions are more specifically documented: “Drawn by R.W. Shute / and / Painted by S.A. Shute.”

    This apparently felicitous collaboration combined an attraction to multiple styles with an interest in experimenting with a diverse and unorthodox mixture of materials. The resulting body of work exhibits an astonishing vitality and complexity. When a portrait was painted in oil, the artists frequently interspersed applications of pigment with layers of varnish and glazes. When working on paper, their primary medium was watercolor, but that was freely supplemented with pastel, gouache, pencil, collage, gum arabic, and reserved blank areas in order to obtain different effects. The work is fresh and spontaneous, but great care seems to have been taken to obtain the individuality of the sitter, resulting in an insightful renderings and likenesses that reflect a compelling degree of personal engagement.

    Among the most numerous of the Shutes’ clients were the young women who had recently left their family farms to work in the mills that were bringing prosperity to the river towns of Massachusetts and New Hampshire. The portraits celebrate the confidence of the subjects and affirm a gentle pride in their newly independent status. The Shutes were particularly effective in their sympathetic portraits of children, and the museum’s holdings include outstanding examples of the artists’ ability to capture the dignity, vulnerability, and poignance of their young sitters. Ruth and Samuel had themselves become parents in 1829. Their daughter Adelaide was born an invalid, and she remained with her mother throughout her life. A second daughter, Maria Antoinette, followed in 1831, but she survived only nine days. Her grave is located beside that of her father in the Millville Cemetery adjacent to the grounds of St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire.

    Although vital and intensely productive, the Shutes’ joint career was tragically brief. The probability that Samuel’s early death was preceded by a lingering illness is evidenced by the fact that by September of 1833 the paintings were signed by Ruth alone. In addition, the next known newspaper solicitation for portrait commissions that appears after that date, in the May 24, 1834, edition of the Plattsburgh (N.Y.) Republican, mentions her name only.

    For four years following Samuel’s death, Ruth continued to travel in the region and to paint. Then, in 1840, she married Alpha Tarbell in Concord. She and Adelaide went with him to Lexington, Kentucky, where Ruth had two more daughters and where she is remembered as a pianist as well as a painter. Her last known painting, a portrait of a granddaughter, is dated 1874.

    This portrait of Frederick Buxton first came to light in 1924, at an auction in Lowell, Massachusetts, as part of a group of four paintings that included his mother, Phebe, young Jeremiah Emerson, and that boy’s mother, Sara Chandler Emerson. The likenesses of the boys and their mothers are further linked by identical information found on the backs of the portraits of Phebe and Sara. A paper label—affixed to a new paper backing that transcribes the inscriptions from the original backing—states, “This picture is one of a pair bought in Lowell Massachusetts. It was taken from a board with the name Buxton.”

    Phebe Buxton’s first husband and Frederick’s father, Benjamin Buxton, died on August 23, 1827, at the age of 47 years and 4 months. In the Lowell City Directory of 1832, Phebe is listed as keeper of the boardinghouse at 39 Worthen Street, which was owned by the Merrimac Corporation and housed employees who worked at the company mill. In all likelihood she had assumed this position from the time of her widowhood until January 3, 1834, when the Lowell vital records reveal that she and Timothy Baker of Londonderry, New Hampshire, filed their marriage intentions.

    Evidence linking the Shutes to 39 Worthen Street was discovered serendipitously when a copy of the Lowell Directory turned up in the Lowell town office with Dr. Shute’s name and that address scrawled repeatedly on the inside cover. The specifics of this notation and exactly why the Shutes would be residing there remain a mystery, since, as far as is known, these boardinghouses were exclusively for mill workers.

    In this portrait, the Shutes have given us a memorable image of a thoroughly beguiling, expressive, and winsome young boy for whom, regrettably, there is no information to continue his biography after he was painted in his sixth year. This is the only Shute likeness of a child composed with the radiating striped background that is found in many of their well-known paintings of mill girls such as Emeline Parker and Eliza Gordon. Frederick reaches for the small dog at his side with the same tender gesture that is seen in other Shute portraits in the museum’s collection, but his dog is truncated below his forelegs. Frederick himself is painted in a three-quarter-length pose, which is true of a number of other Shute portraits of children; virtually all the adults are confined to formalized compositions that cut off the sitter at or near the waist.
  • Photo © 2000 John Bigelow Taylor, New York