Some attribution are so off-the-wall that you just have to wonder, “Why?”

Unfortunately, yet another listing for another “EX RARE” silhouette on ebay makes claims that are so far-fetched that no one with any understanding of attributions would make or believe them. Here is what the listing says:

Supposed "Jarvis"1820 American Gold Leaf Silhouette EX RARE John Wesley Jarvis

We have an extremely rare and choice silhouette made circa 1820. We believe the artist is John Wesley Jarvis. Let’s get the measurements out of the way: frame 63 x 73mm, inside opening 41 x 51mm, thickness 12mm. This frame is solid brass and not brass over wood.

I always disassemble silhouettes from their frames in order to take better photos and to check their condition. However, I did not put my paws inside this one, as the backing cardboard seems to be original with its peripheral retainer still in place. I believe it has been this way for the last 200 years. And the artwork, itself, is nearly in the condition it was made. I absolutely saw no reason to disassemble it and risk damaging this silhouette.

Jarvis worked in many style and medium. One of them is what many writers call “etching on gold leaf” silhouettes. That is not accurate. Those writers just followed the footsteps of previous writers without doing any research themselves. Soon this “etching on gold leaf” (false information) was etched (no pun intended) in stone. This artwork on glass was produced just like those 19th century silhouette glass mats with gold and black designs. Many call it eglomise; I just call it reverse painted glass, unless real gold foil is used. Our silhouette seems to be yellow in color, but in person it shines a true reflective mirror gold.

Anyways, this is a reverse painted silhouette that was backed with gold leaf. Jarvis sold these for a fin, while he sold the plain reverse painted silhouette for a buck. Do not mistaken this silhouette for those Continental silhouettes of similar artwork. They were made in the late 1700s and look nothing like this American counterpart. Even the mediocre continental works are so much better than the best Jarvis. This silhouette is primitive compared to those of British and Continental works.

I am sure there exist a few Jarvis of this style and medium somewhere, but I have not been able to find a single specimen. People write about it, but where art thou? This work is exceedingly rare and this piece should find a home in a museum or in a very refined private collection.

Okay, let’s look at the “attribution” for this antique silhouette.  First, the seller claims that the artist John Wesley Jarvis made this silhouette which “many writers call ‘etching on gold leaf'”. He says that the claims of “many writers” is “not accurate” and “false information”. Well, in her groundbreaking book Shades of Our Ancestors, Alice Van Leer Carrick said that Jarvis and his partner Joseph Wood “made profiles on gold leaf, shadowed a little by hatching”.  Ms. Carrick’s description comes directly from the written memories of William Dunlap, an artist and art historian who saw the works of Jarvis first-hand and knew him personally. Mr. Dunlap was pretty specific in how Jarvis made his gold leaf silhouettes. Dunlap’s description surely sounds like there was hatching (otherwise known as etching) on the gold leaf. Where is the “shadow[ing] a little by hatching” in this one–whether on the gold leaf or on the black paint? If there isn’t any, why is this seller so sure that his silhouette is by Jarvis and that Jarvis didn’t create his silhouettes using the technique recorded by an artist who knew him and saw his work? Surely Wm. Dunlap knew and understood the techniques Jarvis was using.

Although most antique gold leaf silhouettes on glass are Continental, the seller claims that the Continental ones “were made in the late 1700s and look nothing like this American counterpart.” Well, for years I have owned a German gold leaf silhouette that was made in the 1830s and is framed in the same stamped brass frame as this EX RARE silhouette and is just as “primitive” as the seller’s silhouette.

Lastly, the seller admits that he has never seen a single specimen of Jarvis’ gold leaf silhouettes. So, where is the attribution coming from? Obviously, it is coming completely from his imagination. The seller claims that the many writers who followed Ms. Carrick (quoting Jarvis’ friend and colleague, William Dunlap) did no research themselves….so, where is the seller’s research? Attributions and these kinds of conclusions must be backed by tangible evidence.

My personal opinion is that a seller who proclaims to know it all is more dangerous than the average generalist antique dealer who admits to not knowing everything.  At least the more humble dealer alerts you that you need to look elsewhere for an answer or attribution.  This dealer can make the average buyer feel false comfort in buying from him.

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