Aunt Ruth: Ruth Henshaw Miles Bascom (1772-1848)

Ruth Henshaw Miles Bascom, also known as “Aunt Ruth” was a twice married woman who raised children, many many children in her household (sometimes as many as 10)—being paid to help them, teach them and if their parents were not around, to foster them. She was a good wife of a minister—doing good works, caring for the poor, tending to the sick. She was also a solid diarist, who had kept diaries since her late teens through the end of her life….with notations from the weather and daily activities (in the early diaries) to details about her town’s statistics, births, deaths, weddings, expenses, cashflow and the like. The American Antiquarian Society has a very interesting pdf with notes and a list of the diaries they have in their collection. Worth taking a look.

Her portraits according to the Fenimore Museum in Cooperstown, NY

“As a minister's wife, Bascom began drawing as a pastime, but was soon traveling to other areas to draw portraiture on commission. She kept a daily journal in which she recorded making over a thousand portraits for money, services in kind, and as tokens of affection. Bascom rendered all her portraits in life-size profile. In order to create a realistic image, she first outlined a cast shadow of the sitter on her drawing paper. She then colored the picture using pastel crayons.”

The way I see it is that Aunt Ruth, in the tradition of parlor activities, would trace the sitter’s profile like a silhouette artist would have done. What is interesting — another point of intersectionality—is that sihouette cutting was popular in America from 1790 until 1840. Why 1840? We know this…the advent of photography!
Silhouette cutting was an activity that was either hired, or something one would do at home for amusement. The twist that Aunt Ruth brought to the process is she took the profile and painted it, using pastels and sometimes colored paper/ foil to dimensionalize the work. What we have is a singularly fresh, modern representation of the sitter that presents the sitter in 1840 as someone we could meet today. This work reminds me of children’s book illustration, and Alex Katz’s portraits.

Profile Portrait of a Young Woman, Her Braided Hair @orn with a comb

Profile Portrait of a Young Woman, Her Braided Hair @orn with a comb

I particularly love the sensitivity of her line work, the blends she does with the back of the women’s hair, and the flat background colors—that complement the sitter, but not overwhelming the likeness.

The image to the right—she takes one step further. Aunt Ruth uses the foil that she used as accents in her portraits and makes it dominant—feeling almost renaissance in feeling and tone. I am so taken with this from the odd placement of the figure on the field, to the use of materials, color, the gradient hair, the linework…its all pretty elegant given the world of 1840, of Ammi Phillips’ grand portraits, the triangular ladies of Field, and the advent of daguerrotypes. Surprisingly, these are not rote images and to me, transcends the change in technology as Bascom changed the process and technique—-bringing silhouettes along with her engaging work.

Ammi Phillip's bonnet

I am doing a bit of research on “primitive” American portraits and enjoying jumping in with both feet. I was looking at limner painters and found Ammi Phillips ( April 24, 1788 – July 11, 1865), also referred also as the Kent Limner . I love the formats of the time that were de rigueur and am am collecting images to better understand and categorize them. Unfortunately, I will be torturing you with my findings.

Philllps was born in Connecticut and starting painting when he was young. Wikipedia says:

“He enters the documentary record as an artist in 1809, at the age of 21, with advertisements in both The Berkshire Reporter[3] and a Pittsfield, Massachusetts tavern[4] proclaiming his talent for painting "correct likenesses," distinguished by “perfect shadows and elegantly dressed in the prevailing fashions of the day.” Although Phillips also advertised his talent for "fancy painting, silhouettes, sign and ornamental painting,"[3] he soon specialized as a portraitist. His work satisfied the local standard, and within two years Phillips was receiving regular portrait commissions from community leaders in this area of western Massachusetts.[3]

I find it interesting that he comes from a decorative background, silhouetting and stylish painting. Phillips was a practitioner of an expected style with his artistry being a plus. His figures reflect that paintings were made to be sn to illustrate how a member of the household would be remembered as a legacy as a justifying the privilege they chose to embrace.

Detail of the bonnet.

Detail of the bonnet.

Part of Phillips’ props “kit of parts” included this highly ornate, organza, embroidered and beribboned bonnet that was placed on many customers for their portraits. What a silly, over the top bonnet—on all sorts of ladies from young, to old—with the bonnet telling us that this woman has married well (married women wore inside bonnets), and she spends her time doing lady’s work—reading, needlework. You will also note a common collar in three of the portraits—perhaps also pre-painted or part of the artist’s prop closet? The older lady (the first image) has a decorative ribbon which shows up in other portraits Phillips has painted.

As a limner, it almost suggests that these paintings were already set up in advance, and only the faces were painted live. Limners were itinerant painters, so to have pre-painted paintings made the transaction quicker as the faces were painted in…and on you went (leaving the paint to dry). Just a thought.

I am looking at other models to better understand this particularly American period of decorative art, portraiture and design. This seems to click with all sorts of things I love to bits.




Did you or do you love jawbreakers? I used to. I would walk to and from school and was given a little allowance for making my bed and trying to be nice, and so once a week I would go to the Reynolds Street Market and buy a treat on the way home from school. The Reynolds Street Market was half way home on the longer but more neighborhoody walk home. It was one of those small, dark, neighborhood grocers that popped up next to a beauty salon or a dress shop in the middle of a residential area, offering the full range of food from bunny bread to milk, canned goods, and a butcher case. These grocers all worked on cash at the register and or handwritten bills which allowed a family to charge to their account. Very exotic to my thinking.

Reynolds Street also had a wonderful assortment of candy, penny candy, and promotional candy that whimsically appealed to me (and surprisingly, though I dont like to eat it, to me today for the sheer glory of its decorative quality, its design and packaging, for its humor and promised fun). Whoever was picking out the candy knew their audience--and had us in their thrall with candy cigarettes and pink gum cigars, lollipops and licorice, caramel bulllseyes with a chalky sugar center and turkish taffy which was advertised on teevee --encouraging kids to "smack it" before eating it.  How indulgent to have a little change and a load of choices all chocked with sugar, color and artificial flavor. One week it would be fireballs, another would be wax bottles with really gross and artificial syrupy brilliant liquid. Some weeks (around Halloween generally) wax teeth, wax lips and even wax fingernails. At one point, I was crazy into these packs of collectible cards with buttons that had Mad Magazine style illustrations of popular culture things or prepackaged food with a twist. I thought these buttons and cards were the hottest thing...and I, by having them, also was the hottest thing. Did I mention, no one else knew how cool I was? No...because I never shared this with anyone until today, with you.

Now, when it came to jawbreakers, Reynolds Street Market had the small ones in the mode of Fireballs (hot cinnamon jawbreakers), but they also had my favorite, the giant Jawbreaker. This baby was a bit less than 2" in diameter, like a golf ball--and one would hold it and lick it until it got big enough to fit in your mouth. The cool thing beyond it just being a big hunk of sugar was that it was layered in color, so as you ate it...or salivated on it or whatever, the temptation was great to pull it out of your mouth and observe the glory of the color change. Plus, if you are the talent I am, you would either drop it, roll it on your sweater, or gum it up in some way that it would be covered in dirt, hair or sweater wool before popping it back in your mouth. Oh, so lovely.

Now why all this talk about candy? Am I nostalgic for a time gone by? No. Another thing entirely. I subscribe to this wonderful email alert which is the Visual Thesaurus.

The Visual Thesaurus is a remarkable site which introduces new words (never can have enough words, right?) and displays them in a very interesting, visual, diagramatic way... which is inspiring to me from a design standpoint, but also is an interesting place to brainstorm ideas and words  (when I am helping someone name a product or service). Love this tool. Great timewaster. However, today was a glorious jawbreaker of a word:


Take that! Glorious Autochthonous (ah talk then oos). As the Visual Thesaurus neatly describes:

"No Place Like Home Word of the Day:

The adjective native serves many different purposes. Today's adjective autochthonous provides an opportunity to give one meaning of native a rest so you can employ a fifty dollar word in its place. Autochthonous is used to characterize rocks or organisms (including people) that are found in the place where they originated."

Don't you love it. LOVE autochthonous. And, had a sensational quote that captured it...that somehow prompts me to love folkloric art even more.

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"Folk Art grew from below. It was a spontaneous, autochthonous expression of the people, shaped by themselves, pretty much without the benefit of High Culture, to suit their own needs. Mass Culture is imposed from above. It is fabricated by technicians hired by businessmen; its audiences are passive consumers, their participation limited to the choice between buying and not buying.... Folk Art was the people's own institution, their private little garden walled off from the great formal park of their masters' High Culture. But Mass Culture breaks down the wall, integrating the masses into a debased form of High Culture and thus becoming an instrument of political domination. "

Dwight MacDonald (1906–1982), U.S. journalist, critic. "A Theory of Mass Culture," Mass Culture: The Popular Arts in America, eds. B. Rosenberg and D.M. White, Free Press (1959).

So there you have it. Whimsy. Candy and a brand new word that means local....native, vernacular. So you can have your local candy and sound smart saying it....Well, you know what I mean.

Off to the salt mines. Lets see if we have something to talk about tomorrow. I hope so.