The Portraits of Zedekiah Belknap: Researching Folk Art at Historic Deerfield

Oct 13, 2023

by Nicholas Wendell   

Thanks to the 2023 Historic Deerfield Summer Fellowship sponsored by the Decorative Arts Trust, I found myself in an environment where I could simultaneously feed my passion for history and art. Rather than simply focusing on conceptual history, I was given the unique chance to see and hold remnants of the past. Not only did I learn more about Shays’s rebellion and the economic impact of the Revolutionary War on New England’s lower classes, I also got to hold a model of the musket used during that insurrection and stand in a tavern similar to the one in which the uprising was planned. My interest in economic history grew considerably as a result of this summer. Therefore, it is no coincidence that my final paper was a socioeconomic survey of the life of a Connecticut River Valley limner. 

Massachusetts painter Zedekiah Belknap’s earliest known work dates to 1810 (figure 1), and he produced about 150 portraits before his career ended in 1848 (figure 2). Belknap died alone and penniless in 1858, but he is now remembered as a notable member of the 19th-century folk portraiture movement. Belknap’s work has been acquired by museums, studied by academics, and featured on Antiques Roadshow. Art historian Elizabeth Mankin explained Belknap’s style in this way: “He concentrated on the details of costume and used bright colors. Sitters are boldly outlined, but there is little modeling. Belknap consistently depicts only one side of the nose and outlines its profile with a heavy reddish shadow. Facial features are prominent: eyes are large and round, lips full, and ears flat and red. The artist disguised his shortcomings in the areas of perspective and anatomy by adding decorative elements.”1

Raised on a farm in Weathersfield, VT, Belknap graduated from Dartmouth College in 1807 and served as an army chaplain in the War of 1812 despite never having been ordained. Sketches of the Alumni of Dartmouth College states that Belknap was never known to have taken a career other than army chaplain and painter, but it remains possible that he finished his divinity degree only to placate his family.2

Belknap married Sophia Sherwin on April 30, 1812, in Waterville, ME. A letter written by a Weathersfield historian3 gives us remarkable insight into Belknap’s social world as well as 19th century American customs writ large. He writes, “Belknap…married, but feared to bring his wife back home to Weathersfield where she would see all his limping relatives. Finally she insisted on coming, saw the sights and was horrified and insisted on parting with him. He stayed around and did his painting with a broken heart.”4 Several members of the Belknap family were in fact afflicted with a hereditary disease causing them to limp, for which they gained the ignominious title: “Weathersfield Limpers.”5 Family tradition has it that Sophia died in 1815, leaving no children, and Belknap, overcome with sorrow, never remarried.

In 2017, Historic Deerfield acquired a portrait of John Foster Stearns that is attributed to Belknap (figure 3). The inscriptions on this piece place the painter in Dummerston, VT, around 1832, when he portrayed Asa Knight and his wife, Susan, whose store is now at Old Sturbridge Village. The work even has a Deerfield connection: John Foster Stearns’s daughter Susan married Deerfield antiquarian George Sheldon in 1844.6

Regardless of what lies in store, I certainly would not have had the chance to experiment with interdisciplinary work and expand the scope of my intellectual interests in a professional setting at this young age if not for the Historic Deerfield Summer Fellowship Program. For that opportunity I am eternally thankful.

1. Mankin, Elizabeth. “Zedekiah Belknap 1781-1858, Itinerant New England Portrait Painter,” Antiques Magazine, (November 1976), 1056-1070.

2. Chapman, George T., Sketches of the Alumni of Dartmouth College: From the First Graduation in 1771 to the Present Time, with a Brief History of the Institution. (Cambridge: Riverside Press, 1867).

3. Elizabeth Mankin does not specify the historian’s name in her article: “Zedekiah Belknap 1781-1858, Itinerant New England Portrait Painter,” Antiques Magazine, (November 1976), 1056-1070.

4. Ibid, Mankin.

5. Ibid, Mankin.

6. “Recent Acquisitions.” Historic Deerfield website.

Nicholas Wendell is studying at the University of Vermont, Burlington. 

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