October 28, 2021

Miniature paintings, big legacy

Woman’s work from 1840s at historical society

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

Tabitha Scoville, director of the Cortland County Historical Society, with a miniature portrait of Louis Eli Carpenter, painted by Meriva Carpenter in 1843.

Tabitha Scoville wants women to have a voice in Cortland County history.

So when the Cortland County Historical Society had a chance to obtain a $2,000 miniature painting by a 19th Century Homer woman — Meriva Carpenter — Scoville, the executive director of the Homer Avenue society, was all in.

“Meriva is important,” she said. Carpenter painted miniature portraits of her family members and others in a time when women painters were rare.

She also was the owner of the historical society’s one-of-a-kind bloomer costume from the 1850s, one of two in the United States. It introduced the taboo pair of pants to a woman’s outfit that was derided across the country.

And it also signified an emerging push for women’s independence when they had few rights.

“For a woman to be wearing a bloomer costume in the 1850s and to be a painter, even though she didn’t paint commercially, that was really not the norm for that time,” Scoville said. “And women have been left out of history.”

The society just obtained a Carpenter portrait miniature of Louis Eli Carpenter, Meriva’s nephew, raising $1,100 in donations for its $2,000 purchase price to add to its collection which now includes six miniatures and two sketches by Carpenter.

“We are still taking contributions to offset the cost,” Scoville said.

Carpenter was born in 1802 in Connecticut. She married her first cousin Eli Carpenter in 1820 and the couple moved to Cortland County. They lived in East Homer, where Eli operated a fabric and dye mill. The area where they lived was known as Carpenterville in the 19th Century, when Cortland County was sparsely populated.

They had two boys and one girl, Marcianna, who also was an artist, as well as a talented taxidermist. The historical society has several birds preserved by Marcianna, as well as some of her art works.

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

Marcianna Carpenter, daughter of Meriva Carpenter, created this exhibit of birds, a nod to her talent as a taxidermist.

The society bought the Louis Carpenter portrait from a Pennsylvania art dealer, who acquired it from another seller, who had bought it from an estate sale in Cape Cod, Scoville said.

Carpenter usually signed the paintings, but the Louis Carpenter work was labeled by Louis Carpenter himself, said Scoville.

“Meriva is unique, as she is the only American miniaturist I can re member, who included inside the portrait a paper with such great detail about the sitter and their family. With the vast majority of other miniatures, it is so sad the identities are lost forever,” said Don Shelton of Auckland, New Zealand.

Shelton has two miniature self-portraits of Meriva Carpenter and collects miniatures from the U.S., Britain and Europe.

He started collecting miniatures and noticed about 20 years ago, there was a lot known about British and European miniatures, but little known or published on American miniatures.

“I decided to focus on buying American miniatures on eBay, researching them and later sharing my research on the internet with anyone interested,” he said in an email. He also was concerned about fakes being sold on eBay.

He has about 400 American miniatures available to view on his website, portrait-miniature.blogspot.com, plus more from Britain and Europe.

“It was unusual for women to paint, but Meriva seems to be self-taught for a hobby … and I think all the portraits I have seen by her are of her family members. … It is unlikely she ever sold any works,” Shelton said.

Her portraits are watercolor on ivory, he said.

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

Henri and Marcianna Carpenter, painted by their mother, Meriva Carpenter.

“Some colors are more intense where she used only a little water. Oil paints were not used on ivory,” Shelton said.

“Why have paintings in a historical society?” said Gina Prentiss, a dedicated volunteer, past president and founder with two others in the Dryden Town Historical Society. “Paintings speak a lot when you hang them up … they bring back other stories.”

The Dryden Town Historical Society recently opened its Betty Hurst exhibit of painted local scenes and landscapes by the former Dryden and Freeville woman.

Hurst died in May 2020. The society heard that many in the community own Hurst paintings. They put out a call to borrow them and show them with the two Hurst paintings the society owns. It displays 17 hanging and eight or nine unframed, as well as sketch books.

Hurst was active in the fire department, the school and church and started painting in her retirement, Prentiss said.

The society is open 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays at Southworth Homestead, 14 North St., Dryden.

“We’re doing an exhibit on silver that’s fun. On the women’s vote, and some (smaller) exhibits,” Prentiss said.

The Cortland County Historical Society will likely do an exhibit of Carpenter’s miniatures in 2022.

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

Several miniatures painted by Meriva Carpenter, in the collection of the Cortland County Historical Society.

“There are too many unknowns right now, with 2021,” Scoville said. It already plans a fashion exhibit as well as building a children’s interactive exhibit this year.

Scoville said Carpenter’s portraits of her children have locks of their hair behind them.

“We don’t know much about her life except that she was a painter,” Scoville said.

The society also has portraits of a T.F. Chapman and an Abram Bab cock as well as a family tree of her paintings with 15 pictures outlined in the tree. Others may be owned by area residents, Scoville said.

As for that bloomer costume, the society obtained it from a Homer bank that discovered it while cleaning and organizing.

“I think it was unclaimed,” Scoville said. “They gave it to us about 1993. It had the bloomer costume in it. And all of these gorgeous dresses,” including Carpenter’s wedding gown.

She says Meriva’s granddaughter, Minnie, was the last relative to have the trunk in her possession. There were baby clothes from Meriva’s father in the 1700s, a sampler from her mother, late 1700s, the gown the bloomer costume.

Just last week, Scoville found a notation on pillow cases from the Carpenter family.

“It seems like we are always turning up something with this family,” she said.

Photo provided by Don Shelton

A Meriva Carpenter self portrait owned by Don Shelton.