Pennsylvania Sunday Best

Well over a century has passed since a small group of itinerant artists wandered through the German settlements of southeastern Pennsylvania, making a precarious living and incidentally founding a fascinating provincial school of American portraiture. Talent brushed some of them lightly, and sometimes inspiration, even if most of the time their minds were largely occupied with the prospects for their next meal.

The identities of most of these vagabond limners are lost, but the memory and work of one—Samuel Endredi Stetinius—stand out so prominently that his name is often given to this whole group of Pennsylvania-Dutch artists. Samuel arrived in Philadelphia from Germany in 1791. Attracted to the little town of Hanover, he followed his printing trade and even helped edit a short-lived newspaper.

Colonial printing offered slim rewards and Samuel looked about for a side line. While still in the old country, he had developed a bent for portrait painting; and now acquiring brushes, water colors, and canvasses, he went looking for customers. He prospered sufficiently to inspire pupils and imitators who flourished for some fifty years, decorating many a rural parlor with stylized likenesses.

This primitive portraiture admitted of little pretension. Not much time was spent on perspective, and the background (unless the customer specified otherwise) required little effort. Clothing was of a stereotyped pattern—frilled dresses for the women, high beaver hats and formal morning suits for the men. For the masculine portraits, it appears that a supply of stylish figures was often kept in stock; the subject’s face was then painted in during a brief sitting.

What these strolling craftsmen sold was vanity. The farm ladies wore plain clothes: their feet were strong and solid. Stetinius and his followers, however, were astute enough to make the dresses ornate and to paint in tiny, mincing feet. A sturdy German farmer who wore his good suit only to go to church on Sundays was pleased to have posterity think of him decked out in high linen collar, fluffy jabot, laced Steinkirk cravat, and ponderous watch chain.

And the reward for the creators of these charming local masterpieces? Say a night’s lodging, a drink of whiskey, five dollars—and if Mama was really flattered, maybe a crock of homemade apple butter.