The Puffy Sleeve Artist

Every August features an Americana focus in the antiques world, and auctions and shows present their best items made in America. I made a shopping list while browsing through next week’s Americana auction at Skinner: rainbow spatterware, a nineteenth-century wooden bucket with “good girl” painted on it, cherry card tables, and an amazing schoolgirl map of the world. I don’t need any of these things but a girl can dream! There are some great silhouettes in this auction as well, including several by the “Puffy Sleeve Artist”, an anonymous favorite of collectors. I was rather surprised by the low estimate placed on this lady with the blue dress: $600-$800. Two years ago, another silhouette by the same artist fetched $6600 in a Skinner Auction, and another Puffy Sleeve Artist creation sold for $8750 at a Christie’s auction in 2012.

Puffy Sleeve Artist Skinner Americana Auction

Puffy Sleeve Artist Skinner 2013

Puffy Sleeve Artist Christies 2012 Auction

 Two silhouettes by the “Puffy Sleeve Artist” at Skinner Auctions:  a necklaced lady in a blue dress (upcoming here) and Henrietta Wakefield Wearing a Red Gown and Holding a Fan, both c. 1830-31; another red-gowned Puffy Sleeve silhouette of the same vintage, Christies.

Well, as you can see, it’s pretty easy to tell that these silhouettes were made by the same artist, even for a laywoman such as I (although this last lady looks a bit full-blown). It seems odd that we can’t identify the artist by more than his (or her) most distinctive motif: whoever it was was quite prolific and 1830 wasn’t that long ago (in historical perspective). Donna-Belle Garvin of the New Hampshire Historical Society has made a case for John Hosley Whitcomb (1806-49) a deaf-mute artist from Hancock, New Hampshire (“Family Reunited:  A Tale of Two Auctions,” New Hampshire Historical Society Newsletter Volume 29, Spring 1991), and the attributed artist of a pair of attributed hollow-cut silhouettes of gentlemen sold just a few days ago in a Willis Henry auction. If the “Puffy Sleeve Artist” was indeed Whitcomb, he appears to have exercised a more restrained style with his gentlemen: the ladies look a bit more distinctive, whimsical, and even modern in their abstraction. Whoever he or she was, my favorite examples of the Puffy Sleeve Artist’s work are those examples in which these women are holding books, identifying them by both age and initials, and something other than their puffy sleeves.

Puffy Sleeve Artist Wh

Puffy Sleeve Artist Pink

Puffy Sleeve Artist Christies Auction 2007

Puffy Sleeve Artist Northeast Auctions

A John Hosley Whitcomb silhouette and “Puffy Sleeve Artist” silhouette from last weekend’s Willis Henry auction; Puffy Sleeve Artist silhouettes dated 1831 and 1830 from Christies and Northeast Auctions.

Appendix 8/5/15:  Silhouette expert Peggy McClard (her extremely informative website is here) has informed me that the lady in pink above is not by the Puffy Sleeve Artist, and also that he has recently been identified as the western Massachusetts “profile cutter” Ezra Wood by Michael and Suzanne Payne (see the Magazine Antiques, July/August 2014).

2 responses to “The Puffy Sleeve Artist

  • Antique Silhouettes and Folk Art

    Hi Donna,
    You asked me to comment on your blog about the pink lady silhouette but I couldn’t do so while I was on the road. Here is what I commented to your FB post:

    “Suzanne Rudnick Payne and Michael Payne recently publish an article in The Magazine Antiques giving a very good argument that Ezra Wood was the Puffy Sleeve Artist. The lady in pink that is included in the blog article and sold last weekend is definitely not Puffy Sleeve. I saw it in person and had it removed from the frame. My friend Howard Fertig was mistaken when he labeled that piece. We all started collecting in the days of dinosaurs and scholarship has come a long way. The pink dressed lady was definitely not Puffy Sleeve Artist and not one that I would have bid on.”

    I must also say that I have an issue with the two “Puffy Sleeve Artist” lots that were up at auction this past weekend, although I believe that the Paynes may disagree with me with regard to the woman in the blue dress. I believe the woman in the blue dress is an artist who did similar work to the Puffy Sleeve Artist (“PSA”) but showed some differences in his/her cutting. For example, the blue dress has wonderful painted hair ornamentation not seen with the silhouettes I identify as PSA. Although the head on the past weekend’s blue dressed lady is a bit elongated, it is still a bit more rounded than PSA and this is common for this unnamed artist. See where you can see the shape of the head more clearly. PSA liked to show a hand but the similar work has the hand hidden behind the back. The eyelashes are not cut the same way. I can go on, but you probably get my drift and if you study them close enough, you can see differences. The pair that was listed this past weekend was just not in any way the PSA. It is not unusual for even big, very reputable auction houses to make mistakes in identifying pieces with these subtle differences.

    Hope this helps shed some light on a confusing subject!

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