Philip Comes Home After 200 years, the Chartier's last contribution

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If you read any of the biographies on Freneau, they will tell you how he never sat for a portrait in his lifetime. The most popular image of him is an Engraving by Frederick Halpin, below, done ten years after his death.

All of the biographies quote or cite the Duyckinck biography in his collection of Freneau's poems from 1865 (being early enough that Duyckinck was able to talk to his children and people that still knew Freneau). In it he relates Freneau's aversion to having his portrait done, even turning down Rembrandt Peale.
Freneau's disdain for Portraiture is supported by his prose piece "The Picture Gallery" where he laments the fact that anyone could get his portrait in a gallery now, all they had to have was money. 



However one day (at least seven years ago) I came across this article in the Red Bank Sunday Register from 1982.
The article was about an upcoming exhibit at Monmouth College and in particular about a bust of Freneau they commissioned from artist Carl McLean Stern for the exhibit. It says that the artist used the Halpin engraving, but then went on to say "While Stern was working on the bust the State Historical Commission obtained a photograph of a John Singleton Copley oil painting believed to be the 1771 Princeton graduation portrait of Philip Freneau".
Over the years I would continue to search for a reference to this picture.
A little research on Copley showed that while he was New England based (his portrait of Paul Revere is very well known), and moving to London in 1774, he happened to be working between New York and Philadelphia doing portraits in 1771 (so he had the opportunity).
Also, while the Freneau's were perrennialy short on cash, Freneau's mother had just in June of that year married James Kearney of Keyport, so it might of been (a rare) time of having the means also.

The earliest reference I found was a 1923 reference to the portrait in the American Art Annual which listed it as "Portrait of Philip Freneau, Poet and Journalist", by Copley.

Then one day a search brought up an entry for it in the Frick Art Reference Library which also listed it as Philip Freneau, attributed it to Copley. 


But the great thing about the Frick reference was it included an image of the portrait.


In the newspaper article from 1982, the artist doing the bust, comparing this image and Halpin engraving said "They are the same face" this is particularly obvious in the heavy-lidded eyes and the shape of the jaw".




However what sold me on it being Freneau was when I juxtaposed this image next to the portrait of his mother, who was roughly the same age as her son when her portrait was done.




They are the same face!

Ironically, Philip and his mother still lie side by side, and share a monument across the street in their cemetery.


Now having an image in hand I would periodically search using Google's image search to see if I could find it.

Finally in 2019 I found it again- this time in the results of a Sotheby's auction. However this time it was just listed as "Portrait of a Gentleman" and as the "Circle of John Singleton Copley".




The Auction was held in 2018, but the painting did not sell.

I immediately contacted Sotheby's. The person there was very helpful and I asked if they could contact the owners of the picture. It was a modest reserve and as I actually had money back then, might have entertained buying it. However after months of trying, the Sotheby's representative said he was unable to get in touch with the owners.

Finally in November of 2020 I went back to the Frick reference, which showed the provenance, and that it came from the Plimpton family. After searching again I finally located a Plimpton family member who I thought might have some knowledge of the portrait.  All I had was a physical address for her in Brooklyn. So I sent a letter telling the story of the portrait and including an image of it. I explained that I was no longer in a position to buy the portrait, and that my wife and I had to sell our house. However if I could just get a hold of the portrait for a couple of hours, I could hang it in my house (where it used to belong) and get a picture of it.

I sent it off and didn't hear anything for a few weeks. 

Then one day I got a phone call. The caller was delighted with my letter, she remembered the picture hanging in her father in law's house, he had a collection of portraits of authors. And she was so interested that she said the portrait should definitely return home!

I was incredibly grateful and said the best permanent (after a visit to my wall) place for it was the Matawan Historical Society. Especially since the Burrowes Mansion was once owned by Freneau's wife's Uncle. Then ensued months of further pandemic exacerbated delay of Sotheby's first, locating where the portrait was, and then Plimpton's family agreeing to donate the portrait to the Society.



Finally Kurtis, in one of many snowstorms of 2021 retrieved the portrait from Sotheby's warehouse. 
What was really surprising was the the picture still has a name plate saying it was Philip Freneau by Copley.
Finally after 200 years.....
Philip is home 

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