When ten members of the Payne family of Goochland County, Virginia, sat for their portraits sometime in the early 1790s, they could not have foreseen that they would forever be linked to the otherwise unknown artist who received their generous commission. Indeed, he is now recognized as the “Payne Limner.” At the time, he was probably an itinerant painter with little formal training who was simply passing through the neighborhood looking for work. Today, though, the Payne Limner’s distinctive style and brushwork set him apart from other late 18th-century Virginia painters, and his many Payne family portraits have given him a convenient name.
This history was especially interesting to American painting scholar and Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation (WUDPAC) Fellow Kelsey Wingel when this year she began treating one of the Payne family portraits. It depicts Ann Spotswood Payne (1772-1813) sitting in a chair as she rests her right forearm on a circular table, loosely holding a fan. Her long brown hair hangs loosely to her shoulders, and a small, brown and white dog is curled up on the table. The painting was handed down through generations of Ann’s descendants before it was gifted to the James Madison Museum of Orange County Heritage in Orange, Virginia, and it was in poor condition when Kelsey received it. Actively flaking and loosely attached to its stretcher, the portrait showed areas of abrasion, flyspecking, and overall surface grime. Even so, Kelsey was excited to discover the original tack pattern, as the painting has never been removed from its stretcher. This rare discovery, along with research Kelsey plans to do on the pigments used by the artist, promises to offer new insights into the artist, his workmanship, and the painting itself.