Unidentified Painters of Overmantels
American, eighteenth century

Only rarely can individual artists who created overmantels be identified with a specific work of art. In New England in the eighteenth century, artists known to have painted these objects include Winthrop Chandler (1747–1790), Michele Felice Cornè (1751–1845), Jonathan W. Edes (b. 1751), and John Hazlitt (1767–1837). Based on surviving work, it is presumed that the names of numerous such painters have been lost. These skilled craftsmen did a variety of decorative paintings on the interiors of homes, including wood graining, marbleizing, and stenciling on walls, paneling, and doors. Decorative artists also painted fire screens, fire buckets, carriages, signs, clock faces, and furniture.1

The word overmantel is a modern term for what in the eighteenth century was called either a "chimney painting" or a "chimney piece."2 Overmantels were typically painted on wooden panel, as in the three Worcester Art Museum examples, and sometimes on canvas, to decorate the large rectangular space above the fireplace. Those panels were then integrated into the paneling of a room. Artists also painted directly on plaster walls and ceilings. Common subjects of overmantels include landscapes featuring single estates or entire towns, hunting scenes, genre scenes, history subjects, animals, still-life objects, and patriotic emblems.3 Compositions were drawn from observation; borrowed from engravings, wallpaper, embroidered samplers, and design books; or simply invented.4

Massachusetts, where all three Worcester Art Museum overmantels originated, produced more landscapes of this type than any other American colony or state in the early Republic. The artists who painted them are believed to have been itinerant, probably because there was not enough work in any one community to provide an adequate income. There is no account of how decorative painters were trained, but presumably they learned by serving apprenticeships, as did other craftspeople in the eighteenth century. English trade manuals, such as the The Builder’s Dictionary (London, 1734), advised artisans on painting the exterior and trim of houses as well as decorative painting, including the suggestion that "Chimney-Pieces are worth about 2 s. per Chimney-Piece."5 Overmantel painters obtained pigments, linseed oil, and other supplies from apothecaries, from merchants who sold imported goods from the Atlantic trade, and, in Boston, from specialized color shops. The paintings themselves provide the best evidence about the artists who created them and the methods that they used.

1. Little 1952.

2. Ibid., 17–18.

3. For an example of a house portrait, see Overmantel from the Reverend Joseph Wheeler House. See Little 1952 for examples of hunting scenes (36, 54); genre scenes (frontispiece, 43, 48); history subjects (70); animals (31, 38); still lifes (19, 136); and patriotic emblems (50–51).

4. Little 1952, 24.

5. Builder’s Dictionary 1734, entry for "Painting," n.p.