John Ritto Penniman
Born Milford, Massachusetts, about 1782. Died Baltimore, October 15, 1841.

John Ritto Penniman was a decorative painter, illustrator, and portraitist in greater Boston and central Massachusetts. Whereas most early American portraitists depended upon the merchant class for commissions, Penniman and other decorative painters relied more immediately upon a network of fellow craftsmen for their business. Their collaboratively made painted furniture and carriages were then sold to merchants and professionals. Penniman learned his trade through an apprenticeship and in turn trained Alvan Fisher (1792–1863) and Charles Codman (1800–1842). He was active in community organizations ranging from the Freemasons to Boston’s first art academy. Despite his achievements, Penniman suffered from excesses in drinking and severe financial difficulties, both of which marred the end of his career.

Penniman was the fifth of eleven children of Dr. Elias Penniman (1748–1830) and Anna Jenks Penniman (1754–1830). Although his birth date has not been confirmed, he was probably born late in 1782 and baptized January 1783 in Milford, Massachusetts.1 In his youth he lived in several towns in central Massachusetts—Milford, Hardwick, and Upton–as well as Providence, Rhode Island. In 1793, the Penniman family settled in the country town of Hardwick, about twenty miles west of Worcester.2 The artist’s father was not only a physician but also a successful retailer, and two of his sons were educated at Rhode Island College (now Brown University).3 Three of the artist’s brothers (Obadiah, 1776–1833; Sylvanus, 1781–1852; and Elias, 1787–1811) were booksellers, a fourth (William, 1778–1833) was an artist and inventor, and a fifth (Chiron, 1775–1815) was a teacher.4 Penniman’s sister Sally (1792–1864) married a prominent landowner named Franklin Ruggles (1786–1865) of Hardwick, and his sister Mary (1797–1837) married a prosperous lawyer named Jesse Bliss of West Brookfield.5 In short, the Pennimans were a middling family who had better than average educational and economic opportunities.

Penniman prepared for his trade through an apprenticeship to a decorative painter in Roxbury, Massachusetts, a town just south of Boston.6 Roxbury was then a center of artisan activity, particularly in clock and furniture making as well as in the allied trade of decorative painting. The name of Penniman’s teacher has not been discovered, although evidence suggests that he was a British emigré who did decorative painting for Simon (1753–1848) and Aaron Willard (1757–1844). The Willard brothers were noted makers of Federal-style clocks. At least five clock faces survive that were painted by Penniman during his apprenticeship, including two that he may have decorated as early as 1793 at the age of about eleven years. The clocks that he decorated were made by Simon Willard, Aaron Willard, and William Cummens (1768–1834), another Roxbury craftsman.

Upon completing his apprenticeship and reaching majority age in 1803, Penniman opened his own shop, first in Roxbury, and then in Boston.7 Moving among several addresses, Penniman maintained his business in Boston until about 1830. He earned commissions through the network of clock and furniture makers, including the Willards and John Doggett (1780–1857), for whom he began painting as an apprentice. Penniman also formed new associations in Boston with carriage painters, cabinetmakers, and architects.

On September 11, 1805, shortly after he commenced his independent career, Penniman married Susanna (or Susan) Bartlett (1781–1870) in Boston. Her parents were Susan Swift Bartlett (1757–1813) and William Bartlett (1750–1837) of Pleasant Street, near the artist’s studio. The Pennimans had four children, including a son John (died 1850) who became a lithographer in Baltimore and New York.8

Penniman’s career as a decorative painter flourished. An advertisement placed later in newspapers published in Boston, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and Portland, Maine, suggests the scope of his work:

JOHN R. PENNIMAN...will execute MILITARY STANDARDS, with original designs — CLOCK DIALS for Steeples, and the inside of Public Edifices — MASONIC PAINTING of every description — Designs for Masonic and other Diploma — ORIGINAL VIGNETTES for title pages — Sign & Ornamental Painting, in all their various branches — LANDSCAPE PAINTING — VIEWS OF GENTLEMEN’S SEATS, if required.9

Figure 1. Thomas Seymour, Commode, 1809, Painted by John Ritto Penniman and probably carved by Thomas Whitman, mahogany, satinwood, bird’s-eye maple, and rosewood veneer; white pine, curly maple and chestnut; 41 1/2 x 50 x 24 1/2 diam. in. (105.4 x 127 x 62.2 diam. cm), Musuem of Fine Arts, Boston, The M. and M. Karolik Collection of Eighteenth-Century American Arts, 23.19. Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Reproduced with permission. © 2000 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. All Rights Reserved.
A still life with shells and leaves (fig. 1) painted on top of a commode made by Thomas Seymour (1771–1848) is among Penniman’s most elegant furniture decorations. Here Penniman employed light and shadow to create a believable illusion of the shells in space. The naturalistic depiction and asymmetry of the objects in the still life complement the geometric regularity of Seymour’s alternating rays of light and dark wood inlay. Penniman also continued to decorate the faces and glass inserts of clocks. For example, in 1817, he painted The Entrance of Jesus Christ into the City of Jerusalem on the glass tablet of an Aaron Willard clock that was presented by Jeremiah Fitch of Boston to the First Parish Church of Bedford, Massachusetts, where it remains.10

Penniman was successful in earning commissions in all branches of his trade. He designed military standards for the Portland Rifle Company (1811, location unknown) and the United States Corps of Cadets (1821, location unknown).11 Among the decorations that Penniman created for public buildings is a large canvas representing The Last Supper (1812) and four tablets inscribed in gold with the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’

Figure 2. John Ritto Penniman, Design for a Membership Certificate for the Massachusetts Mechanic Association, pen and ink, and ink wash on paper, 10 3/4 x 15 5/16 (27.3 x 38.9 cm), American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts. Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society.

Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer, all painted for the Christ Church in Boston.12 In 1810, Penniman became a member of the St. John’s Lodge of the Freemasons, an affiliation which likely enabled him to earn commissions in 1816 to decorate the Columbian Lodge of Boston and in 1821 to paint the interior of the Masonic Hall in the Old State House.13 Penniman also designed Masonic certificates for several lodges in Massachusetts and Maine.14 In 1818, Penniman became a member of the Massachusetts Mechanic Association and designed its membership certificate (fig. 2).15

Penniman designed a wide array of printed material, including trade cards, bill heads, membership certificates, and book illustrations.16 Although not documented, it seems likely that his three brothers working in the book trade helped to advance this aspect of his business. Penniman claimed to have made the first lithograph in this country in 1826.17 However, that distinction belongs to Bass Otis, who in 1819 drew the first design on a lithographic stone that was printed in Philadelphia.18 Still, Penniman was among the earliest lithographers in America, and was one of the first artists to work for the noted Pendleton Lithographic Press, which was founded in Boston in 1825.19

Figure 3. John Ritto Penniman, Self-Portrait in Miniature, 1796, oil on paper, 3 x 2 1/4 inches (7.6 x 5.7 cm), private collection.

Although Penniman’s work consisted mainly of decorative painting and illustration, he began painting portraits early in his career and aspired to achieve in the "the higher branches of his art."20 One particularly revealing early effort is his Self-Portrait in Miniature (fig. 3). While the features are carefully delineated, the eyes appear disproportionately small. A shadow helps to set the nose in space, although there is relatively little modeling in the rest of the face. Penniman depicted himself wearing a red kerchief at the neck, which appears to signify the clothes of a farmer. Despite its limitations, this early effort suggests that Penniman hoped to develop his talents at portraiture.

In 1804, about the time he moved from Roxbury to Boston, Penniman purchased six carved gilt frames from John Doggett.21 That year Penniman painted portraits of at least three members of the Willard family: Aaron (1757–1844), Aaron, Jr. (1783–1864), and Nancy (born 1786). He also painted Portrait of a Man, which demonstrates the advances the young painter had made in the eight years since he created his early self-portrait (fig. 3). Although still relatively limited in his ability to convey the three-dimensionality of the figure, his drawing had become more precise and his sense of color was now richer. Penniman’s other early portraits depict family members and business associates, including his wife (about 1805, location unknown), his mother-in-law (about 1805, location unknown), and fellow decorative painter Spencer Nolen (1784–1849) (1806, The Butler Institute of Art, Youngstown, Ohio).22 Further suggestive of Penniman’s aspirations as a fine artist, he developed a friendship with Gilbert Stuart.23 Penniman ground pigments for Stuart and drew a pencil copy (location unknown) of one of Stuart’s portraits of George Washington; he even named his first child after the well-known artist.24

Although relatively few portraits are known from the middle of Penniman’s career, he more actively painted portraits in the 1820s. While he maintained his business in Boston, Penniman earned a number commissions for portraits among his friends and family in the central Massachusetts towns of Hardwick and West Brookfield. Penniman eventually opened a studio in West Brookfield in 1830. His mature portrait style integrates his decorative use of bold color and crisp lines with his improved draftsmanship. Portraits painted 1828–30 of his sister-in-law Elizabeth Bartlett Nolen and her husband Henry Nolen demonstrate this synthesis of ornamental and fine art in their linear depiction of figure, costume, and furniture. The blend of the two fields is also evident in Edward Tuckerman, in which a trompe l’oeil neoclassical frame of fasces and ribbon surrounds a profile portrait.

Figure 4. John Ritto Penniman, Meeting House Hill, Roxbury, Massachusetts, 1799, oil, on canvas, 29 x 37 in. (73.7 x 94 cm), The Art Institute of Chicago, Centennial Year Acquisition and the Centennial Fund for Major Acquisitions, 1979.1461. digital file © 2000 The Art Institute of Chicago. All Rights Reserved.

One of Penniman’s most memorable landscapes is Meeting House Hill, Roxbury, Massachusetts (fig. 4), which records the village where he served his apprenticeship. In an attempt to move beyond such early topographical landscapes, Penniman later painted romantic Italianate landscapes in the manner of his contemporary Washington Allston.25Among Penniman’s romantic landscapes is View of the Greek Ruins at Paestum (1819–1825, Fruitlands Museum, Harvard, Mass.), which he painted for the statesman and classicist Edward Everett (1794—1865). Perhaps Penniman’s greatest contribution to American landscape painting is that he taught Alvan Fisher and John Codman, who were among the first professional fine art landscape painters in this country.26 Prior to the 1820s, landscape was typically a branch of ornamental painting or a sidelight to portraiture, as in the example of Ralph Earl. Penniman also created history, genre, animal, and still-life paintings.

Among Penniman’s more ambitious canvases were two murals that he painted for public display. Conflagration of the Exchange Coffee House, Boston (1824, private collection) depicts the famous Boston fire of an enormous commercial complex that was designed by the architect Asher Benjamin. That easel painting likely preserves the composition of the fifteen-foot-square transparent mural that Penniman created in 1819 (location unknown) of the same subject.27 Transparencies were painted on oiled paper and backlit to create a degree of luminosity that is not possible on canvas. The effect of the fire must have been especially effective in that illuminated medium. Penniman created the mural as a business venture and charged visitors a twenty-five cent admission fee to see the painting.28 At about the same time, Penniman created another large painting that represented the Gloucester sea serpent, a large eel whose reported size and reputation grew to legendary proportions. As did the creators of other monumental paintings in the period, Penniman sent the painting on tour. For instance, in 1818 it was exhibited at Peale’s Museum in Philadelphia, which was the first successful museum of art and science in America. The painting was described in a newspaper advertisement as "a Canvass of 19 feet by 9, painted by Mr. R. Pennyman, of Boston, being a beautiful representation of the City and Harbour of Cape Ann, or Gloucester, and the various Boats which were engaged in the pursuit of this Monster, which is in full view."29

Penniman’s steady output in Boston suggests that he was a highly regarded artist. However, in the 1820s his career deteriorated as a consequence of a series of personal setbacks. In 1821 he was dismissed from the Masons, apparently because he suffered from a drinking problem.30 Penniman held an auction in 1827 to sell his paintings and art supplies, and stated that he intended to "follow his inclination in the higher branches of his art."31 The sale included a "Case for Crayons; 1 Case containing Miniature Apparatus; a Patent Perspective Machine; 1 Case prepared for a Portrait or Landscape Painter; 1 Box Colored Crayons; 1 Case containing an Elegant set of French Colors with Apparatus." Penniman also sold "a large number of Choice Prints and Engravings, suitable for artists or amateurs," including a "Set of Hogarth’s Original Prints."32 Despite the optimistic note of brighter pursuits ahead, the sale hinted at severe financial troubles. In 1829 and again in 1830 Penniman was detained in the House of Industry for his inability to pay his debts.33 And in 1834 he was incarcerated in Boston for printing counterfeit money. The absence of work from the last five years of his life suggests that his decline became more severe, and contemporary reports indicate that he was a broken man at the end of his life.34 In 1841 Penniman died in Baltimore where his son John and brother-in-law George Bartlett (1792–1874) had settled.

1. Andrews 1981, 147. Carol Damon Andrews generously offered helpful comments on an earlier draft of the biography of John Ritto Penniman. See Andrews to Laura K. Mills, May 23, 2000, and Andrews to David R. Brigham, May 29, 2000, artist file, Worcester Art Museum.

2. Andrews 1981, 147.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid., 158 n. 1.

5. Ibid., 155 and 158 n. 1 and 7.

6. Ibid., 147.

7. Ibid., 149.

8. Ibid., 161 n. 22 and 163 n. 49.

9. Eastern Argus, Portland, Maine, July 9, 1822.

10. Andrews 1982, addendum to the checklist.

11. Andrews 1981, 166 and 168.

12. Ibid., 152 and 166.

13. Ibid., 153 and 168.

14. Ibid., 167 and 168.

15. Ibid., 154; and Andrews 1982, addendum to the checklist.

16. Ibid., 165–70 and Andrews 1982, addendum to the checklist.

17. Andrews 1981, 156.

18. Adams 1983, 5. I thank my colleague David Acton for this citation.

19. Taylor 1922, 74; and Andrews 1981, 156.

20. Saturday Evening Globe, Boston, April 28 and May 2, 1827, quoted in Andrews 1981, 156.

21. Andrews 1981, 151.

22. Andrews 1982, introduction, n.p.

23. Andrews 1981, 153.

24. Swan 1941, 246–7.

25. Andrews 1981, 157.

26. Although Penniman’s interest in landscape surely had a positive influence on Fisher’s career, the younger painter later claimed that the decorative style taught to him by Penniman was a limitation which he had to overcome through years of effort. Andrews 1981, 163 n 39.

27. Andrews 1981, 154 and 156. For Codman, see Pamela A. Henne, in Nygren 1986, 243–4; and for Fisher, see Nygren 1986, 257–8.

28. Columbian Centinel, Boston, November 3, 1819.

29. The advertisement appears in Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser, Philadelphia, March 9, 1818. For another advertisement, see The Union, Philadelphia, March 10, 1818.

30. Andrews 1981, 155.

31. Andrews 1981, 156.

32. Columbian Centinel, Boston, April 1827 and May 2, 1827, quoted in Swan 1941, 248.

33. Andrews 1981, 156.

34. Andrews 1981, 157.