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Manchester’s Double Portrait

by Joan K. Yanni, Docent Newsletter Editor-In-Chief

manchesterAmong the Memorial Art Gallery’s rich holdings in folk art (the enchanting Portrait of Josephine Dixon, for example, and the engaging Pierrepont Edward Lacey and His Dog, Gun) is a double portrait placed appropriately above an 18th-century sofa in the folk art–decorative art gallery. It is the unusual portrait of Judge and Mrs. Yates (41.30) by M.M. Manchester.

The painting shows a somber couple seated at either end of an Empire-style sofa. The man’s right arm lies across the back of the sofa, and in his left he holds a copy of William Paley’s Natural Theology, one of the most popular philosophical works of the 19th century–a reference to the man’s erudition. The work is finely detailed, with light playing across the satin drape behind the woman and illuminating her lace collar, her necklace and the brooch at her waist. She holds a pink rose in her lap, and a lacy scarf is draped across her right arm.

Both people are in formal attire–the man in a black waistcoat and the woman in a fitted blue dress. Though their clothing is detailed, it is stiff and shapeless, with no sign of a flesh-and-blood body underneath. Mrs. Yates’ bodice is draped, swag-like, across her chest, while the judge’s coat could be made of cardboard. Their faces are smooth and expressionless. He looks out at the viewer, while she stares into space. This was a period in which the man was the important head of the household. Is that why she looks sad and he looks imperious?

Between the two in the center of the painting is a window looking out on a surreal vista. It incorporates both the Old World and the New in a moonlit scene. In the background is a European vista including castles, ruins, and even the Tower of Pisa. In the center foreground is a log cabin. A strange mix, perhaps telling the viewer that the Judge was an educated and wealthy gentleman who had been on the Grand Tour of Europe in his youth. The log cabin may suggest that his roots were humble, his wealth coming from the hard work of his ancestors. Or perhaps the painter was demonstrating his knowledge of prints depicting European scenes.

And, as one examines the landscape more closely, a question arises: did the artist intend the scene in the window to be out-of-doors, or is it a painting on a window shade, popular in homes of the well-to-do after the 1830s? The more one looks, the more interesting the work becomes.

The painting was purchased by curator Isabel Herdle from the estate of Frederick W. Yates of Rochester in 1941. According to a surviving sister-in-law, the portrait had been handed down from the deceased’s father, Arthur Yates, Jr., who was an avid genealogist as well as a wealthy businessman.

The subject of the painting, Judge Arthur Yates (1807-1880), was the son of Dr. William Yates, reputed to be the first to introduce vaccination into America. Judge Yates was born in Butternuts, now Morris, NY, in Otsego County, but moved to Waverly in 1932. There he built Tioga County’s first steam saw mill and became a prosperous lumberman. A leading citizen of Waverly, he served as both village postmaster and Justice of the Peace before being appointed to the Tioga County Court in 1838. He married Jerusha Washburn of Butternuts, presumably the woman in the portrait, in 1836. Six children were born to the couple before she died at age 45.

The painting is signed and dated “M.M. Manchester, Artist, AD 1840.” It has been relined and the signature no longer shows, but photographs were taken for documentation. Who was M.M. Manchester? Though he was obviously an accomplished painter, little is known about him, and the Memorial Art Gallery’s is the only known signed work by the artist.

There were many itinerant painters at this time–artists, many lacking skills, who made a living by going from town to town, advertising their presence in local papers, showing an example of their work, and painting whatever townspeople were able to pay for a portrait. Manchester was no ordinary itinerant, though. His skill can be seen in the Yates portrait, and he was aware of the European tradition of the Grand Manner, of placing a subject in luxurious and elaborate, even if not authentic, surroundings and wearing fashionable clothes. Thus he must have been more than an unskilled folk art painter working in isolation. At some time he must have been in a city where skilled artists worked and where he could see the work of accomplished American painters or prints of works by European artists.

Still, it is strange that so little is known about such a talented painter. Research has found an obituary from the Cooperstown, NY, Freeman’s Journal for May 29, 1847, noting the death of an M.M. Manchester in the 38th year of his life. The death notice does not mention that this Manchester was an artist, and his name does not appear in Cooperstown census records or directories. No death certificate survives and apparently no will was probated in either Otsego or Chenango County. However, odds were against finding such records, since birth, death and marriage certificates were not regularly kept by the New York State Department of Health before 1880.

But the date of our painting and the location of the sitters would make it likely that this Manchester was the painter of our portrait. And an early death at age 38 would suggest a short career and might account for the small number of paintings by him that have been located.

In her article “A Yates Family Portrait by M.M. Manchester: Materials for a History,” Patricia Junker makes note of a double portrait, unsigned, but attributed to M.M. Manchester, and reproduced in The Magazine Antiques. This unsigned portrait uses the same composition as ours: a couple seated on either side of a sofa, with a view of a landscape seen in the center of the picture. The careful details of texture are similar, and light plays across the picture highlighting the fabric of the drapes in the background and the clothing of the sitters. The landscape is not European, however, but a panorama with a river steamer. The similarity of the style in the two portraits, however, indicates that the artist is the same.

The scarcity of works by such an accomplished artist is not only odd, but frustrating, and MAG’s unique double portrait begs for more research.

Source: Porticus, vol. IX, 1986: Patricia Junker: “A Yates Family Portrait by M. M. Manchester: Materials for a History” p. 21, and curatorial files.


Comment from Claudia D. Lowe
Time: October 17, 2009, 9:59 pm

I have an ancestor portrait done by M. M. Manchester in 1834. It is signed, dated and placed in Oswego, NY. I had it restored and appraised in 1980 and the restorer said that Manchester was an upstate NY painter listed in Young’s reference on early American artists and that you had another painting by Manchester. Family history says that the subject was a ship builder on Lake Erie. He is holding dividers, or calipers, and his arm rests on a ruler. The other arm is draped behind the chair. I am interested in selling it. Can you steer me toward a possible purchaser? I’m thinking that someone/some place in NY would be more interested than someone here in Maine, where I live.
Thank you for any information you can provide.

Comment from Marjorie Searl
Time: October 19, 2009, 10:54 pm

Thanks for your information, Claudia. Your painting sounds very interesting. I particularly love paintings such as the one you describe, where the artist has included details that refer to the sitter’s life and occupation. Interesting that the painting can be traced to Oswego, and yet family history says that the sitter was a ship builder on Lake Erie. Any chance he could have been a ship builder on Lake Ontario? Do you have the sitter’s name?

I’d be happy to email with you about this, if that would be helpful. My email is

Margie Searl, Chief Curator, MAG

Comment from Dog Leather Collars
Time: June 5, 2012, 12:22 pm

Good post here, keep up the amazing work.

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