Forward Continental European after 1800, Dress and Textiles, London: Artists and Subjects, Portraits: British 20th C 29 Is the sitter the artist’s ex-wife, and how did this portrait arrive in this Collection?

Portrait of a Lady
Topic: Artist

[In a recent submission the Collection have agreed with Kieran Owens who suggested that this portrait is by the little-known American painter John Henderson Trubee (1895-1964)].


Quite why such a painting, with its jazz-age sensibilities, should be in the collection has yet to be ascertained. [The Collection are currently checking for acquisition information]


[Kieran’s previous submission about Trubee] ‘The son of Frank Curtis Trubee, John Henderson Trubee was born in Buffalo, New York, on the 31st January 1895. He appears in the 1920 US census as an artist. On the 1st October 1923, again with the occupation of artist, he made a passport application for the purpose of studying art in France. He departed for there from the USA on the following 20th October. His passport application photograph is attached.

On the 8th August 1925, Trubee was married in Paris to Janet Harlan (1902-1989), of Chicago. In April 1926, Buffalo newspapers reported that several members of the artist's family sailed to France to join him and his wife in Nice. The marriage was, alas, short-lived, and on the 6th September 1930, The Post Star newspaper of New York reported the following:

"Reno, Nevada, September 5th - Mrs. Janet Harlan Trubee, granddaughter of the late John Marshall Harlan, who was a justice of the United States Supreme Court, has been granted a divorce from John H. Trubee, a resident of Paris, France." According to newspaper reports, he deserted his wife at Lake Placid, New York, in 1928.
On the 14th October 1931, Trubee sailed as a Tourist Class passenger from Southampton, arriving in New York on the 20th October, on the White Star Line's 'S.S. Majestic'. This was possibly the time of his permanent return to the USA.

He died on the 23rd August 1964. On the 26th August 1964, the New York Daily Post ran the following notice: "John H. Trubee - A memorial service for John Henderson Trubee, 69, portrait painter, will be held at 2pm today at St. Bartholomew's Church, Park Avenue and 50th Street. He lived at 434 East 52nd Street." Trubee is buried in Jerusalem Corners Cemetery,
Jerusalem Corners, Erie County, New York, USA: https://bit.ly/3EJ72So’'


There is a possibility that the sitter is the artist's wife, Janet Harlan. Her photograph (attached) appeared in the Buffalo Sunday Times of 23rd August 1925, so the portrait could be of her, six years older, and painted by Trubee in the year after their divorce.

Kieran Owens, Entry reviewed by Art UK

29 comments

Gill Hedley,

There is a photo in the Met of the couple on their wedding day but it cannot be downloaded. It is also amazingly unhelpful in terms of identification but a fascinating photo.

Kieran Owens,

Attached is a three-image composite of this portrait with two known photographs of Janet Harlan. Her thin and long eyebrows and the place where her hair parts appear similar in all three images.

Martin Hopkinson,

The coal mining of Harlan County, Kentucky in the Appalchians is known for its folk and country music, but this may well be coincidence
xee George Davis' Harlan County Blues

Jacinto Regalado,

It might be the ex-wife, but the evidence is not conclusive.

Kieran Owens,

With respect, Jacinto, if the evidence was conclusive this Discussion would not have been posted.

Kieran Owens,

With respect, Jacinto, had the evidence been conclusive, this Discussion would never have been posted.

Jacinto Regalado,

In 1931, Janet Harlan was 29. The sitter in this portrait looks older to me, quite possibly in her forties.

Jacinto Regalado,

And Kieran, I should have said that the evidence, obviously thus far, is not sufficiently convincing, hence the need for more evidence and, implicitly, this discussion.

Tamsyn Taylor,

I am going to say what I have said before. A painted portrait is a likeness. It isn't a photo taken for the purpose of scientifically identifying the sitter.
One of the things that you cannot trust is the apparent age of the person, since the elements that might make a person look 10 years older than they were at the time, may be quite subtle.
And the precise proportions of the face may not be measurably the same as in a photo.
The other consideration is that an artist may work hard on getting some elements of the face correct and paint others in a generic manner. Ears, for example.
That said- I think that the three images in the composite represent the same person.
The forehead is straight, not rounded, and the hair springs from about the same height in each picture.
The eyebrows are a notable feature of this sitter, and the artist has paid attention to them. They spring from close to the bridge of the nose, and low towards the eye, arching upward in a curve.
The amount of eyelid showing beneath the upper fold is comparable, given that in the painting, the sitter is looking downwards.
The bridge of the nose is markedly high, and this is another distinctive feature of this particular face.
The proportions from eyes to nose to chin are similar. the proportions from nose to mouth to chin are similar.
The coloured part of the lips is quite thin in every case.
The curve of the lips and general facial expression is similar, despite the face that the painted image is looking in a different direction.

I can't see any evidence for these NOT being all the same person.
My analysis (for what it is worth) would lead me to think they ARE the same person.

Howard Jones,

Tamsyn Taylor above pours cold water on the question whether painted portraits can help with establishing the sitters identity and then provides a very strong case for identifying the portrait as the artists wife based on the unusually high proportion of similar facial characteristics.

I think we can safely say either this is a portrait of or else it portrays another woman who looked virtually identical.

Art experts are wary of accepting the merits of any sort of facial recognition and it is even described as a dangerous practice.

There are extraordinary works of art from ancient Egypt from the 3rd,2nd, and 1st centuries BCE. For one hundred years Egyptian art experts like Cyril Aldred, doyen of Egyptian art studies, insisted ancient artist had no concept of lifelike art. One art expert even claimed he had produced a mathematical proof that the bust of Nefertiti must have been an imaginary portrait of the antiquity's most famous Queen.

Today art experts should know better and it getting to the stage where we might conclude it is racist to continue to maintain Aldred's line of argument for art from ancient foreign lands.

Techniques for producing facial reconstructions first developed by Prof Gerasimov in Moscow have enabled lifelike reconstructions to be made from the skulls of Royal mummies. One of these mummies bears a remarkably clear resemblance to the famous bust of Nefertiti still in Berlin. Most of the independent examinations of the mummy rule out an identification of this young Lady as Nefertiti her age at death shows she died while still a teenager. However Nefertiti had six daughters and it appears highly probable this Lady is Princess Meritaten her eldest daughter. The mummy has two small cosmetic perforations in her ear lobe. Egyptian and Amarna artists were often good at accurately reproducing lifelike ear patterns and several of the statues of the Amarna Princesses indicate identical double ear perforations.

It is unhelpful for modern art experts to constantly undermine the ability of artists, ancient or modern, to reproduce recognisable lifelike portraits and people's ability to recognise the portraits of different people.

Where no other initial evidence such as provenance is available facial recognition can often tell us where to start looking for the identification of the sitter and in many instances this original recognition will turn out to be the correct.

Alison Golding,

The starting point for any art lesson is about looking. Why anyone who has an individual person in front of them for the purposes of being painted would ignore that person in front of them and reproduce for example a "generic ear" is beyond me. Perhaps it might happen if the painting were finished at a different time or from insufficient recollection without the subject available? I suppose some very early pictures where style overrides much of the individuality might also be an exception. None of those seems the case here, or in most cases - there might be limited detail, but if there is detail it seems highly unlikely to be made up out of whole cloth.

Kieran Owens,

If Trubee's marriage collapsed as a result of some infidelity with another woman, the divorce papers, if any such exist at Reno, might name that person and lead to an identification of the sitter in the portrait as being her. However, a better way forward for now might be for the collection to scour its records to see how and why this portrait ended up in its possession.

Also, the third photograph in the attached re-ordered composite dates from 1923 and is taken from the yearbook of Smith College High School, Northampton, Massachusetts, when Harlan was 21.

Jacinto Regalado,

Our sitter, apart from looking older than 29 to me, looks harsher or more "hard-boiled" than the photos of Harlan from a few years earlier. The eyebrows are more likely to be what was then fashionable than a distinctive personal trait. I agree that provenance must be looked into, especially since this picture would seem to be in the wrong collection.

Martin Hopkinson,

This sitter presumably has some connection with the English Folk Song and Dance movement in which the most important figure was Cecil Sharp.
Are sure thatTrubee is the artist and not a painter with greater connections with Britain?

Andrew Shore,

Would it make more sense for the sitter to be related to the collection? Would someone like Ursula Vaughan Williams (the composer's second wife, and latterly President of the English Folk Dance and Song Society) be a more obvious connection? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ursula_Vaughan_Williams

Most images of her seem to be from when she was much older, but there are some photos of her online as a younger woman, for example on the cover of this book: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Complete-Poems-Ursula-Vaughan-Williams/dp/0952870657 or in this article by John Bridcut: https://bit.ly/3arOQi1

I'm not saying it's her (she would have been 20 in 1931) – she is just one of a number of other prominent women who were key members of the Society over time.

Mark Wilson,

The picture is signed with what looks very much like "Trubee '31" in the top right corner and the signature matches the one in the same position on a picture here (https://bit.ly/3DsNJeL) credited to John Trubee. And a very similar subject illustrated here (https://bit.ly/2YqtEX7) of "Miss Caroline Bancroft with a painting of herself by John Trubee in Paris in 1924". And here's yet another pretty young lady in the 20s with bobbed hair, looking right (https://bit.ly/3iJRpRm). You might say he had a type.

So it is signed and is similar to other portraits from the same period and suggests Trubee is the painter. But it also hints that the resemblance to his (ex-)wife, for which Tamsyn makes a very good case, might be a bit muddied by generic similarity to his usual subjects. I'm tempted to assume this isn't of Janet Harlan, simply because you don't really sit to be painted by a man who deserted you three years before and from whom you have just been embarrassingly divorced, but she's probably the best match at the moment. Though if this was painted before John Trubee's return to the US in October 1931, she may not even have been on the same continent.

The style of the painting doesn't quite match the others, possibly earlier ones, being less finished. That may reflect a change in style, though I can't find any later paintings, or just mean this was ore of a sketch. The collection may be able to dig out more to hint at the sitter, but I suspect you may need to look at young ladies from well-off families who were in Paris in the late 20s/early 30s and who had some connection with the EFDSS. There's probably a lot as women were very prominent in the Society from the start.

Kieran Owens,

The paintings that are reference in the comment above were included in the original posting of this discussion, in the last attachment.

Osmund Bullock,

I don't think you can blame anyone for missing those, Kieran: it was an exceptionally long and dense introduction, with an awful lot of attachments! I was skimming by the end, and I certainly missed them...and in fact I still can't see the Caroline Bancroft one, which is I think the most like our sitter.

I agree with all of what Mark says, especially his view that it's unlikely (though not impossible) that Janet Harlan sat for the man who'd deserted her three years earlier, and who she'd only just divorced. I would also expand on his idea that Trubee may have had a tendency to paint women who looked, or were made to look somewhat alike. Many people are sexually / emotionally attracted to a particular physical 'type', and have serial lovers / partners who conform to it: it wouldn't surprise me if Janet's replacement (if there was one) looked rather like her, though of course I have no evidence for it. Certainly it's no less likely a scenario than that his recently-ex wife sat for him; and though the likeness to the 1923 photograph is pretty good, I wouldn't call it conclusive by a long chalk - one can excuse the over-sized eyes, narrower chin and slightly fuller lips of the 1925 image, as it's clearly a photo of another portrait.

I fear this one's going to be hard to nail unless the Collection (or the back of the picture) can reveal more.

Osmund Bullock,

Janet F(lagg)** Harlan remarried on 26 August 1931 at Kingman, Arizona, which must reduce still further (though not eliminate completely) the chances that she sat to her ex-husband the same year. She was then living in Riverside, California (50 miles or so east of LA), and her second husband Walter H Stevenson was just 21 - she unsurprisingly knocked a few years off her own age ("25" last birthday - she was actually 10 days short of 29). She married a third time in 1937. See https://bit.ly/3FroLhH and attached.

(**Flagg was her mother's maiden name)

Howard Jones,

Do we know what the green material wrapped around her left wrist represents?

Jacinto Regalado,

If this is Harlan in 1931, the failure of her first marriage must have hardened and embittered her considerably, or so it looks.

Kieran Owens,

Some results are also to be found by searching for "Janet Harlan White".

Tamsyn Taylor,

In response to Howard Jones, I am not "pouring cold water on the question whether painted portraits can help with establishing the sitters identity" .
I believe that they can.
I am also very much aware of the reasons why two portraits of the same person may be MEASURABLY quite different.
And of the fact that some artists, Peter Lely, for example, overlaid a particular set of features on every female face he ever painted.
If an artist is really looking at the subject, and painting what they see, then, yes, the likeness to the sitter may be a very accurate record of their appearance.

Kieran Owens,

Another photograph of Janet Flagg Harlan, from her passport application - of the 3rd October 1923, when she was 21 - to enable her to travel to Italy, Spain, England, Austria, Belgium, Germany and Switzerland, is presented in the attached composite. She sailed to from New York to Europe on the S.S. Orduña on the 13th October 1923.

Jacinto Regalado,

I get a very different feel from those two images, Kieran. If they are both Harlan, she was a different woman by 1931.

Louis Musgrove,

I cannot find any portrait paintings by Trubee except the ones referenced by Mark Wilson. Those paintings look a very different style and dare I say, by a very talented person.The Trubee signature is similar to our painting here.Hmn!??? ---Here for comparison is an english painting of a similar date and style of Lady Mary Pakenham.
https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/lady-mary-pakenham-133129/search/venue:southampton-city-art-gallery-4670/sort_by/date_earliest/order/asc/page/16

Kieran Owens,

Louis, are you suggesting that the portrait is not by Trubee, despite the near-identical signatures?

Please support your comments with evidence or arguments.

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