Anson Dickinson: Milton’s Miniature Portraitist

Marker for the site of the Dickinson home, along Sawmill Road in Milton.

Litchfield’s borough of Milton, located in the northern part of town, derives its name from the several small mills located there along the Shepaug River.  One of those mills was the corn mill of brothers Benjamin and Oliver Dickinson.  Oliver was a master carpenter who counted among his constructions the Trinity Episcopal Church in Milton.  Around 1778, Oliver married Anna Landon, and their son Anson was born in 1779.

Tools of a silversmith

Around 1796, when he was 17, Anson became the apprentice of Isaac Thompson, a Litchfield silversmith.  Of his apprenticeship, it was written:

He was frequently observed to steal away to a retired chamber and spend hours of solitude, intent upon some deep and self-imposed task.  Some of the family finally discovered that he had been intently engaged in painting

Elizabeth Canfield Tallmadge, painted by Anson Dickinson. Courtesy of Litchfield Historical Society.

Dickinson’s work was evidently of such beauty that he was released from the terms of his apprenticeship, and he embarked on a career as a miniature portraitist.  In 1802, the following advertisement appeared in the Connecticut Journal:

Anson Dickinson has taken a room directly opposite the Episcopal Church, he he offers his services to the Ladies and Gentlemen of New Haven, in the line of MINIATURE PAINTING.

Dr. Daniel Sheldon of Litchfield, painted by Dickinson in 1831. Courtesy of Litchfield Historical Society.

The earliest known portrait by Dickinson is of his uncle, Abel Dickinson, which was painted on New Year’s Day, 1803, and is signed by the artists on the reverse side.  Litchfield, with several well-to-do residents and the students of the Sarah Pierce Academy and Tapping Reeve Law School provided a steady source of commissions when Dickinson’s practice was starting out.

Attorney Charles Perkins, painted by Anson Dickinson, likely when Perkins was a student at Tapping Reeve’s law school. Courtesy of Litchfield Historical Society.

A particular challenge for all miniature portraitists of the time period was obtaining the necessary equipment for the craft.  In addition to the pigments needed to ground into watercolors and the glycerins and gum arabic that were utilized to achieve consistency, Dickinson required magnifying and reducing glasses.  The reducing glass was used to secure the correct proportion for his subject, and the magnifying glass allowed for the fine detail work in his paintings.  Both of these required stands so that the artist’s hands were free to paint.

New York City, 1830

Soon, Dickinson exhausted the potential commissions of Litchfield, and embarked on a being an itinerant artist.  He traveled to New York, Albany, Montreal, and even Charleston, South Carolina between 1805 and 1812.  In 1812, Dickinson married Sarah Brown of New York City.  The couple settled in New York City, and in 1824 adopted two children.

“Colonel McIntyre” painted by Anson Dickinson around 1810.

Dickinson would spend the next eight years operating a New York studio, and became so well established that he no longer needed to seek out commissions.  In this eight year period, he painted almost three hundred portraits, including some of the most famous residents of the city.

Portrait of Asa Bacon by Anson Dickinson. Courtesy of Litchfield Historical Society.

In 1819, however, financial panic struck the city and the country, and Dickinson relocated his operations to Montreal and Quebec, and in 1822 moved to Boston.  A few years later, he had relocated to Washington, D.C.  He was unable, however, to rediscover the success he enjoyed before the panic, and returned to Connecticut in the early 1830s.

Again, we are left to ask: who erected this monument?

Dickinson died in Milton on March 9, 1852, at the age of 73.  He had spent over forty years traveling the United States and Canada to execute what many considered to be the finest American miniature portraits.  His tally of portraits exceeded 1500, an average of about one a week over the length of his career.  Celebrated in his own time, Dickinson has been largely forgotten in ours.  His works, however, grace the collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


Connecticut Tercentary Signs

Travelers entering Litchfield from the west encounter this tercentary sign as they pass Stop and Shop.

In 1935, Connecticut celebrated the tercentenary of its European settlement. It was an enormous undertaking, with over 3,000 events attended by more than 4 million people (the total population of the state was 1.6 million,which ranked it 29th in the country; in 2012, with 3.5 million residents, Connecticut still ranks 29th!).

The State Legislature created the Connecticut Tercentary Commission in 1929 to plan and oversee the commemoration.  Among its sponsored activities were special exhibits and ceremonies, musical events, pageants and parades, activities for schoolchildren, and special license plates.  Special coins were minted, and special stamps created.

Two undertakings of the Commission continue to serve their original purpose more than three quarters of a century later.  The first is the series of sixty pamphlets on Connecticut history published by Yale University Press for the Commission.  These pamphlets, authored by various Connecticut writers including Commission chairman Samuel Herbert Fisher, are all available at the Connecticut State Library.  Of particular interest to Litchfield are The Settlement of Litchfield County, The Litchfield Law School, 1775 – 1833, and Connecticut Portraits by Ralph Earl.

The east side of the sign between Stop and Shop and the Webster Bank. It bears Connecticut’s state motto, which translates to “He who transplanted still sustains” and the state seal, which shows three grapevines, one representing each of Connecticut’s three earliest settlements, Windsor, Wethersfield and Hartford.

More noticeable on the Litchfield landscape are the roadside historical markers erected by the Commission.  Thousands of cars pass Litchfield’s four signs every day, yet there is no indication on the signs about who put them up, when they were put up, or why.  There were 139 known signs erected to inform motorists about important episodes or people from Connecticut history.  However, as many of these signs were duplicate (for example, nine signs in Hartford told the passerby about a nearby 17th Dutch fort), there were 71 different historical sites marked by the Commission.

The west side of the sign located between Stop and Shop and the Webster Bank.

All the signs were 1.5 feet by 2 feet, and painted in the distinctive brown with white letters.  However, while most hung from poles, there was no uniform method for hanging the markers.

It is interesting to ponder, what sites were marked? What sites weren’t? In keeping with the historiographical attitudes of the time, it is not surprising to learn that many identified sites of military importance.  However, eleven of the signs identified sites of educational importance, and sites of literary importance were also well represented.  Litchfield’s markers reflect these trends.

This sign marking the Beecher homestead is located at the intersection of North Street and Prospect Street.

Signs mark the Litchfield home of the literary and theological Beechers …

Located along North Street. Note: If any town officials are reading, the tree around this sign needs to be trimmed!

… and Litchfield’s educational pioneers Sarah Pierce …

Located in front of the Tapping Reeve Home and Law School on South Street.

… and Tapping Reeve.  Yet no signs (at least no extant signs) mark the sites of homes of Revolutionary heroes Oliver Wolcott or Benjamin Tallmadge, further evidence that what is considered significant in history changes over time, and isn’t always cast in stone, or metal.