Self-taught artists proliferated during the presidency of Andrew Jackson, a self-made man, much to the chagrin of some critical writers who deplored these “cheap workmen” who afforded portraits to average Americans interested in demonstrating culture by adorning their walls and mantels with art. Dr. Samuel Addison Shute and Ruth Whittier Shute were among the artists whose affordable watercolor portraits captured a segment of society whose faces and lives might otherwise be unknown today. They began their unusual artistic partnership soon after they were married in 1827. Their respective roles in this collaboration are indicated on some portraits by the inscription “Drawn by R. W. Shute / and / Painted by S. A. Shute.” Most of the watercolors feature vigorous diagonal or horizontal strokes in the background. The Shutes also employed a number of unusual techniques and materials in their work. Watercolors were supplemented with pastel, gouache, pencil, collage, and gum arabic; areas of paper were even left blank to suggest transparency and other effects.
The small scale of the Burnham portraits is highly unusual; the Shutes typically worked on large-format paper. Ruth Shute may have known the Burnhams from her hometown of Dover, New Hampshire, where the Burnhams were married in 1827. Their families were further associated through Josiah Burnham’s work as a spinner at the Cocheco Mill in Dover, which was built on land owned by Ruth’s father. They may also have shared activities relating to music, as Josiah chose to include a music book in his portrait and it is known that Ruth was a musician.
Stacy C. Hollander, “Josiah C. Burnham/Abigail S. Burnham,” exhibition label for Self-Taught Genius: Treasures from the American Folk Art Museum. Stacy C. Hollander and Valérie Rousseau, curators. New York: American Folk Art Museum, 2014.