Nelson Cook was very inconsistent when inscribing his portraits. At times he included various combinations of his name, the sitter’s name, the date, and/or the location. And at other times, Cook either did not inscribe his portrait at all, or his inscription did not survive due to damage, or the conservator made the inexplicable decision not to keep the inscription as part of the restoration. This special section will take you through the process this site’s caretakers used to identify a sitter who was unnamed by Cook.
In July 2021 the portrait to the right was being auctioned by Coyle’s in Medway, MA. This was a case where Cook did not identify the sitter as part of his inscription, only that he painted it in 1857. As such, Coyle’s auction catalogue simply described the painting as “Oval portrait signed by Nelson Cook 1857.” The caretakers of this site first became aware of this painting a few days before the auction date. The portrait was a classic Cook – red chair, intricate lace detail, realistic facial features, and an inscription on the back in Cook’s distinctive hand. But who was the unknown woman in the painting? Were there any clues to her identity?
The first step was to determine if there were any other 1857 portraits already residing on the Cook website, under the theory that Cook may have painted more than one family member and perhaps the unknown sitter was related to one of them. In fact, there were seven other 1857 portraits. Of these seven, two were themselves unidentified, which eliminated them from our mission. The description of another 1857 painting unconvincingly said the sitter might be Nelson’s brother, Ransom. But the description was so vague, it didn’t warrant further research. That left four portraits that might possibly have some connection to the “unknown woman” at Coyle’s.
The first candidate was DeWitt Clinton Hay, who was 40 years old when his 1857 portrait was done by Cook. Hay’s first wife died in 1861, and in 1857 she would have been about 32 years of age. Far too young to be our unknown sitter, who appears to be in her 60s. So, could this portrait be Hay’s mother? Perhaps. We kept Hay in the running as a possible connection to our unknown sitter and moved on to the next portrait.
Ellen Harden Walworth also sat for Cook in 1857. Ellen was both the step daughter and daughter-in-law of New York Chancellor Reuben Walworth, who Cook painted in 1840. And Cook also painted the Chancellor’s first wife, Maria Ketchum Averill Walworth in 1841. Although there is no known record of Cook ever having painted Reuben’s second wife, Sarah Ellen Smith Hardin Walworth, could she possibly be the unknown woman in Cook’s 1857 portrait? Not likely, because Ellen Walworth would have been only 46 in 1857; again, too young to be the 60-something sitter in the portrait at Coyle’s. But perhaps there’s another Walworth family link. So, while keeping this possible unknown Walworth family relationship as a candidate, we went on to the final two portraits requiring investigation.
Dr. Samuel Freeman and his daughter, Helen Freeman Woodbridge, were both painted by Cook in 1857. But something immediately struck us: Where’s the wife/mother? Why would the Freemans have commissioned Cook to paint only two family members, when Mrs. Freeman was alive and well in 1857 at the age of 69? It didn’t add up. But wait a minute, at the age of 69? Couldn’t the woman in Coyle’s painting be about 69 years old? Of course she could! Perhaps we were onto something here.
The next thing we noticed was Coyle’s “unknown woman” and Helen Freeman Woodbridge were both placed in oval frames by Cook. Wouldn’t it make perfect sense for there to be three family portraits arranged on a wall with Dr. Freeman’s rectangular frame flanked by the two women ovals? Especially since the two women would have been facing each other when properly displayed. The case of the unknown Cook sitter tightened up a bit more.
Of the over 160 Cook portraits known to exist, we knew of no instance where Cook had painted a family grouping consisting of three separate portraits depicting mother, father, and child. If our “unknown woman” was the Freemans’ missing wife/mother, why would this be the first Cook family trio known to exist? Was there something unique about this family that they would have especially wanted to be forever linked on three Cook canvases? Or expressed differently, why would it have been so important for Mother and Father Freeman to include only one of their known seven children as one of Cook’s sitters? Where were the other six Freeman offspring? A quick internet search yielded the answer. Daughter Helen’s six siblings never made it to advanced adulthood, and all six had died prior to 1857 when Cook had painted Dr. Freeman and his one surviving daughter. All the more reason for Cook to have also painted Mrs. Freeman --- what better way to memorialize the strong maternal bond between a mother and her one remaining child than to have also included the mother as one of Cook’s sitters. So, logically it made perfect sense that our “unknown woman” might very well be Mrs. Freeman. But were there any telling clues in the portraits themselves?
For that bit of detective work, we started by comparing Coyle’s portrait with Cook’s rendering of daughter Helen. One limiting factor in gaining any artistic insights from this comparison was that while we had a color image of the “unknown woman,” we only had a black and white image of Helen. Despite this inability to infer any clues from color similarities, were there other discernable clues to be found in the two paintings that would help us link them together? And then we saw it. Below are the two portraits side by side – “unknown woman” on the left and Dr. Freeman’s daughter, Helen, on the right. Several things were immediately apparent. Both women had intricate, lacework collars and both had very similar brooches at their throats. But far more telling, both women were wearing identical dark wraps with ermine-fur trim. No other Cook sitters had ermine-trimmed wraps, suggesting this was not an overused, mid-19th century fashion statement. This was our most compelling clue yet that both sitters, indeed, might be connected.
Although daughter Helen was only available to us in black and white, as part of her biographical profile we had put on the Cook website many years before, we had included the next best thing to a color image – a description of the portrait by the Frick Art Reference Library in NYC, which focused on the portrait’s otherwise unavailable color elements. And the last color comment from the Frick….“Background changing from buff to brown.” That was an especially interesting observation. With a closer look over the shoulders of Coyle’s “unknown woman,” we immediately saw precisely what the Frick was talking about – her background very definitely changed “from buff to brown.” Yet, another very convincing clue in our investigation.
At this point we felt 95% certain that the Cook portrait being auctioned by Coyle’s in one day’s time was indeed Mrs. Helen Van Rensselaer Woodruff Freeman, wife of Dr. Samuel Freeman and mother of Helen (Freeman) Woodruff. We quickly sent our analysis to Coyle’s, who was able to provide our findings to prospective buyers prior to making their bids. “Unknown woman” was unknown no longer. Mrs. Freeman sold for $520, including the buyer’s premium. Identity solved! Case closed! Or was it….?
Several days after the July 27 auction, the Cook website caretakers received an email from the new owner of Cook’s Mrs. Freeman. But there was a twist. The sender of the email was not who had purchased the portrait at the auction. The auction’s winning bidder had immediately flipped the painting, and it was the new owner who had reached out to us via the Cook website. The original auction owner had provided the new owner with a copy of our identity analysis, which he found very interesting. So interesting, in fact, that he took our analysis one step further – he reversed daughter Helen’s portrait image and superimposed it on her mother’s. And the end result moved our identity certainty all the way up to 100%. Take a look, and see if you don’t agree….
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