May 13, 2014–January 8, 2017


c. 1797

Oil on paperboard, mounted on Masonite

34 x 24"

Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York

Gift of Ralph Esmerian, 2005.8.1

Photo courtesy Sotheby's, New York

Artist unidentified

Jonathan Knight

The artist who painted this gentle portrait of Jonathan Knight (1789–1864) is not yet identified, but the portrait itself is in the straightforward style of self-taught genius established after the Revolutionary War. The simple interior is painted Prussian blue, the ubiquitous “medium blew” found in early American homes. Knight sits in a painted Windsor chair with bold turned legs, a cat curled on the patterned floorcloth beneath his feet. He is reading a book of proverbs open to Psalm I Kings 3:7: “I am but a little child.” Knight was probably at least seven or eight years old when this portrait was painted; he has already been breeched—put into long pants—and wears adult-style clothing. An early portrait, perhaps of his mother or grandmother, hangs on the wall behind him.

Knight’s father had been an army surgeon during the war, and his mother was the daughter of a physician. Their son followed in these footsteps, training generations of doctors at Yale for more than fifty years. In 1838 Knight was appointed to the Chair of Surgery at Yale School of Medicine and was instrumental in the formation of the American Medical Association, serving as its first president. After his death, one biographer wrote, “The ‘beloved physician’ was the well earned title given him by all who knew him.”

Stacy C. Hollander, “Jonathan Knight,” 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.