December 29, 2015
In 1943, Brooklyn artist Esta Cosgrave (née Esther Flack) (ca. 1900–1952) adopted a quirky style of painting modern-day likenesses in 18th- and 19th–century costumes and poses. Her portraits borrowed their contexts from the works of American painters John Singleton Copley, Robert Feke, Jeremiah Theus and their contemporaries, and also from pictures by unknown, itinerant painters.
Esta Cosgrave lived with her husband, the illustrator and marine painter John O'Hara Cosgrave II, in Brooklyn Heights. Their downstairs neighbors and close friends were the art conservators Sheldon and Caroline Keck. In 1934, Sheldon Keck developed one of the country's first scientific art research laboratories at the Brooklyn Museum.
It was through the Kecks that Esta Cosgrave's new, signature style was born. A few years earlier, the Cosgraves had purchased a summer home in a former New Hampshire schoolhouse and sought to decorate the wood-paneled walls in period style. When Esta Cosgrave expressed interest in a portrait of a 19th-century military officer that Sheldon Keck was restoring in his studio, the Kecks told her she would never find one like it herself, so she decided to paint her own. Cosgrave's version substitutes her husband's face for the officer's, retaining John O'Hara Cosgrave's 1940s–era mustache. In 1948, the Kecks featured a family portrait by Cosgrave on their annual holiday card (see illustration).
For her research, Cosgrave consulted photographs in the Frick Art Reference Library Photoarchive and ordered copies of those reproductions for herself: “Before long," she noted, "I had amassed a useful library of my own, with a file of photographs, glossy prints, details and enlargements.”
Today, Photoarchive files provide the opportunity to compare Cosgrave's works against those paintings from which she drew inspiration. Cosgrave's 1944 portrait of the Egyptologist and curator John D. Cooney (above), who worked alongside Sheldon and Caroline Keck at the Brooklyn Museum, compares especially favorably with John Singleton Copley’s painting of Theodore Atkinson, Jr., owned by the Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art, Providence (see illustration). When Copley’s portrait was acquired by the RISD Museum, it was not only thought to be by Joseph Blackburn, but also considered one of his finest works. Only in 1943 did the art historian William Sawitzky propose reattributing the portrait to John Singleton Copley. The picture is now thought to have been painted between 1757 and 1758, when Blackburn's influence was still readily visible in Copley's work.
A 1948 Life magazine article names Esta Cosgrave’s “chief worry … that, in 100 years or so, someone may palm off a Cosgrave as a Copley.” Photoarchive files preserve intact the associations between both the portraits and their subjects and artists.
Esta Cosgrave (ca. 1900–1952), Lt. John D. Cooney, AUS, 1944. Oil on canvas, 42 x 36 in. With the Old Print Shop (Harry Shaw Newman Gallery), New York, February 1944
Esta Cosgrave (ca. 1900–1952), Keck Family Christmas Card, 1948. Print. Unlocated.
John Singleton Copley (ca. 1738–1815), Portrait of Theodore Atkinson, Jr. (1737–1769), 1757–58. Oil on canvas, 50 x 40 in. Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art, Providence