Jonas Platt


Samuel Finley Breese Morse (American, 1791-1872). Jonas Platt, 1828. Oil on canvas, 35 15/16 x 29 7/16 in. (91.3 x 74.8 cm). Brooklyn Museum, 85.23.

By the mid-1820s, Samuel F. B. Morse finally had achieved in his portraits a more fluid technique and mastery of high color rivaling the accomplishments of the then-elderly Gilbert Stuart. His portrait of Jonas Platt may be counted, along with his Benjamin Silliman, 1825 (Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut), among his most sensitive and finely painted likenesses dating from this brief high point in his artistic career. Particularly in these works, Morse displayed a fluid realism and expressive immediacy that neither Stuart nor Thomas Sully achieved in their own highly fluid but more stylized manners.

Morse received commissions for two portraits of Judge Jonas Platt late in 1827, the year in which the exhibition of his The Marquis de Lafayette, 1825-26 (Art Commission, City of New York) at the National Academy of Design established him, for a brief time, as New York’s preeminent artist. Platt was by this time a highly successful New York attorney and politician. Son of one of the founders of Plattsburgh, New York, he had studied law and entered the New York offices of Richard Varick by 1790, when he also was admitted to the bar and married Helen Livingston (d. 1859) of Fishkill. Platt left New York City in 1791 to establish a country residence in Whitesboro, near Utica, and open a law office. He represented both Oneida and Onondaga Counties in the state legislature, and was a member of Congress from 1799 to 1800. Platt continued to pursue a political career as a state senator and, in 1810 (the year of his unsuccessful run against the incumbent governor Daniel Tompkins), he joined DeWitt Clinton (1769-1828) in promoting the passage of a bill proposing the construction of the Erie Canal. His motives no doubt included enhancing the value of their substantial landholdings and investments in the Oriskany Woolen Mills. He assumed a seat on the State Supreme Court in 1814, the year of a triumphant battle against the British in Plattsburgh. About 1826, Platt reestablished his New York residence and law practice, and remained in the city until 1829, when he retired to a large farm in Valcour, near Plattsburgh, where he died there in 1834.

One of numerous commissions that Morse garnered in the wake of his triumph with the Lafayette portrait, this likeness was commissioned by Moss Kent (1766-1838), a former member of Congress and Platt’s relation by marriage. During Morse’s discouraging 1823 visit to Albany in search of patronage, Moss Kent had been his only sitter; and later that year in New York City, Morse had painted a portrait of Chancellor James Kent (The New-York Historical Society), a powerful conservative in New York State politics, with which he had vainly hoped to establish his reputation in the city. While this prior contact alone made him a likely candidate to execute the Platt portrait, Kent’s choice must have been influenced as well by Morse’s own very active role in conservative New York politics. His ties were manifest not only in several recent commissions, including his 1826 portrait of Governor DeWitt Clinton, Platt’s old ally (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), but in Morse’s own writings. By 1827 he had begun to contribute articles to The New York Observer, a religious newspaper run by his brother Sidney; and that year he founded his own publication, The Journal of Commerce, in which he offered his views on morality and acceptable entertainments. Morse’s receipt of the Platt commission may also have been a legacy of his recently deceased father’s rigid Federalism, which earlier had won him the good graces of John Adams.

Platt, whose stature had risen with the lavishly celebrated opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, was another artistic and political feather in the artist’s cap. Morse depicted Platt as a decorous, calm, and cerebral man with attributes signifying his reliance on the written word. He finished the portrait by February 4, 1828, and exhibited it at the National Academy of Design annual that spring, when the heated controversy with the National Academy’s rival institution, the American Academy of Fine Arts, was at its height. It apparently was well received, judging from another letter from Morse to his mother in which he wrote, “[M]y portrait has obtained me, by exhibiting it, six portraits at least.”

The portrait of Jonas Platt is currently on view in the American Identities Galleries on the 5th floor. It can be found in the section entitled ‘From Colony to Nation.’ The portrait of John Adams is currently on view in the Luce Visible Storage/Study Center, hanging in painting bay 24.

(For a more extensive discussion with reference notes, see American Paintings in the Brooklyn Museum: Artists Born by 1876, available in the Museum shop and library.)

For more information on Morse and his artistic career, see Paul J. Staiti, Samuel F.B. Morse, Cambridge University Press, 1989.