Some friends invited me over a while ago to see some old paintings. This led to a previous article about William Matthew Prior, the 19th-century folk art painter from Bath. I also saw another painting there by an artist named Benjamin Greenleaf. This was a reverse-glass portrait of a beautiful young girl, probably painted around 1815-20. I sent a picture of it to Dr. Charles Burden – my historical mentor, so to speak – and he had seen it before. In fact, he had his own Benjamin Greenleaf portrait of Hannah Moody, the wife of an old-time shipbuilder from Bath. Unfortunately, it had already been shipped off to an auction house in Thomaston to be sold.

Hannah Moody, the wife of an old-time shipbuilder from Bath, had 11 children. Zac McDorr / For The Forecaster

I smacked my forehead and asked him if it was too late to buy the painting from him. He gave me the auction date and wished me good luck. Sadly, I did not attend. With five mouths to feed, I am more accustomed to looking for treasure at the dump than at fine auction houses.

Fortunately for me, the painting did not sell.

Dr. Burden, who now lives in Old Orchard Beach, no longer drives; he told me I could have the painting if I was willing to drive up to Thomaston and get it. Now old Mrs. Moody hangs on my wall, which would probably be quite a surprise to her.

Benjamin Greenleaf was the subject of a 1985 article in The Clarion, a folk art publication. The authors, Arthur and Sybil Kern, went on a research expedition to find out exactly who this Greenleaf fellow was. For many years, it was assumed that the painter was the same Benjamin Greenleaf who was a well-known educator and textbook author from Massachusetts. Research showed no evidence, however, that this Greenleaf had ever painted anything.

Several of the portraits had been painted in the Bath area, including two of Dummer Sewall and my own Hannah Moody. There were two Benjamin Greenleafs living right in Wiscasset, a farmer and his son. The farmer seemed unlikely to be the artist, but the son was more promising. Greenleaf’s first portrait, however, was painted in 1804 when the farmer’s son was only 18, and the subject was a famous physician from Weymouth, Massachusetts. It didn’t make sense. In the end, the Kerns identified a different Benjamin Greenleaf as the painter. This fellow was born in Hull, Massachusetts, in 1769 and died of apoplexy in 1821.

Greenleaf worked his way north over the years. His first portraits were painted in Massachusetts and then he moved up to New Hampshire. Finally he came to Maine and painted people from Portland, Paris and Bath. Connections are important to any artist, and it seems most of Greenleaf’s subjects were either related to him or other people he had painted. All of his paintings are head-and-shoulder portraits, most done in profile. Some are painted on board, but most are reverse-glass paintings. This is a difficult technique where the painting is done on the back side of a piece of glass. The image has to be flipped, and the layers have to be applied in the reverse order of a normal painting. Due to their fragile nature, many of Greenleaf’s glass paintings have probably been lost. I should probably lock my own painting away somewhere until the kids have grown up.

As for Hannah Moody, she was born at the old fort in Richmond and her husband Samuel was born at Fort George in Brunswick. She had 11 children, many of whom were active in shipbuilding in Bath. One of her sons has the oldest gravestone in the old Dummer Street cemetery and it seems that Hannah is probably buried there herself. Dr. Burden suggested that I take an iron rod and try to locate her headstone, which is probably buried under the grass now, along with many others. I should probably check with the cemetery department first.

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