The Lost Landscape of Orlando BearsIn 1839 Sag Harbor artist Orlando Hand Bears painted a landscape of the Sag Harbor waterfront, the earliest know view of the village from the north. He created a panoramic vista stretching from Conklin's point in the east to the North Haven bridge and beyond in the west. It is a lovely composition with a foreground featuring the harbor and its many boats, their sales filled with wind, a middle distance showing the village spread out along the shore, a background of several hills which rise gently, and overhead a vast sky filled with clouds scudding in the breeze.
by Lois Beachy Underhill
by Lois Beachy Underhill
This work is Bears only known landscape. It provides an almost "photographic" record of Sag Harbor buildings. The steeple of the old 1817 Presbyterian Church rises loftily above the village. Individual commercial buildings and houses are clearly delineated, including my own house at present day 68 Bay Street. The picture can be dated to 1839 by the appearance of the Methodist church: it is in its former location, on the hillside beside present day High Street, and the church's 1839 tower clock built by Ephraim Niles Byram, Sag Harbor's famous clockmaker, is clearly visible.
Bears is famous for his portraits, and he is considered one of the most talented interpreters of the human face in early America. His technical skills were outstanding. Sitters came alive in Bears' portraits. Their faces brimmed with vivacity and personality and their eyes followed the viewer around the room. Bears is particularly esteemed for his well rendered hands, the part of the body most difficult to paint convincingly. He included his sitters' hands so frequently that we could almost speculate he was showing off his skills. Many Orlando Hand Bears' paintings are unsigned, and it may be that he painted hands as a visual signature of his middle name. Bears' talents received new attention and recognition in 1984 when a New York City show at the American Folk Art Museum included 15 of his works. New York Times art critic Helen Harrison calls Bears a "gifted technician" and "sensitive interpreter" in her 2002 book "Hamptons Bohemia." She quotes Alice Assael's assessment of Bears' work saying "the harsh flatness characteristic of much non academic portraiture is absent from his paintings, in which a soft, gentle a and personalized interpretation of the subject is evident." Bears' works are hard to find today, but a few of them can be discovered hidden away in Sag Harbor.
Bears painted several self portraits and a least two miniatures of himself during the course of his career. They show a handsome man, confident and self assured with a ghost of a smile on his face. He had an imposing nose, narrow and elegant, steady blue eyes that looked out at the world intently, and an abundant head of auburn hair filled with gold glints. One miniature includes a lock of his auburn hair. His visual signature in his self portraits was an imposing stick pin with a light color stone, possibly an opal or a moonstone, placed on his sparkling white shirtfront.
Orlando Hand Bears (self portrait)Bears' interest in art seems to have developed at an early age, and was first expressed by painting shop signs and carriages. He established a tinsmithing business with his brother. He reportedly studied with Hubbard Latham Fordam, the well-known Sag Harbor portraitist, a distant cousin of Bears who was 18 years his senior. Helen Harrison considers the pupil Bears a better painter than his teacher, Fordham.
Ephraim Niles ByramEphraim Niles Byram, Bears neighbor, may have been the painter's first commission. In 1834 Bears painted the clockmaker's portrait in full length. Bears was jus 22 years old and Byram was 25 at the time. Byron's interest in astronomy was featured; one of his hands rested on his telescope while stars scattered through the sky over a rising moon in the background. A reproduction of the portrait can be seen on the back cover of Dorothy Zaykowski's "Sag Harbor, The Story of an American Beauty." Byram was the first of many Bears' portraits. In 1836 he painted Sarah Ann Eldridge of Sag Harbor. Many of his unsigned works have been identified through the attribution of experts in the field. Among these unsigned works is a portrait of Captain Jeremiah Slate ca. 1836, three portraits of a Long Island family, believed to be the Hendrick family from Sag Harbor, painted ca. 1835, and a series of Connecticut subjects.
Sarah Ann Eldredge
Miranda Gibbs BearsA 4th sibling was a sister, Frances Effie. She grew up to marry David Jeremiah Youngs of Main Street and today's Oakland Avenue. Sometime after her marriage Bears painted a luminous portrait of his sister looking refined and elegant in a low cut dark gown. She was beautiful, auburn haired and blue eyed like Orlando and his mother, and, of course, her hand appeared in the portrait. On her finger was a gold ring of an unusual design: two hands with fingers stretched toward a small gold heart in the center. The family still cherishes the ring shown in the portrait.
Frances Bears YoungsThe Connecticut commissions Bear painted apparently led to his acquaintance with Mary L. Whipple, the daughter of a prominent and prosperous New London, Connecticut family. About 1838 Bears married Mary and they settled in Sag Harbor. Soon afterward he painted a portrait of Mary and his own self portrait. His first son Alfred William was born in 1840, and Bears painted the boy's portrait as a young child wearing a brown dress, dresses being customary attire for young boys at the time. Albert had bright, alert yes and a half smile on his face as he looked trustingly at his father. His hair was auburn, and was cut short. He carried an oak branch in his hand. The portrait is reproduced in Harrison's book, Hamptons Bohemia.
Alfred W. BearsThe Bears marriage was marred by tragedy. Three of the couple's five children died as infants. Bears' namesake Orlando E. was born in 1845 and died at age 17 from an accidental explosion The oldest son Alfred died at age 42 with no known descendants.
Mary Louisa Whipple BearsOrlando Hand Bears' life was cut short at age 39 in 1851. His younger brother had already died in 1833, having drowned near Greenport at age 20. His father died shortly after Orlando, in 1853. All these untimely deaths are recorded on the family tombstones in Oakland Cemetery. Some time after her husband's death, Mary Whipple Bears returned to New London and she is buried there.
As the years went by, much of Bears' work disappeared from view. The 1984 show gave a large audience an opportunity to see his work for the first time. A new generation looked at Bears' self portrait and enjoyed his confident, handsome face, with its long elegant nose and intent eyes. Bears' work was well received by the public and by the critics. Mohonri S. Young wrote in the July 5, 1984 East Hampton Star that Bears' portraits shows "well developed modeling and landscape backgrounds." She went on to speculate that the daguerreotype may have eaten into Bears' career as a portrait painter, for the 1850 census indicates he was back in the tinning business.
Some Bears works continue to reside in Sag Harbor. Though Orlando left no descendants, his sister Frances did, and her great-granddaughter Mildred Youngs Dickinson, a 91 year old Sag Harbor resident, has a fine Bears self portrait, as well as the stunning portrait of his sister Frances, along with a collection of Bears miniatures. Collector Joy Lewis owns the portraits of the Hendrick family. The ruddy faces father holds a squeeze box, his wife has a rose in her hand, and their child nestles a kitten in her arms. Joan Tripp, president of the Sag Harbor Historical Society, received a portrait attributed to Bears as a gift from a family friend. The sitter is a lovely young girl with dark hair and black eyes wearing a pink dress. Not in Sag Harbor, but of interest to the villages' Babcock and Smyth families is a double portrait of early members of their family tree, Mary and Job Babcock, painted to record their wedding in 1837. A Connecticut dealer, Marguerite Riordan, has this work available for sale. The Whaling Museum has a number of unsigned portraits, several of which include tell-tale hands and may be by Bears. Their formal attribution is on the future agenda of the museum's new curator, Zach Studenroth.
Mary and Job Babcock
Lois Beachy Underhill is the author of "The Woman Who Ran for President, The Many Lives or Victoria Woodhull." Article originally published in the Sag Harbor Express 9/18/03
I have added the photographs included in this version of the article. Images that I have found online include attribution links. Images without attribution links are photos of photocopies in the Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum archive.