Portrait Collection: Michele Felice Corné

Fri, 08/11/2017 - 1:55pm -- mfarias

In the vast portrait collection of the Redwood Library, there are only a handful of self-portraits. Prolific portrait artists like Charles Bird King (1785-1862) and Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828) each have at least one to their name among the many other portraits of theirs lining our walls. In contrast, the only portrait we have by decorative artist Michele Felice Corné (1752-1845) is his own self-portrait. Prolific in other areas, he was not known for his skills as a portrait artist, but his self-portrait is a fine representation of his artistic talent nonetheless.


Self-Portrait, undated by Michele Felice Corné 
From the Collection of the Redwood Library
Gift of Mrs. William B. Bottomore.


Born on the isle of Elba in 1752, Michele Felice Corné was Italian by birth. According to Reminiscences of Newport (1884) by George Champlin Mason (1820-1894, an architect and author who was heavily involved as a member of the Redwood Library), Corné was said to have been drafted into the army to fight against the the French in Naples during the War of the Second Coalition (1799-1800), and “with but little taste for arms, he yet made his way to the rank of captain; but dissatisfied with his position at home and disgusted with his enforced service, he fled his country, and took passage on board the ship Mount Vernon, having been invited to do so by the late General Derby of Salem.”  Mount Vernon arrived in Salem, Massachusetts on July 7, 1800, but the log book for the ship does not actually list Corné as a passenger. It is not clear whether this was an error or whether he in fact came over on another ship instead, but Corné was clearly attached to the Mount Vernon. He painted a number of scenes featuring the the ship throughout his life, depicting it fighting battles against the French or sailing in more foreign waters.


 Ship Mount Vernon, undated by Michele Felice Corné 
From Reminiscences of Newport (1884) by George Champlin Mason
Image taken from a fresco in Corné's home.

Around 1806, Corné moved from Salem to Boston where he became well-known for his art. He was called upon to decorate the interiors of several homes including the Hancock House as noted by Mason (possibly Hancock Manor in Boston, which was demolished in 1863 or the Hancock-Clarke House in Lexington, which was threatened with demolition, but was saved by the public movement for historic preservation that resulted from the destruction of the Manor in Boston) and the Sullivan Dorr house in Providence, where he painted an enormous fresco of the Bay of Naples in 1810. Mason says that Corné’s “custom was not to paint directly on the wall, but to cover the whole surface with wide strips of white paper, joining the edges neatly and putting it on like ordinary wallpaper. On this he first sketched his subject in charcoal and lead-pencil, and then washed it in with water-colors, using in the foreground opaque colors laid on with size, which gave his work more body than he could secure in any other way.” Some of his greatest successes came after the naval battle between the USS Constitution and the HMS Guerriere on August 19, 1812, when he created a series of paintings of the battle, which brought him much attention when they were exhibited. Corné continued to paint scenes of naval victory and surrender that lead to a noted collaboration with Abel Bowen (1790-1850), a skilled engraver. Abel Bowen's The Naval Monument (1816) contained 21 illustrated paintings of naval engagements which took place during the War of 1812. Each was signed by Cornè and described and engraved by Bowen.


 Wallpaper taken from the house of Michele Felice Corné 
From the Webster Collection of the Redwood Library
Gift of Hamilton Fish Webster and Lina Post Webster.


At the age of 70, in 1822, Corné retired to Newport where he lived the rest of his days; he passed at the age of 93 in 1845. His house still stands on the corner of Mill and Corné streets where a plaque notes that he introduced the tomato plant to America. While certainly not the first person to eat tomatoes in the Americas, many early Europeans were distrustful of the fruit and believed it to be poisonous. According to Mason, Corné was the first person in Newport to eat tomatoes who would say: “the tomato, he grows in the sunshine; he has a fine rosy color, an exquisite flavor; he is wholesome; and when he is put in the soup, you relish him and leave nothing in the plate.” If Corné was the first person to eat tomatoes in the newly established United States, as some have claimed, he likely did so in Salem, where he first landed, rather than waiting until the end of his life in Newport. Regardless of his potential influence on American attitudes towards tomatoes, Corné lived a long, fulfilling life as an artist in America and his self-portrait came to the Redwood Library in 1873, a few decades after his death, to become a deserved part of our portrait collection.


Drawings by Michele Felice Corné 
From Reminiscences of Newport (1884) by George Champlin Mason
"Reduced copies of his own drawings."