The Reverend John Atwood and His Family

Henry F. Darby (American, 1829–1897)


183.2 x 244.47 cm (72 1/8 x 96 1/4 in.)

Accession Number


Medium or Technique

Oil on canvas

Not On View





Henry Darby was seventeen years old when he created this portrait of the Atwood family of New Boston, New Hampshire. Darby, from Adams, Massachusetts, boarded with the Atwoods in the summer of 1845 and may have painted this picture in exchange for food and lodging. He is not known to have had any artistic training, which makes the achievement of this life-sized painting all the more astonishing. The stern-faced parents and their six children are grouped naturally in the family parlor, as though the artist had come upon them during their daily prayers. The five open Bibles in the picture advertise the family’s piety (Atwood was a Baptist minister, as well as state treasurer and chaplain of the state prison). The pictures on the wall-a memorial to a dead son, and a colored print by British artist James Lucas depicting Samson carrying off the gates of Gaza-further indicate their religious commitment. The furnishings attest to the Atwoods’ prosperity and provincial good taste, for the piano, table, and footstool are all in a version of the fashionable Empire style. At the center of the table, demonstrating both the family’s means and their interest in the latest technology, is a newly invented smokeless argand lamp, with its expensive cut-glass prisms.

Darby’s style also reflects the latest technology, for the hyperrealism of his rendering (especially of the figures’ chiseled features) probably indicates the new standards of verisimilitude inaugurated by the recent invention of photography. At the same time, while the painting’s drawing and perspective are accurate, its hallucinatory quality is what connects it with other works of folk art. Unfortunately, Darby never again produced a work of this impact. Between the early 1850s and his death in 1897, he worked as a portraitist, documenting the gentry of upstate New York in a competent but dull academic style.

This text was adapted from Davis, et al., MFA Highlights: American Painting (Boston, 2003) available at


Lower right: H.F. DARBY, Painter./1845


The artist; to the Rev. John Atwood, Concord and New Boston, N.H.; to Solomon Dodge Atwood, New Boston, his son, 1873; to Misses Florence and Annie Atwood, New Boston, his daughters, 1915; Maxim Karolik, Newport, R.I.; to MFA, 1962, gift of Maxim Karolik.

Credit Line

Gift of Maxim Karolik for the M. and M. Karolik Collection of American Paintings, 1815–1865