COMINGO, JOSEPH BROWN, painter; b. 1784 in Lunenburg, N.S., eldest son of Romkes Comingo and Jane (Jeanne) Margaret Bailly; m. 6 Dec. 1812 Elizabeth Winslow Reynolds in Halifax, and they had three children; d. 1821 in Nassau, Bahamas.
As far as can be determined, Joseph Brown Comingo was the first professional painter born in Nova Scotia. The earliest known work by him is a portrait, painted around 1800, of his grandfather, the Reverend Bruin Romkes Comingo*. Although he may have received some instruction from John Thomson or another of the itinerant artists who worked in Halifax and conducted drawing academies before 1809, there is no record of his art studies. From 1808 until 1820, however, his work and movements are fairly well documented. In 1808 he was in Fredericton, working at John MacLeod’s inn, where he painted “miniature watercolour portraits and family groups.” Two years later he could be found on Grafton Street in Halifax painting oil portraits and “miniatures of different descriptions on ivory and fine wove paper,” and also offering lessons in “drawing and painting, landscape, figures, flowers &c.” at his lodgings. In 1811 he placed an advertisement in the Halifax Journal informing potential clients that they should “apply as early as possible as he intends to leave this town soon.” For the next several years he appears to have travelled a good deal, practising his craft for short periods in Halifax, Saint John, Fredericton, Lunenburg, and Yarmouth. Around 1821 he went to Nassau in the Bahamas, where soon after his arrival he died at the age of 37.
Comingo seems to have been a fairly prolific artist, and a number of his paintings have survived. In 1812, while residing in Halifax, he painted a small watercolour portrait of Quartermaster George Mathew of the 99th Foot (this work was at one time incorrectly ascribed to Robert Field*). Two years later he painted a miniature of Thomas Henry Bailey, barrack master of Fort Anne at Annapolis Royal and son of the Reverend Jacob Bailey*. In the same year he produced a profile miniature on ivory of Andrew Crookshank of Saint John, now in the New Brunswick Museum, as well as a watercolour “View of Saint John.” While in Lunenburg in 1816 he painted a view of that town and its harbour, and the following year in Halifax he executed one of his finest miniatures – a portrait on ivory of Anne Henry (Murdoch). In 1817 he painted a “View of the Town of Yarmouth,” now owned by the Public Archives of Nova Scotia. Just before leaving Nova Scotia he painted miniatures of two Yarmouth residents, Joseph and Mary Tooker. These miniatures were reproduced in a 1952 issue of Antiques magazine, which mistakenly claimed that they had been painted in Baltimore, Md.
Reflecting the influence of current neoclassical taste, Comingo’s painting aspired to the elegant formality of the European “grand manner” style. Although affected by the accomplished portraits of Robert Field, Comingo’s work expresses the naïve quality inherent in colonial painting. His characterizations show a reliance on line rather than modelling, on detail rather than generalization. Variety and experimentation in his work were limited by the conventions of miniature portrait painting. Only slight alterations in the posing or positioning of his sitters were allowed within the formula. Delicate drawing and transparent colour compensate for the lack of three-dimensionality in his images. Their charm and directness suggest Comingo’s search for that combination of idealism and pragmatism so typical of early Canadian painting.
Comingo was survived by his wife Elizabeth, who died at Chester, N.S., in 1893 at the age of 100, and three children – Jane Catherine, Joseph, and Elizabeth Brown. Some confusion about the artist’s later life has been caused by the existence of his uncle J. Brown Comingo, son of the Reverend Bruin Romkes Comingo and a schoolmaster in Lunenburg until the late 1860s.
PANS, MG 4, 94–105; MG 100, 125, nos.17–17f (photocopies). Halifax Journal, 1 Oct., 1 Dec. 1810; 19 Aug. 1811. New-Brunswick Courier, 17 Aug. 1814. New-Brunswick Royal Gazette, 12 Sept. 1808, 17 June 1815. Nova-Scotia Royal Gazette, 9 Dec. 1812. J. R. Harper, Early painters and engravers in Canada ([Toronto], 1970). M. B. DesBrisay, History of the county of Lunenberg (2nd ed., Toronto, 1895). J. R. Harper, Painting in Canada, a history (Toronto and Quebec, 1966). Harry Piers, Robert Field, portrait painter in oils, miniature and water-colours, and engraver (New York, 1927). 200 years of art in Halifax; an exhibition prepared in honour of the bicentenary of the founding of the city of Halifax, N.S., 1749–1949 (Halifax, 1949). Antiques (New York), 62 (1952): 182. William Hazen, “The earliest painting of Saint John,” N.B. Hist. Soc., Coll., no.17 (1961): 97–101. D. C. Mackay, “Artists and their pictures,” Canadian Antiques Collector (Toronto), 7 (1973), no.1: 81–86.