Facing the Past

"Facing the Past" was an exhibition of historic Kentucky portraiture with an emphasis on the lives of portrait artists of Kentucky, their work and how society, war, wealth, time and style influenced their art. The exhibition was in place from December 5th to April 5th, 2011. The portraiture exhibited ranged from the early 19th century to the early 20th century.

More on the subjects and artists

Aaron Houghton Corwine

Aaron Houghton Corwine was born on a farm in Mason County Kentucky, to Amos and Sarah Corwine August 31st 1802. Because he showed talent at an early age he was given artistic instruction by J. Turner, an itinerant artist working in Maysville, 1817. Turner realized he had nothing more to offer the talented young boy and encouraged him to study with Thomas Sully in Philadelphia for two years 1819-1820. Corwine was a resident in Cincinnati painting some of its wealthy citizens after 1820, while also active in northern Kentucky between 1818-1825. The painting in this exhibition, though less well known than the dramatically romantic self-portrait of Corwine in the collection of the Maysville Kentucky Museum, is an interesting document of style and the subject of an elaborate oral history. The frontality and softly focused gaze of the subject is similar to certain Sully works of the same period. When the portrait was presented to the Maysville Public Library in 1921, the donor, William R. Corwine, a lateral descendent, perpetuated the oral history that the likeness had been taken from a “reflection in a tub of water.” The necessity of the conjunction of pure, clean water, a reflective tub bottom, and the right angle of the glancing sunlight to bounce back a recognizable image makes this story probably more charming than factual.

In 1825 Corwine painted Andrew Jackson while Jackson was visiting Cincinnati and in 1828 he painted the Marquis de Lafayette. He exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy, 1821-1822 and 1828-1829 at the National Academy of Design in 1830. Corwine traveled to England in 1829 with the purpose of studying the old masters, he became ill with consumption at young age just after returning from his trip abroad and died on July 4th 1830 in Philadelphia.

Patrick Henry Davenport

Artist Patrick Henry Davenport was born in Danville, Kentucky at the Indian Queen Tavern, which was operated by his parents, Richard and Elizabeth Tadlock Davenport. He was largely self-taught, although he may have had some experience working with Matthew Jouett and is reputed to have assisted Oliver Frazier in painting the full-length portrait of George Washington for the Old State Capitol in 1838. Though there has been speculation that he began painting portraits at the age of fifteen, his first dated works are from the early 1820s. Davenport married Eliza Ann Bohannon in Vicksburg in 1827, and thereafter his presence and commissions reflect the strong family and socioeconomic ties between Kentucky and Mississippi during the antebellum period. Davenport was active as an itinerant in Kentucky- in Madison, Garrard, Boyle, Jefferson and Nelson Counties- as well as Cincinnati and rural Indiana and Illinois from 1820 to 1840. These were the years of his most intense period of activity as a portraitist, and he was particularly productive in Harrodsburg and Danville. Many works from this period repeat signature formulas: the subjects are placed high on the planar field, richly colored, and painted with strongly modeled features and highly detailed costumes, especially woman’s lace caps. The subjects often seem to be glancing, as though surreptitiously, to the far right or left, making their abbreviated anatomies rather disengaged. In his own self-portrait Davenport gazes straight ahead with something of the same uneasy look. He also projected a highly architectonic hairstyle upon his female figures (as seen with Mrs. Keller), often crowning them with a massive hair plait, adorned with combs of horn.

In 1853 Davenport sold his popular Crab Orchard Springs resort in Lincoln County (Known as the “Saratoga of the South”) and moved to Lawrence County, Illinois near Evansville Indiana. Surrounded by his peaceful two hundred acre farm, he continued to paint his charmingly awkward portraits until photography seems to have evolved his artistry into a style with more realistic clarity and flattened anatomical positioning. Davenport died in 1890 near Sumner, Illinois.

John Neagle

John Neagle was born in Boston to Maurice and Susannah Taylor Neagle. His father died when Neagle was four. He received some early instruction from Edward Petticolas and during grammar school took drawing lessons from a local Italian master, Pietro Ancora. He was then apprenticed to Thomas Wilson, a coach and ornamental painter, who was working with the portraitist Bass Otis. While still a student Neagle came to the attention of Thomas Sully and Charles Wilson Peale, who encouraged him. He began activity as an itinerant in Kentucky in 1818, but discouraged by Jouett’s dominance as portraitist of choice, he moved on to New Orleans, where he stayed, with little success, until 1820. He returned to Philadelphia by ship, on which he suffered severe hardships that were compounded by meager funds, a situation he remedied at one point by the sale of a head of Washington- he had the canvas rolled up in his bag. Neagle wrote William Dunlap “was not the only American who has been extricated from difficulty by that same head.”

Once reestablished in Philadelphia, he attained great success and married Mary Chester Sully, the niece and stepdaughter of Thomas Sully, in 1826. Also in 1826, Neagle painted his masterpiece, Pat Lyon at the Forge, a full-length portrait in the grand manner of a muscular craftsman in working attire posed as a triumphant warrior before his glowing forge. He also sought out Gilbert Stuart in Boston, painting the last portrait of the old artist. He returned to Kentucky, 1842-1843, where he painted the Henry Clay exhibited and others. Robert Torchia considers the Clay portrait to be “Neagle’s last truly great work, and in many respects it should be considered the culmination of his career as a portraitist.” Following the death of his wife in 1845, Neagle became increasingly withdrawn, although he painted a series of portraits of eminent physicians at the University of Pennsylvania. Among his most notable subjects during the decade of the 1850’s were former vice president Richard Mentor Johnson and the artist William Rush. He suffered a stroke at the end of the decade and spent the remainder of his life in a paralytic state before dying in Philadelphia in 1865.

Colonel Samuel B. Churchill

Samuel B. Churchill was the son of Samuel and Abigail Oldham Churchill who owned extensive farmland in Jefferson County some of which eventually became Churchill Downs. Churchill was born in Louisville on December 6th 1812. He received a law degree from Transylvania University in Lexington in 1833 and moved to St. Louis in 1835 where his sister Mrs. Meriwether Lewis lived. In this flourishing city he practiced law, edited a newspaper called the St. Louis Bulletin and later became involved in Missouri politics and served as postmaster general for St. Louis. In 1861, after being arrested and imprisoned for political intolerance during the Civil War, he was eventually exiled from Missouri back to the Commonwealth where he was born. As a staunch and out-spoken democrat, he opposed many measures of President Lincoln’s administration and as such he was banned from politics in Missouri. Colonel Churchill was permitted by the Government to move back to Kentucky in 1863. In 1867 he became Secretary of State of the Commonwealth under the administrations of Governor John L. Helm and later Governor John Stevenson. Colonel Samuel B. Churchill died in 1890.

George Caleb Bingham

The artist George Caleb Bingham had a studio known for painting portraits of prominent citizens in St. Louis around 1838. A self-taught artist he is widely considered one of the greatest American luminist painters of the 19th Century. Bingham also painted a seminal work illustrating Kentucky’s heritage Daniel Boone Escorting Settlers through the Cumberland Gap. Churchill’s portrait is one of the few early works in which Bingham sets the subject before a dark background in which there are glimpses of an atmospheric landscape reminiscent of continental portrait prints with romantic Sturm und Drang (storm and stress) elements.

Churchill Children

Leo Churchill died before the age of twelve. Matilda, the eldest, was born in 1841 and dies unmarried, in Frankfort in 1867. Mary Eliza was born in St. Louis in 1843 and married Richard Oswald Cowling in Frankfort in 1867. The Churchill children are the progeny of Samuel Bullitt Churchill (1812-1890) whose George Caleb Bingham portrait appears in the Governor’s reception room. His wife, Amelia Chouteau Churchill (1819-1906) was painted by de Franca as a serene beauty dressed in red and set against a moody, atmospheric background.

Manuel Joachim de Franca

Manuel Joachim de Franca was born in Oporto, Portugal, to a family of wine merchants. He is said to have been a student in Lisbon at the Royal Art Academy, but he fled civil unrest in Portugal in 1827, embarking for America and landing in Philadelphia. Once there he became an associate of Thomas Sully, ca. 1830, who admired his work and recommended him to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. While in Philadelphia de Franca married Mahaloth Dawson, with whom he moved to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where he was active from 1830 to 1838 as a painter of Roman Catholic Church interiors. The de Francas relocated to St. Louis in 1838. Once there, he came to the attention of James E. Yeatman, a local banker and philanthropist who founded the St. Louis Mercantile Library; Yeatman became de Franca’s principal patron after 1840. For the next two decades he was the most sought after painter in St. Louis. His portraits are very strongly colored and often feature dramatic background detail in the Continental style. Connections he made through the Churchill family as well as a commission to paint a portrait of Henry Clay drew de Franca to Kentucky, where he was active as an itinerant in the decade before the Civil War. William Hyde wrote that his “portraits were painted with vigor and strength, were characterized by grace and refinement and by a lively appreciation of beauty and expression in his pictures of women and children.” De Franca died on August 22, 1865, in St. Louis. An exhibition of his portraits during the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exhibition in St. Louis revived interest in his work.

Joseph Henry Bush

Joseph Henry Bush was born in Mercer County Kentucky, but grew to maturity in Frankfort, Kentucky, where he worked with his father, a sign painter and inn keeper Philip Bush. Having attracted attention for his early abilities as a portrait painter, he was dispatched to Philadelphia, in the company of his patron, Henry Clay, to work with Thomas Sully, 1814-1817. Bush remained in Philadelphia until 1817 when he returned to Lexington and exhibited several works based on old master precedents on Matthew Harris Jouett’s premises. William and George Rogers Clark were among Bush’s most important early sitters in Kentucky. He painted G. R. Clark in late 1817 with great frankness, showing the sad state of ill health arising from strokes and a leg amputation. While continuing to work in Lexington and Frankfort, he settled in Louisville in 1819, which served as his base for the rest of his professional life. He worked with Frederick Eckstein at the Cincinnati Academy of Fine Arts in 1826. Bush pursued a seasonal itinerancy between Louisville and New Orleans, including several stays in Natchez, from 1819 to 1857. By 1860 he was the only portraitist listed in the Louisville city directory. At the outbreak of the civil war he retired from painting and moved to the home of his brother, Dr. James M. Bush in Lexington, where he was painted by G. P. A. Healey in May, 1864. Joseph Bush died in 1865 and is buried with his brother in the Lexington Cemetery.

Late in Bush’s career, during the 1850s, he began to paint more portraits in an oval format. As this style progressed, his characteristic fullness of form, and distinctive noses became more pronounced. He also moved towards a greater degree of realism than can be seen in his middle period when the pouty lipped children he painted in stacked formats of two over one or one over two seem a pale imitation of Sully at his best. The oval portraits were also motivated by a changing taste in frame styles as Bush began to offer more elaborate casings in the rococo revival style.

Bennett H. Young

General Bennett Young was one of the towering figures in the civic and cultural life of late nineteenth century Louisville. In 1863 he joined General John Hunt Morgan’s cavalry, and later, as a Confederate agent, he participated in the raid on St. Albans, Vermont. Escaping extradition to United States from Canada for that incursion, he then went to Great Britain, studying law in Belfast and Edinburgh. Upon his return to Louisville in 1868 he opened a practice as a trial lawyer while also masterminding the reorganization of the Louisville, New Albany and Chicago railroad. He served as president of the Southern Exposition, 1884, and as president of the Kentucky School for the Blind.

Ferdinand Graham Walker

Ferdinand Graham Walker was born in Mitchell, Indiana near Louisville, the son of the Reverend Francis Walker and his wife, Elizabeth Graham Walker. He began his studies at DePauw College, Greenwood, Indiana. Reports that he also studied with Samuel Woodson Price are dubious, considering that Price was at that time the postmaster in Lexington. In 1883 Walker began his career as a portraitist by opening a studio in New Albany, Indiana, across the river from Louisville. With funds secured from those early commissions he traveled to Paris to study, 1885-1887. When he returned to America he worked in Washington, D.C., painting political figures and planning a cross-country expedition in search of gubernatorial commissions. When this ambition was not realized, Walker returned to New Albany, painting portraits and landscape work there and in Louisville. He went back to Paris in 1902, where he worked with Jacques-Emil Blanche (1861-1942). Upon his return he opened a studio in the Commercial Building at Fourth and Main Streets in downtown Louisville, where he was based for the remainder of his career. His portrait of General Bennett Young, beaming and bemedalled, may be his best work. Walker captured Young’s sense of dash and bravura in his depiction of the subject’s upright posture, ruddy cheeks, and sparkling blue eyes. Walker’s portraiture is deeply indebted to photography. His subjects’ gaze seems to be directed at a lens rather than a painter. Walker did work from photographs, notably in his portrait of the long-dead Lincoln, drawn from several sources, including Matthew Brady. He retired from painting in 1925 and died in New Albany, Indiana, in 1927. He is buried with his wife, Mary Watkins Walker, in the Fairview Cemetery in New Albany.


Sources: The Filson Historical Society, Lessons in Likeness: Portrait Painters in Kentucky and the Ohio River Valley, 1802-1920, Estill Curtis Pennington, 2010