Recent Acquisitions at The Filson
By Estill Curtis Pennington
If a picture paints a thousand words, a portrait surely tells at least one good biography, and perhaps a detective story as well.
In the case of several recent acquisitions to The Filson holdings, the portraits donated demonstrate how much of that biography can be lost and then recovered, and some of those mysteries solved. As a portrait is a visual account of the sitter’s circumstances and the artist’s abilities, the trail is never too far beneath the mouldering varnish.
In the case of the portrait of Major William Preston, the path is seemingly clear. Preston, who was made a captain in the army by George Washington during the Revolution, came in Kentucky after the War of 1812. He and his wife, Caroline Hancock took up residence in the Louisville area on land granted to Preston’s father for service in the French and Indian Wars. Described as “vigorous, with a gifted intellect” he was also of “great stature”, and while on a visit to Virginia in 1821 he died, presumably from complications brought on by his huge girth, amply apparent in the portrait by Joseph Henry Bush. By family tradition, duly reported by Edna T. Whitley in Kentuky Ante- Bellum Portraiture, Preston was painted sometime between 1815 and 1821.
Caroline Hancock Preston, who lived on for another 26 years, had her portrait painted by Bush at a high point in his Louisville popularity, sometime near 1835. The bold placement of the head, the hair style, and costume details, especially the lacy cap, collar and bow, are all in accord with the period. But the very size of her portrait, exactly matching that of her husband, brings into doubt the previous dating of that work. Between 1815 and 1821 Bush was in Philadelphia, Lexington, and, briefly, Louisville. He is unlikely to have painted Preston from life at that time. It is far more likely that his widow commissioned a portrait “from a miniature or another painting” as a pendant to her own likeness, according to William Barrow Floyd, in his monograph on Bush.
The Preston case is easy to sort. With known sitters, and a known artist, the only real question concerns dating. Far more challenging is determining who the artist is in the case of the portraits of Elizabeth Wood and her husband Captain Benjamin Bayless. They were married in 1798 and settled in the Maysville vicinity in the first decade of the 19th century. But when were they painted and by whom?
To detect the artist there are certain facts which can be established and specific questions which can be established. Dating the portrait can be accomplished by examination of costume and speculation on appearance. The gentleman’s stock and the lady’s lacy cap would seem to date from the 1810-1820 era, and is not unlike attire seen in other portraits of that period. If painted in that decade, the general appearance of the couple as individuals in their early to late 30s is not unreasonable. But if from that era, by whose hand?
Answering that question requires a survey of place. Who was painting in that area at that time? On June 20, 1817, John T. Turner, of Cincinnati, advertises that he has set up at the house of Jacob Boone in Maysville, offering “portrait painting as large as life, and ornamental…” Clearly an itinerant, Turner advises those wanting portraits, that the “sooner the application, the better as they contemplate leaving this place in a few weeks…” Thanking any potential sitters in advance, he also notes his gratitude to those who “have already afforded (him) encouragement,” from which we can deduce that there was extant work at hand.
Like other itinerants, Turner was a master of many decorative arts, including sign painting, the cutting of silhouettes, and fancy painting on furniture. This type of work requires a sharp attention to detail, and strong contrasting which sets off the subject in a vivid manner so as to attract the eye. Both Bayless subjects have a strong light behind their heads giving them a golden radiance which truly adds depth to the background. They are also painted in intense detail, a detail so specific as to invite attributions of naive realism, that “honesty” so admired in the annals of taking a likeness in that age.
However, there is still another, and highly intriguing, connection to be made between Turner and other artists in the area. Aaron Houghton Corwine was a child prodigy reputed by oral and antiquarian history to have had his first instruction from an artist, Turner, visiting Maysville from Cincinnati. Taking Turner’s advice, Corwine moved to Cincinnati in 1817, where he gained the patronage of Turner’s friend Dr. Daniel Drake.
What might this connection prove? A younger artist could observe the process of placing a head, raising color, and applying detail. Corwine’s early work is also characterized by a strong light behind the head, which also gives high relief and adds a luminous depth to the background, a stylistic conceit he passed along to his protégé Alonzo Douglass. These lessons in likeness can be called verisimilitude of detail, and while they do not provide primary, empirical, evidence in the form of signatures, invoices, or correspondence, they do allow a possible artist attribution. Until definitively disputed, the Bayless attribution goes to Turner.
Geographic proximity of available artist and willing sitter again plays an important role in the identification of the painter of the Nelson family portraits.
Hugh and Mary Wallace Nelson were native Virginians who moved to Christian County, Kentucky, c. 1845. In the pair of pendant portraits Mrs. Nelson is holding her son, Memucan Hunt Nelson.
Of the two portrait artists associated with ante-bellum Christian County, one, James Thomas Poindexter, could be considered too young and inexperienced to have painted these works. Poindexter was born in 1832, and the child, M. Hunt Nelson born in 1847, appears to be at least two years old in the portrait. Whether Poindexter had the ability at 17 to paint this work is further obscured by the fact that few portraits by him appear until after the Civil War.
A far more likely candidate is George Wilhelm Frye, an artist of German origin who first appears in Louisville in the mid 1840s. Unlike better known artists, such as Oliver Frazer and Joseph Henry Bush, Frye did not pursue an itinerancy in central Kentucky, but traveled further southwest, working in western Kentucky and the northern plains of Alabama and Tennessee. Frye could be a vivid colorist in the Germanic tradition, but he attempted little in the way of compositional ambition and may have worked from daguerreotypes, which would contribute to the sense of flatness. A consistent similarity of compositional anatomical detail is apparent in his work, especially in the interlocking dependency of his mothers and children. His male figures are also rather consistently placed high on the planar field, and with a severe, straight forward dignity.
All five of these works are welcome additions to The Filson collection. Each reasonable artist attribution made for portraits of this type provide a further foundation for assisting many owners of unidentified portraits in solving a compounded biographical mystery. Of course contributions for careful restoration are also welcome!
The Filson Historical Society