Antebellum Portraits: Faces of Kentucky's Old South, 1820-1860

By Mark V. Wetherington, Ph.D.

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Samuel Bullitt Churchill (1812-1890) by George Caleb Bingham. Oil on canvas.  Gift of Mary Churchill Whitney.In the popular imagination, "Old South" conjures up nostalgic images of belles, cotton fields, Greek Revival mansions, hoop skirts, and mint juleps, to name a few.  Many of these images come to us from novels and movies, where a "southern" genre developed, with Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind standing head and shoulders above the rest.

Emma Calhoun Noble (1851-1915) by James Thomas Poindexter.  Oil on canvas.  Bequest of Catharine Noble Ingram.Yet beneath this placid reflection of an era that today seems timeless, lay currents that made the antebellum years one of dramatic change. The portraits in this exhibit were painted primarily during those years. The stories of these faces, confident and prosperous in appearance, reveal deeper undercurrents: the code of honor, migration, plantation agriculture, political conflict, prejudice, slavery, and violence.

David Castleman (1786-1852) by Matthew Harris Jouett. Oil on canvas.  Gift of Mary Crane Hone.Although we often think of the Old South in terms of established and enduring traditions, the society that emerged during the early nineteenth century was actually new in many respects. Only two generations had passed between the establishment of the commonwealth and the presidential election of 1860. The individuals and families in this exhibit are representative of Kentucky’s elite house holds during this era. They lived in Columbia, Frankfort, Harrodsburg, Lexington, Louisville and Paducah, reflecting the statewide nature of our collection.

Self-portrait by Joseph Bush (1794-1865). Oil on canvas.  Gift of Mrs. Morton V. Joyes.Kentucky’s economy experienced a major transformation during this period. Transportation improvements (including canals, railroads, steamboats, and turnpikes) made it easier for farmers and planters to get crops to market. Hemp and tobacco became major commercial crops. Foreign-born immigrants arrived to work on the canals and in factories. Manufacturing enjoyed a period of growth because of the availability of more workers and transportation improvements. By 1850, Louisville alone reported eighty-two tobacco and cigar factories employing 1,000 workers.

Mrs. Edward Dorsey Hobbs (Mary Ann Craig, 1820-1888) and sons Sydney Johnston Hobbs (1840-1871 and Basil N. Hobbs (1843-1864).  Wilhelm Frye.  Oil on canvas.  Gift of Nanine Irwin Hilliard Greene.But the production of crops like hemp and tobacco depended in part upon slave labor. In 1860, slaves made up twenty percent of the state’s population. Although most white Kentuckians never owed a slave, twenty- eight percent of white families were slaveholders by 1850, with the average master owning five slaves. Yeomen farmers and their families, not planters and slaves, made up the vast majority of Kentucky’s antebellum population. Compared to plantations, the agricultural operations of farmers wee small. Of the almost 84,000 farmers in the commonwealth in 1860, almost seventy percent had fewer than one hundred acres.

The vast majority of Kentucky’s antebellum citizens never had a portrait painted. Perhaps the most widely circulated visual image of African-Americans during the antebellum period was the rude woodcut of the runaway slave, appearing in newspapers in full stride with a stick over the shoulder and modest belongings tied to the end. Unable to afford portraits, most family members of yeoman households had to wait for the arrival of photography to have their images recorded for posterity, if they were ever recorded. The portraits in this exhibit are significant, then, both for what they reveal about their subjects and painters, as well as for what they tell us about the nature of antebellum society.

Volume 1, Number 1

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