Lessons in Likeness: Portrait Painters in Kentucky and the Ohio River Valley, 1802–1920 by Estill Curtis Pennington (review)
- Ohio Valley History
- The Filson Historical Society and Cincinnati Museum Center
- Volume 12, Number 3, Fall 2012
- pp. 89-91
- View Citation
- Additional Information
BOOK REVIEWS FALL 2012 89 Lessons in Likeness: Portrait Painters in Kentucky and the Ohio River Valley, 1802-1920 Estill Curtis Pennington Museum curators asked to authenticate early American portraits have a particularly challenging task. In the early nineteenth century a great many itinerant limners roamed the country painting prosperous citizens, but they often left their work unsigned, making it difficult to identify the artist. Moreover, scholarship on this subject remains slim and much of the best research took place in the 1920s. Thus, Estill Curtis Pennington’s Lessons in Likeness, a study of portrait painters in Kentucky and the Ohio River Valley, is a pleasure to discover. For the most part, the book records the remarkable collection of The Filson Historical Society, whose approximately four hundred portraits represents the single best collection of its type from the region. Helpfully, Pennington’s study also reproduces key works located elsewhere, including Marquis Calmes IV by Jacob Frymire (1770-1820) in the Chicago History Museum, the earliest documented portrait painted in Kentucky. Thus, while Lessons in Likeness is not definitive, it provides a comprehensive survey of the portraiture of the region, both by major artists and obscure figures. Kentucky played a key role in the settlement of the western frontier, a development closely associated with the folk hero Daniel Boone, who in 1775 established Boonesborough, the first significant white settlement west of the Appalachians. Disastrous land speculations pushed Boone out of the state by 1799, seven years before Frymire painted the portrait of the Marquis de Calmes, but his famous exploits brought Chester Harding to Missouri in 1820 to paint Boone’s portrait (now in the Massachusetts Historical Society). America’s first great painter from west of the Mississippi, George Caleb Bingham, just a child at the time, witnessed Harding execute this painting, handing brushes to Harding while he worked, and drawing inspiration to become a painter. Some of the most interesting paintings in this book belong to this frontier period. The Filson owns one of Harding’s replicas of the Boone portrait, as well as Bingham’s exceptionally good and broodingly romantic portrait of Samuel Bullitt Churchill, a Jefferson County, Kentucky, lawyer who later moved to St. Louis. Also notable , are two striking likenesses by John James Audubon, who owed his artistic career to his Estill Curtis Pennington. Lessons in Likeness: Portrait Painters in Kentucky and the Ohio River Valley, 18021920 . Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2011. 256 pp. ISBN: 9780813126128 (cloth) $50.00. BOOK REVIEWS 90 OHIO VALLEY HISTORY experiences in the state. The 1819 bankruptcy of his Henderson mill following an economic panic turned him from businessman to artist, and led him to start serious work on his watercolors of American birds. The story of one of the earliest likenesses in the book, Samuel H. Dearborn’s portrait of James Love as a child, offers an extraordinary instance of frontier violence. In April 1811, while staying at the boarding house of the sitter’s mother, Elizabeth Young Love, Dearborn got in an argument with guest Isaac Robinson and stabbed him to death, after which he fled to Boston and changed his name. Dearborn died of unknown causes in 1852, having literally gotten away with murder. Oddly, Dearborn’s likeness of James Love provides little hint of his murderous inclinations. While the profileviewgivesthelikenesstheflatqualityassociated with folk art, the execution is unusually sensitive and delicate. Like Dearborn, many of Kentucky’s early portraitists were itinerants, but by the early nineteenth century the state produced a native son of national distinction, Matthew Harris Jouett (1788-1827). While the Harrodsburg-born Jouett spent much of his career working in Philadelphia and Boston, he often returned to Kentucky to execute portraits and died in Lexington. He maintained close ties with celebrated Kentucky politician Henry Clay, whose portrait he painted, and from whom he once rented a studio. Portraits by Jouett, as well as by contemporaries Washington Bogart Cooper (1802-1889), Chester Harding (1792-1866), James Reid Lambdin (1807-1899), Thomas Leclear (1818-1882), and John Neagle (1796-1865) reveal Kentucky’s rapid transformation from a frontier outpost to a bastion of domestic respectability. During the Civil War years, Kentucky played a key role as...