Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Kentucky Artist Portrayed a Dignified John Brown in 1860

It is amazing what a little looking around will turn up. Recently, while browsing through our museum gallery at the Kentucky Historical Society (KHS), I ran across a thumbnail image and mention of an artist that was born in Kentucky and was featured in a section on native Kentucky talent. What drew my attention was the image to right; John Brown. It piqued my curiosity why a Kentucky artist would paint the abolitionist, and then the next thought that entered my mind was, when was this portrait produced? I wrote down the artist's name and went to searching after work that day. I wasn't able to find much online about this specific piece, so I checked the KHS library catalog and found a small booklet that was produced in the early 1980s for an exhibition at KHS on the artist's (Patrick Henry Davenport) work.

Davenport was born in Danville, Kentucky in 1803 and began his career as a portraitist in the 1820s. He married a "Georgian belle," Eliza Bohannon in 1827 in Vicksburg, Mississippi and the couple returned to Danville to live. Davenport's ability must have been quite well known because one of his earliest subjects was the wife of Kentucky's first governor (Isaac Shelby), Susannah Hart Shelby. Davenport actively advertised his talent in Kentucky newspapers and solicited his services mainly to the upper class. In 1838, he along with his widowed mother, purchased Crab Orchard Springs resort spa in Lincoln County. At this time Davenport was a husband, father to five children, and the owner of three slaves. In 1853 Davenport sold the resort, and after considering a move to Texas, decided to relocate to Illinois, as many other Kentuckians had. In Illinois Davenport continued to paint, often going into Indiana to do portraits as well. He continued to paint after the Civil War and lived to see his eighty-eighth year, dying in 1890.

The painting of John Brown that Davenport produced was made in 1860, apparently from photograph images of Brown. On the back of the painting Davenport wrote, "A Martyr to the Cause of Freedom John Brown, who was hung at Harper's Ferry, Va. December 21 [Dec. 2], 1859 aged 63 [59] years." Davenport family tradition states that the portrait was commissioned by one of Brown's sons and then refused upon completion.

A multitude of questions arise for me. Why would a former Kentucky slave owner paint such a dignified portrait of the most vehement abolitionist of the time? Did his views on slavery change so significantly in the six years since he had left Kentucky? I suppose, if he was commissioned by the Brown family as tradition states, he approached the piece as paid work. But, did he truly subscribe to the words he wrote on the back of the painting? Or were those just written for the patron's sake? Since the painting was completed in 1860, emotions over the Harpers Ferry raid were still quite fresh in America; North and South. It would seem that not enough time would have passed to change the image of Brown in most people's eyes, especially a former Southerner. But then again, possibly Davenport was able to put period prejudices aside. After all, while he still lived in Kentucky, he did paint free man of color Dennis Doram and his wife Diademia (see May 19, 2009 post).

At the time the exhibition booklet was produced (1982) this original work was in a private collection in Washington state. Now it resides in the collection of the Kentucky Historical Society. Today, I was fortunate enough to get to see it in person in our collection storage. Believe me, it is even more impressive than the image presented here.

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