A Descendant of David Rittenhouse Family History

In the Mystery of A Descendant of David Rittenhouse, to discover the names of both the sitter and the artist who painted the portrait, Fine Art Investigations researched the David Rittenhouse family history. What a history it turned out to be. Family history led to identification of the artist. What a character he turned out to be.

Family History of "A Descendant of David Rittenhouse," ca. 1845

A Descendant of David Rittenhouse, ca. 1845


David Rittenhouse

David Rittenhouse was born in Philadelphia in a neighborhood known as Rittenhousetown. His family was one of paper manufacturers that stretched back generations in the Netherlands. There, the name was spelled Rittinghuysen, which translates to Knights’ Houses.[1]

Rittenhouse Coat of Arms
From A Genea-biographical History of the Rittenhouse Family, 1893

The first of Rittenhouse’s ancestors to come to America was Willem Rittinghuysen (1644-1708) who immigrated to Pennsylvania by 1688. That year, in Germantown, outside Philadelphia, he founded the colonies’ first paper mill. He was Pennsylvania’s first Mennonite preacher, and in 1701, its first Mennonite bishop. He and his wife, Geertruid Kersten Pieters (1642-1708), had three children, Nicholas (1666-1734), Elizabeth (1670-1728), and Gerard (1674-1742).[2]

Son Nicholas was also a Mennonite preacher. In 1689, he married Wilhemina Dewees (1673-1737). Ten of their children lived to maturity. One of their younger sons, Matthias (1702-1779), worked at the paper mills until shortly after his father’s death in 1794. When the mill passed into the hands of an older brother, Matthias and his Quaker wife, Elizabeth Williams (1702-1792), moved to Norriton in Montgomery County to farm. They, too, had ten children, including David Rittenhouse, born April 1, 1732. Matthias, a Rittenhouse biographer wrote, was:

a very respectable man; he possessed a good understanding, united to a most benevolent heart and great simplicity of manners….[he was] inclined to the religious principles of the Society called Friends, although he had been bred a Baptist (as the Mennonites were then sometimes called, and sometimes Anabaptists)…Yet, with truly estimable qualities, both of the head and heart, old Mr. Rittenhouse did not, probably, duly appreciate the early specimens of that talent which appeared so conspicuous in his son David. Hence he was for some time opposed to the young man’s earnest desire to renounce agricultural employments for the purpose of devoting himself altogether to philosophical pursuits, in connection with some mechanical profession as might best comport with useful objects of natural philosophy, and be most likely, at the same time, to afford him the means of a comfortable subsistence. At length, however, the father yielded his own inclinations in order to gratify what was manifestly the irresistible impulse of his son’s genius. He supplied him with money to purchase, in Philadelphia, such tools as were more immediately necessary for commencing the clock-making business...[3]

Biographers of David Rittenhouse relate contradictory, sometimes hyperbolic, anecdotes about his precocious achievements. All agree that by his teenage years, he had mastered the mathematical theories in Isaac Newton’s Principia. Initially he earned his living as a clockmaker. He experimented with wood and metals to develop a more accurate pendulum. He built surveying instruments, barometers, chronometers, hygrometers and thermometers.[4] At times, he worked as a surveyor.

Throughout his career, he served on commissions engaged in boundary surveys. These included surveys of portions of the boundaries of Pennsylvania with Maryland, New York, and what became the Northwest Territory as well as portions of New York’s boundaries with New Jersey and Massachusetts. In 1784 he assisted in surveying a ninety-mile westward extension of the Mason-Dixon line, and in late 1772 or early 1773 he set the southwest corner of Pennsylvania, a point from which a line was run north in 1785 to establish the Pennsylvania-Virginia boundary. Experienced in common or terrestrial surveying, he also undertook topographical surveys of canals and rivers.[5]

But, Rittenhouse’s passion was astronomy. He built the first astronomical telescope in America. He discovered the gas clouds surrounding the planet Venus.[6] In 1769, from the observatory Rittenhouse built on his front lawn in Norriton, he, Benjamin Franklin and a crowd from Philadelphia, observed the transit of Venus. Rittenhouse meticulously recorded other planetary transits, comets, meteors, solar and lunar eclipses, Jupiter’s satellites.

Thomas Jefferson’s favorite invention by Rittenhouse was the orrery, a scale model of the solar system. Rittenhouse’s uncle, the Reverend Thomas Barton (1728-1780), an Anglican minister, paid his expenses for the first of two. Barton had married Matthias Rittenhouse’s sister Esther (1731-1774). The University of Pennsylvania remembers Barton’s gift as the state’s first research grant.[7]. One orrery is owned by the University of Pennsylvania; the other, by Princeton University.

Rittenhouse Orrery, University of Pennsylvania

During the Revolutionary War, Rittenhouse turned his genius to weaponry. He selected sites for weapons manufacture and supervised production. In Philadelphia, he arranged for the lead weights in clocks to be replaced with iron so the lead could be used for bullets. He was a member of the state constitutional convention.

The British occupied Philadelphia from September 1777 until June 1778. In a letter to Rittenhouse, Thomas Jefferson expressed concern for the Orrery. Had it been damaged? Its room at the College of Philadelphia (University of Pennsylvania) had been locked. Only the provost had the key. No one entered without his permission or without his presence. The Orrery survived the war intact.[8]

In 1779, Rittenhouse was appointed state treasurer, a position he held until 1787. In April 1792, when President George Washington selected him to be the first director of the United States Mint, Rittenhouse tried to decline the post. Alexander Hamilton and his friend Jefferson prevailed upon him to accept. He finally took the oath of office in July and served until 1795. [9]

David Rittenhouse married twice. His first wife was Eleanor Coulston (1735-1771), whom he married in 1766. They had two daughters: Elizabeth (1767 – 1799) and Esther (1769 –1799). Eleanor gave birth to her husband’s namesake in February 1771, but mother and son died shortly after. He remarried in December 1772. Hannah Jacobs (1739-1799) became stepmother to the two girls. When David Rittenhouse died on June 26, 1796, his only descendants were Elizabeth and Esther.

Esther Rittenhouse

Esther Rittenhouse married Dr. Nicholas Baker Waters, (1764 – 1794) in 1790. Waters was “a physician of respectable talents and amiable disposition.” He lived only four years, dying of pulmonary disease in August, 1794. Esther was left a 25-year-old widow with a 3-year-old son, David Rittenhouse Waters (1791 – 1813). Esther lived five more years. Her son became an attorney, but David R. Waters died unmarried in 1813 at the age of 22. [10]

Since Esther Rittenhouse Water’s genealogical line ended with the death of her son, any descendants of David Rittenhouse would be children of her sister Elizabeth, and her husband, Jonathan Dickinson Sergeant. (1746-1793).

Elizabeth Rittenhouse

Elizabeth Rittenhouse Sergeant

Charles Willson Peale, Elizabeth Rittenhouse (Mrs. Jonathan Dickinson Sergeant, 1789
Private Collection

Jonathan Dickinson Sergeant (1746- 1793) was the son of Jonathan Sergeant (1709-1777), treasurer of Princeton (1750-1777), and Abigail Dickinson (1711-1799). Abigail was a daughter of Jonathan Dickinson (1688-1747), the first president of Princeton University. Sergeant was an American patriot who actively fought the Stamp Act. He helped draft the New Jersey constitution and was a member of the Continental Congress. When the British raided New Jersey, they burned his home. Sergeant moved to Pennsylvania where he became the state’s Attorney-General from 1777-1780. When he married Elizabeth Rittenhouse on December 20, 1788, he was a widower with eight children and 21 years older than she. Elizabeth gave him three more children before he died five years later in the yellow fever epidemic of 1793. Elizabeth lived only six years more. She died at 32. Their three children, and the only second generation descendants of David Rittenhouse, were:

  1. Esther Rittenhouse Sergeant (1789 – 1870)
  2. David Rittenhouse Sergeant (1791 – 1872)
  3. Frances Rittenhouse Sergeant (1793 – 1847)

David Sergeant never married. Frances married attorney John Cole Lowber (1789 – 1834). Of their four children, one daughter died in infancy, another died at 14. Two sons lived to adulthood. William (1824-1888), became a Navy surgeon. He married but had no surviving children. His brother, Henry (1827-1899), never married. The Rittenhouse genealogical line depended on one person: Esther Rittenhouse Sergeant.

Esther Rittenhouse Sergeant

Esther Sergeant, or Hetty as she was known, married William Paul Crillon Barton, MD (1786-1856) on July 14, 1814. His grandfather, the Reverend Thomas Barton (1728-1780), was the same man who funded David Rittenhouse’s first two orrerys. Barton had married her great-great-aunt, Esther Rittenhouse (1731-1774). Unlike his patriotic nephew, David Rittenhouse, Thomas Barton was a Loyalist. The Barton family spent the Revolutionary War in England. One son, Benjamin Smith Barton (1766-1815), attended medical school there. Their youngest son, William (1754-1817), studied heraldry.


William Barton

When William returned to America in 1779, he became an attorney in Philadelphia. In 1781, he published Observations on the Nature and Use of Paper Credit, followed in 1786 by The True Interests of the United States and particularly of Pennsylvania considered with Respect to the Advantages Resulting from a State Paper Money. Both the College of Philadelphia (University of Pennsylvania) and the College of New Jersey (Princeton) awarded him honorary master’s degrees. In 1813, William Barton wrote his cousin’s biography, Memoirs of the Life of David Rittenhouse. But, the accomplishment for which he is most remembered is designing the Great Seal of the Republic.

In 1814, Barton published A Treatise Concerning a Plan for the Internal Organization and Government of Marine Hospitals in the United States: Together with a Scheme for Amending and Systematizing the Medical Department of the Navy. Within its 242 pages, he detailed a plan for navy hospitals at every major port from architectural design, furnishings, heating and ventilation, to staff positions, descriptions and salaries. Frustrated with the meagerness of his own salary, he joined with other United States Navy physicians to request officially that their pay be at least commensurate with US Army physicians, and preferably with doctors in the British Navy.[13] 

William Paul Crillon Barton

William Barton married Elizabeth Rhea. Their son William Paul Crillon Barton (1786-1856) was influenced by his uncle Benjamin, a physician and botanist who advised the Lewis and Clark Expedition.[11] The younger man studied medicine and botany. In 1809, he entered U.S. Navy service as surgeon aboard the new nation’s first warship, the frigate USS United States, commanded by Stephen Decatur. As the ship sailed the waters of the Caribbean searching for privateers, Barton studied the tropical diseases that afflicted the sailors. His experiments with lime juice and lemonade convinced him that, like the British, the American Navy needed to include citrus in their provisions. The Navy formally accepted his recommendation in 1812.[12]

In 1830, he published Hints for Medical Officers Cruising in the West Indies. As well as refining medical advice for the climate, he emphasized the importance of morale on health. He encouraged music aboard ship and moderate use of tobacco and spirits.

Not long after the book appeared, artist William James Hubard (1807-1862) painted Barton’s portrait. About the painting, the Philadelphia Museum of Art wrote:

Barton is shown here on one of his rambles through the outskirts of Philadelphia in search of new botanical specimens. Samuel Gross, his student at Jefferson Medical College and later the subject of Thomas Eakins’s masterpiece The Gross Clinic, fondly remembered these excursions. Gross reminisced that Barton “experienced as great delight in the discovery of a new plant as Audubon did at the sight of an undescribed bird. [14]

On August 31, 1842, Congress passed a Navy appropriations bill that incorporated efficiency plans proposed by Dr. William P. C. Barton in his 1814 book. President John Tyler appointed him the first chief of the U.S. Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery.[15]

William and Hetty Sergeant Barton had 14 children. Seven daughters lived to adulthood.

  1. Elizabeth (1815-1895) (Mrs. Samuel Abbott)
  2. Julia (1817-1884) (Mrs. Jonathan Dickinson Miller)
  3. Adeline (1818-1876) (Mrs. Thomas Howard Paschl)
  4. Emma (1822-1882) (Mrs. Frederick Carroll Brewster)
  5. Mary (1823-1856) (unmarried)
  6. Lavinia (1827-1895) (unmarried)
  7. Selina (1830-after 1871) (unmarried)

One of those daughters must be the subject of the portrait. Since the sitter did not wear a wedding ring when she posed for the painting in the mid-1840s, she was single. The two eldest daughters, Elizabeth and Julia, both married in 1840. Neither is the likely subject of Portrait of a Young Lady. Adeline married in 1858, but was 27 in 1845 and probably was too old to be the subject. Emma was 23; Mary, 22; Lavinia, 18; and Selina, 15. None of the historical societies or archives in the Philadelphia area hold any files or images on any of the women.[16] Evidence below suggests the sitter was Emma Barton, but there is no documentation. For now, the identity of the subject is Miss Barton. 

To learn the name of the artist, return to Mystery of the David Rittenhouse Descendant.

(c) Fine Art Investigations, 2014-2017
All Rights Reserved


[1] William Barton, Memoirs of the Life of David Rittenhouse (Parker, 1813), 80-82; David Kolb Cassel, A Genea-biographical History of the Rittenhouse Family: And All Its Branches in America, with Sketches of Their Descendants, from the Earliest Available Records to the Present Time, Including the Birth of Wilhelm in 1644 (Rittenhouse Memorial Association, 1893), 26

[2] Cassel, 137-138.

[3] Cassel, 94.

[4] Cassel, 162.

[5] Martin Ritt, “David Rittenhouse, American National Biography On-Line, http://www.anb.org/articles/13/13-01396.html

[6] Charlie Samuels, Inventors and Inventions in Colonial America, (The Rosen Publishing Group, 2002), 13

[7] M.J. Babb, “The Relation of David Rittenhouse and His Orrery to the University, Penn History, University of Pennsylvania Library, http://www.library.upenn.edu/exhibits/pennhistory/orrery/orrery.html

[8] Barton, 274

[9] Barton, 385

[10] Ibid, 450. David Rittenhouse Waters was remembered: “Although he had just entered on the threshold of the world, this excellent young man exhibited many proofs of extraordinary attainments in literature and science, as well as of a superior genius. He appeared to have inherited from his maternal grandfather, congenial talents. In his life, his amiable disposition endeared him to all who had an opportunity of knowing his virtues; in his death, not only have his relatives and friends experienced an afflicting bereavement, but his country has sustained the loss of a citizen of great promise.” (258-259)

[11] “Benjamin Smith Barton (1766-1815),” Penn Biographies, Penn University Archives and Records Center, http://www.archives.upenn.edu/people/1700s/barton_benj_smith.html

[12] John T. Greenwood, F. Clifton Berry, Medics at War: Military Medicine from Colonial Times to the 21st Century (Naval Institute Press, 2005), 11-14

[13] Ibid, 13

[14] “Portrait of Mr. William P. C. Barton, Professor of Botany, Physician, and Botanist, William James Hubard, American (born England), 1807 – 1862,” Philadelphia Museum of Art, http://www.philamuseum.org/collections/permanent/306943.html?mulR=1222250689|1

[15] US Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, “The Bureau of Medicine and Surgery (BUMED)—A Brief History,“ Navy Medicine, http://www.med.navy.mil/bumed/Pages/Default.aspx

[16] Historical Society of Philadelphia, Library Company of Philadelphia, Germantown Historical Society

[17] Numerous public records on Ancestry.com

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Stories Behind the Portraits: Vestine Porter

Q. “In old portraits, why aren’t people smiling?”

A.    (1) They wanted to look honorable and serious, and definitely, not like fool.

(2) They had bad teeth.

Times and attitudes changed, and people like John King Stark, husband of George Caleb Bingham’s Vestine Porter, became dentists.

Vestine Porter

Vestine Porter was 15 years old when Bingham painted her portrait. It was near the time of her marriage on December 11, 1850, to Dr. John King Stark, 22.  Vestine’s father was a landowner in Independence, Missouri, and the state’s first railroad president.[1] Stark, at the time, was the westernmost dentist in the country, a time at a time when “a bottle of mercury and a Spanish dollar were the dentist’s stock in trade.”[2] Porter paid the artist to add a landscape to the portrait with a dawn of a new day on the left and with fertile symbolism on the right. At Vestine’s chaste neckline, Bingham painted a pink rose bud and a fully opened flower. In the 19th century language of flowers, a pink rose expressed gentleness.

Bingham painted similar delicate portraits of women in 1849/1850. These feminine subjects nearly float on the canvas. Not in the way of less talented artists who were unable to fix their sitters firmly in the canvas, nor in the manner of artists late in the century who depicted women as languid, helpless, decorative objects, but as real flesh and blood women, beautiful, serene, yet strong.

Ten years later, in 1860, Bingham painted a larger, second portrait of  25-year-old Vestine Porter now Mrs. John K. Stark.  Replacing  tree, vine, and leaves was a drape of distinction. No more does she have a wistful look. She is still serene and strong, but also  content and secure.

George Caleb Bingham, Mrs. John King Stark (Vestine Porter), 1860 (325)

George Caleb Bingham, Vestine Porter (Mrs. John King Stark), 1860
Oil on canvas, 32 x 28 inches
Private Collection

Dr. John King Stark

Independence 1859 Jail
Jackson County Historical Society
Independence, Missouri

Not long after Bingham painted Vestine’s second portrait. in June 1861, John K. Stark was elected the 13th mayor of Independence, Missouri. Eight months later, in February 1862, Colonel Charles R. Jennison of the Kansas Cavalry, accusing Stark of Southern sympathies, jailed him in the city’s new jail, the same one that still stands today in Independence Square. Friends managed his release within 24 hours, but Stark was not about to repeat the experience. He fled with his very pregnant wife Vestine and their four-year-old son, William Thomas, to Fayette, Missouri.  There, Vestine gave birth to a daughter, Maud, on February 20, 1862. As soon as mother and child were strong enough to travel, the family was again on the run. In St. Louis, Missouri, a blockade runner, a cousin of Stark’s, John King Withers, smuggled the young family down to Mobile, Alabama. From Mobile, John, Vestine, young William and little Maud Stark made their way to Juarez, Mexico.[3]

The Governor of Chihuahua suffered from gum disease. When he learned of an American ex-patriate dentist, he sent for Stark. Knowledgeable about the latest dental technology.  Dr. Stark created a pair of Vulcanized rubber dentures.  The grateful leader gave him $500 or the equivalent of just under $10,000.[4] 

Vulcanite porcelain dentures

Mexico soon proved to be as unstable politically as the war-torn country to the north. The Starks moved  to Cuba and then back to St. Louis, where Vestine died on January 25,  1865.

John King Stark, DDS

After the war, Stark moved to Kansas City, re-married, helped found the Dental Department of the Kansas City Medical College, and became its first dean.  tree, vine, and leaves.Dr. John Stark “had an unsurpassed skill in the use of cohesive gold.”[5]  A former student remembered “impressive fillings Stark placed during those early years, fashioned only with hand instruments and the gold leaf annealed over a shovel-full of live charcoal.”[6]

Times and attitudes changed. Because of people like John King Stark, DDS, husband of George Caleb Bingham’s Vestine Porter, portrait sitters began to smile.



(c) Fine Art Investigations, 2018
All Rights Reserved


[1] The railroad James Porter brought to Missouri would have been the Independence – Wayne City, or Missouri River Railroad.  Completed in 1849, the mule-powered four-car train ran on oak and iron rails from Independence to its shipping station, Wayne City Landing. 3 ½ miles downriver. “On the return, downhill trip, the mules were loaded on one of the flat cars and the train coasted back to Wayne City Landing.” (Lynne B. Greene, “Jackson County Traders Built First Railroad West of the Mississippi, “Kansas City Times, January 19, 1942, Western Historical Manuscripts Collection – Kansas City, Native Sons Archives, A31, f.1., 1.)

[2] Charles L. Hungerford, DDS, “ Doctor John King Stark: Requiescat in pace” Kansas City, Missouri: Western Dental Journal, IX, No. 2 (February 1895), 49.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Wilbur Morse Shankland, Dentistry:  The Biography of a Profession, (The History Committee, Missouri Dental Association, 1965), 60.

[6] Charles L. Hungerford quoted in Dentistry:  The Biography of a Profession, (The History Committee, Missouri Dental Association, 1965), 60.



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George Washington Bingham

George Caleb Bingham was named for his paternal grandfather, George Washington Bingham, a wheat and tobacco farmer who lived on the eastern side of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  The artist remembered his grandfather as “a tall and white-headed gentleman, overflowing with the milk of human kindness.” [ii]  Was he?

The first known record of George Caleb Bingham’s paternal grandfather is in Hanover County, Virginia’s 1782 census: George Bingham, household of two. Those two people were George, 29, a veteran of the Revolutionary War, and his bride, the former Louisa Vest, 21, who was pregnant at the time. A few months later, Henry Vest Bingham, George Caleb Bingham’s father, was born. He was the first of eight children: six girls, Elizabeth, Rhoda, Mariah, Rebecca, Mildred, Maria, and a boy, John. The children grew up surrounded by cousins, uncles, aunts, and probably, grandparents. In that 1782 census, on the line below George Bingham, the census taker wrote, “John Bingham” with a household of six. Two lines above, was the name Josias Bingham, household of seven; one slave.[iii]

George Bingham Genealogy

Department of Commerce and Labor, Bureau of the Census, Heads of Families at the First Census of the United States Taken in the Year 1790 and Records of the State Enumerations: 1782 To 1785 Virginia (Government Printing Office, 1908) page 29. The Binghams are in the first column, above the indentation. See detail below.


George Bingham Genealogy

George Bingham, 1782 Census, Hanover County, Virginia – Detail. Page 29, Column 1, lines 38, 40, 41

“In 1784, after serving in the Hanover Militia, George Washington Bingham bought land in Orange County, Virginia, that extended from the county line along Lynch River to the top of what has become known as Bingham Mountain.” [iv] After Rhoda’s birth in 1785, the family moved west from Hanover County to Orange County[v], to the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, about 20 miles north of Charlottesville.[vi]

Dyke, Virginia, became the nearest town. There, George W. Bingham farmed wheat and tobacco. He was also a preacher, licensed to perform marriages in Orange County. In 1795, he was one of ten men who bought an acre of land from Harry and Sally Austin in order to establish a Methodist church, the first denomination to appear in the Blue Ridge mountains. They built the church on the north side of the Lynch River. Originally, it was called Austin’s Meeting House. Later it became known as Bingham’s Meeting House. A church still stands there today.

George Caleb Bingham's grandfather's church

Bingham’s Church
204 Church Lane, Dyke, Virginia

In 1838, Orange County split, with the Western part becoming Greene County. The new dividing line ran straight across the former, larger county and through the middle of Bingham’s Church.  “The church now straddles the Albemarle-Greene County Line. The preacher stands in Albemarle County and the congregation sits in Greene County. At times the church has struggled. It was twice closed during the 1950s because of low membership, but because of it’s historic value it has come to life again and again as Greene County’s oldest church.”[vii]

George Caleb Bingham Genealogy

Virginia Department of Geology and Mineral Resources Map
Detail with Bingham’s Mountain and Church Lane near the border of Greene and Albemarle Counties

Bingham wrote that his grandfather “was exceedingly kind and indulgent” to his numerous slaves, “never using the lash or allowing it to be used upon his place.’’[viii] Rose-colored glasses often tint the past, but the artist’s grandfather may, moreso than many, have lived by the principles he preached. Census details hint that G. W. Bingham’s eight slaves were a family: an adult man and woman with six children, four girls and two boys.[ix]

Some twenty years later, when the artist visited his own childhood home, he was troubled that a slave the Binghams had sold to neighbors when they left for Missouri had been abandoned by his owners. In a letter to his mother, George Caleb Bingham quoted the elderly man’s wife, “now that they had got all the cream out of him they didn’t want him any more.” The young artist, pressed money into the man’s hands and asked him to contact him if he were ever in distress.[x] I have often wondered if the man did, and if so, what was Bingham’s response.

Still, Bingham’s attitude and action were a step or two above the norm. Could the man for whom he was named, George Washington Bingham, have influenced the artist’s enlightened thinking?

Many thanks to Jackie Pamenter of Greene County [VA] Historical Society for her insights.

(c) Fine Art Investigations, 2018
All Rights Reserved


End Notes

[i] George Caleb Bingham, unpublished memoir, undated, in E. Maurice Bloch, George Caleb Bingham: Evolution of an Artist (University of California Press, 1967), 9.

[ii] George Caleb Bingham wrote that his grandfather George Washington Bingham was “born and raised in some of the New England states.” (E. Maurice Bloch, George Caleb Bingham: The Evolution of an Artist (University of California Press), 10) If true, his paternal family probably arrived in the first wave of settlement. But, a 610-page Genealogy of the Bingham Family in the United States, published in 1898, contains no information related to George Bingham. (Theodore A. Bingham, Genealogy of the Bingham Family in the United States, Especially of the State of Connecticut (Harrisburg Publishing Company, 1898).

[iii] Department of Commerce and Labor, Bureau of the Census, Heads of Families at the First Census of the United States Taken in the Year 1790 and Records of the State Enumerations: 1782 To 1785 Virginia (Government Printing Office, 1908) page 29, column 1, lines 38, 40, 41.

[iv] Edgar Woods, Albemarle County in Virginia: Giving Some Account of what it was by Nature, of what it was Made by Man, and of Some of the Men Who Made it (Michie Company, printers, 1901), 135.

[v] Most Bingham histories state that the family lived in Albemarle County. Facts, including the 1820 census, as well as church history, indicate the family residence was actually in Orange County.

[vi] E. Maurice Bloch, George Caleb Bingham: The Evolution of an Artist (University of California Press), 10.

[vii] Donald Covey, Greene County, A Brief History (History Press, 2007); Woods, op. cit., 135.

[viii] E. Maurice Bloch, George Caleb Bingham: The Evolution of an Artist, op. cit., 10.

[ix] United States Census Bureau, Fourth Census of the United States, “Household of George Bingham,” Orange County, Virginia, 1820, National Archives and Records Administration, Series M33, Roll 141, page21, line 7. Detail of Record is:

Free White Persons – Males – 26 thru 44: 1

Free White Persons – Males – 45 and over: 1

Free White Persons – Females – Under 10: 1

Free White Persons – Females – 16 thru 25: 1

Free White Persons – Females – 45 and over: 1

Slaves – Males – Under 14: 1

Slaves – Males – 14 thru 25: 1

Slaves – Males – 45 and over: 1

Slaves – Females – Under 14: 4

Slaves – Females – 26 thru 44: 1

Number of Persons – Engaged in Agriculture: 5

Free White Persons – Under 16: 1

Free White Persons – Over 25: 3

Total Free White Persons: 5

Total Slaves: 8

Total All Persons – White, Slaves, Colored, Other: 13

[x]George Caleb Bingham, “Letter to Mary Bingham,” September 25, 1841, Petersburg, Virginia, in  Lynn Wolf Gentzler, editor, Roger E. Robinson, compiler, “But I Forget That I am a Painter and Not a Politician”: The Letters of George Caleb Bingham (The State Historical Society of Missouri and Friends of Arrow Rock, Inc. 2011), 57.

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Evolution of an Art Detective

Fannie Medora Sombart, after 1880
Oil on Canvas, 48 x 32 inches

In 2002, I was not yet an art detective. I was in the midst of earning advanced degrees in art history and history. But, the Bingham Portrait Project, my search for George Caleb Bingham portraits, had brought me to the attention of a board member of an historic site. The organization owned a Bingham portrait of a young woman, Fannie Medora Sombart, that had been donated to them 15 years before. The board members and volunteers, almost exclusively women, displayed their most valuable artifact by their beloved Missouri Artist in the main hall across from the grand staircase. In their home tours, they featured it.

Shortly before my involvement, several art connoisseurs, all of them men, stated, without explanation, and in a manner that the board and volunteers perceived as condescending and paternalistic, that the portrait was not by Bingham. Most of the women dismissed the pronouncement, but seeds of doubt grew. The board member asked if I could help resolve the concerns.

From the beginning, I knew George Caleb Bingham was not the artist. Nothing about the piece resembled Bingham — size, palette, pose, brushwork. The painting was taller and narrower than any portrait by Bingham; the palette, not as harmonious; the pose, a bit awkward; the brushwork, busier. Modeling was not as crisp or as psychologically engaging. But, there was something else that was absolutely wrong that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.

Finally, I figured it out. The subject’s clothing was different from any other Bingham portrait. She wore a slim skirt, a bustle, a laveuse (extra fabric draped over the hips like a washerwoman’s apron), and small straw bonnet with an upturned brim.

Fannie Medora Sombart
Dress Detail


These styles came into fashion in the 1880s: Bingham died in 1879.The fashion plates below show that in 1879, with swirls of fabric, designers emphasized the skirt. In 1880, the emphasis had moved up to hips through the addition of a laveuse and a bustle. The portrait subject appears to wear both a bustle and a laveuse, neither of which came into fashion until after George Caleb Bingham’s death.

Peterson’s Magazine, January, 1879
The swirling fabric of the skirt is the fashion emphasis

1880 Day Dresses
The addition of the laveuse places the fashion emphasis on the hips. An example of the straw hat with upturned brim is on the model at the far right. It was the latest fashion trend, but was not manufactured until 1880[1]

Despite my 100-page illustrated report detailing all the reasons why the portrait was not the work of George Caleb Bingham, the board members, honest and trustworthy people, had trouble believing that the prestigious and valuable donation had all been based on a lie.  How had this happened?

From local historians, I learned the anonymous donor from 1985, now dead, as was the art dealer, was one of the region’s wealthiest people. From a newspaper article, I learned the authenticator had been a socially prominent painter and gallery owner. He embellished the authentication with a story I had never heard. He said Bingham waited to paint the ears of his portrait subjects until he was paid. Guides at the historic home repeated the anecdote during their tour.

Through a friend of a friend, I found someone who had known the art dealer well. According to his former model, the man played the role of the artist to perfection. He was a man of sophisticated tastes. He wore a cravat. He was an extraordinary dinner guest. He had a fine sense of humor, yet time and again, he told tales of his life in eastern Europe. He was a freedom fighter who had spent time in the Gulag. From scavenged horsehair, he made brushes and painted portraits of the guards. In exchange for the portraits, the guards were to give him food or light duty. He learned not to finish a painting until the guard upheld his part of the bargain. For the rest of his life, he painted the ears in last. After his release from the forced labor camps, he escaped to the United States. He spent extravagantly, and often, he was out of money.

Still more research revealed that in the early 1980s, federal prosecutors accused the donor of altering her company’s scales and underpaying employees. The donor avoided jail-time, but owed a huge bill for tax fraud. Among the individual’s acquaintances was the artist turned art dealer. What arrangement did they have?  Where did the dealer find the portrait?  How much did he earn? It is public knowledge that he appraised the portrait at $48,000. At that time, 1985, the highest price a Bingham portrait had ever reached at auction was $16,500. Even following the rule of thumb of doubling the auction price for a private sale, the donation was over-valued. But his number gave the donor a valuable charitable deduction to reduce the tax bill.

Such lies and unethical actions are not uncommon in the art world. The ethical standards and guidelines are constantly broken. The average person does not know how to avoid art fraud. The average person does not notice the inherent conflict of interest of art dealers selling the same pieces they authenticate. For reasons I do not fully understood, I felt a commitment to right this wrong. As an art detective, am I quixotically tilting at windmills? Or am I restoring the integrity of George Caleb Bingham’s legacy – and the legacies of other artists – one portrait at a time? In the large scheme of life, this work is small, but with each correct attribution, it feels as though one small piece of the universe is back in order, and that fewer artists are spinning in their graves. Not all corrected attributions are heart-breaking. Far more often, the truth resonates with the portrait owner. More than 80% of my clients become life-long friends.


By Patricia Moss
Principal, Fine Art Investigations


(c) Fine Art Investigations, 2018
All Rights Reserved


[1] Marion Sichel, History of Women’s Costume, (Chelsea House Publications, 1990), 51.


Posted in American Portrait Research, Art Detectives | Leave a comment

Subject of Her Own Life: Sarah Goodridge

Artist Sarah Goodridge’s Self-Portrait at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston was simply part of some routine research.  But it gave me pause. Was this the pose and attitude of an antebellum spinster?

Image of Sarah Goodridge, Self-Portrait, 1830

Sarah Goodridge, Self-Portrait, 1830
Watercolor on Ivory, 3.75 x 2.5 inches
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts

Not like any I had seen before.

Sarah Goodridge, born in 1788, studied with Gilbert Stuart. He considered her portrait of him to be his most accurate representation. Goodridge adapted Stuart’s techniques of oil on canvas to watercolor on ivory so skillfully that her paintings possess more depth and sophistication than many other miniatures of the time.

1825 Sarah Goodridge, Gilbert Stuart, 1825 Watercolor on Ivory, 9 x 7 inches, MFA Boston 95.1423 Male

Sarah Goodridge, Gilbert Stuart, 1825
Watercolor on Ivory, 9 x 7 inches
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts 95.1423

The small painting brought to mind one of the most audacious — and sensual — of American antebellum portrait miniatures, Beauty Revealed, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Goodridge traveled from Boston to the District of Columbia in 1828 to deliver this other self-portrait to Daniel Webster (1782-1852).  A quarter century of  letters between the two provides no written documentation of their relationship. But, the miniature gives artistic documentation in the gentle folds of fabric entwining her “gift” to Webster and in its deep red frame with soft interior lining.

Sarah Goodridge, <i>Beauty Revealed</i>, 1828<br>Watercolor on Ivory, 2.5 x 3 inches<br> Metropolitan Museum of Art 2006.235.74

Sarah Goodridge, Beauty Revealed, 1828
Watercolor on Ivory, 2.5 x 3 inches
Metropolitan Museum of Art 2006.235.74

When Goodridge gave Beauty Revealed to Webster, he was a widower. His wife of  20 years, Grace Fletcher, had died earlier that year. In 1829, Webster married Caroline LeRoy (1797-1882), a woman younger and wealthier than the artist.  Goodridge painted her self-portrait in 1830. What does her expression reveal?

Goodridge painted more than 160 known miniatures. The detailed work took a toll on her eyesight. She was blind by 1851 and dead by 1853. She never married. At the current time, when a major focus of art interpretation is objectification of women and people of color, in her own age, this exquisite artist was the subject of her life and work.

(c) Fine Art Investigations, 2017
All Rights Reserved


Carrie Rebora Barratt, Gilbert Stuart, Ellen Gross Miles, Gilbert Stuart, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004, 291.

Carrie Rebora Barratt, Lori Zaba, American Portrait Miniatures in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2010, 125.

Dale T. Johnson,  American Portrait Miniatures in the Manney Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1990, 126-127.

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Mystery of “A Descendant of David Rittenhouse”

The clue to solving the mystery of an antebellum portrait of a young woman was in the auction house description, “the subject was a relative of David Rittenhouse (1732-1796), first director of the U. S. Mint.” The name rang a bell, and a bit of research revealed that David Rittenhouse was also one of early America’s foremost mathematicians and scientists, second only to his friend Benjamin Franklin. How could a portrait of a descendant be by an unknown artist? How could such a demure, poised young woman be nameless?

Family History of "A Descendant of David Rittenhouse," ca. 1845

A Descendant of David Rittenhouse, ca. 1845
Oil on Canvas, 29.5 x 24.5 inches
Private Collection


The investigation began, as always, by determining when the portrait was painted. Only in the mid-1840s did women’s hairstyles combine a deep wave on the cheek with an exposed ear, the date could easily be placed in the mid-1840s. The next question was where.


Initial genealogical research into the family of David Rittenhouse disclosed that the family remained in or near Philadelphia for generations.


The auction house supplied a handwritten note and postmarked envelopes that the seller retained from his private purchase in Philadelphia in 1976. The letter contained little salient information concerning either the provenance of the portrait or the identity of subject or artist. The signature was not completely decipherable and did not fully match the monogram on the stationery. The postmark on the front of the envelope and the return address and note on the back of the envelope provided clues. The postmark was Flourtown, Pennsylvania. The return address named the owners, Irvin and Dolores Boyd, of Meetinghouse Antiques in Fort Washington, Pennsylvania. The note read “Female Portrait in Living Room,”  indicating the portrait was part of an estate the Boyds purchased or a sale they managed.

The Boyds founded Meetinghouse Antiques in 1959. It still exists today and is owned by their daughter, Priscilla Boyd Angelos, as Boyd’s Antiques.[1] I contacted her. Much to my surprise, she responded, “I do know the woman who sold it to my dad was a descendant. She lived in our town and just died at the age of 88 in August of last year.” She also knew the married name of the individual. The married name fit the stationery’s monogram.

The provenance for A David Rittenhouse Descendant became:

By descent in the Rittenhouse family, sold to Meetinghouse Antiques, Fort Washington, Pennsylvania, 1976; sold to private individual in Cuyahoga, Ohio, 1976; to public auction in 2014, to current owner.

But which descendant was the sitter and who was the artist?


The name of the artist proved elusive until I studied the Rittenhouse family thoroughly. As I researched, I kept in mind that since the portrait subject appeared to be in her late teens or early twenties, and that the date of the painting was circa 1845, her birthdate should be somewhere around 1820. But, to learn for certain who she was, I had to begin with David Rittenhouse. Several facts deepened my study. The family history of the young woman in the portrait included not just the brilliant mathematician/ scientist, David Rittenhouse, but also Jonathan Dickinson, president of Princeton University; Founding Father Jonathan Dickinson Sergeant; Thomas Barton, the designer of the Great Seal of the Republic, and William Paul Crillon Barton, first Surgeon General of the United States Navy. The complete story of the fascinating family history can be found here. Below is a family tree illustrated with prints and portraits. See footnote [2] for further information on each image.

Illustrated Family Tree of A Descendant of David Rittenhouse [2]

Rittenhouse Family Tree

In following the family history of David Rittenhouse to 1845, I discovered that by the fourth generation, the Rittenhouse genealogy decreased to only one branch. The name Barton replaced David Rittenhouse’s surname when his granddaughter, Esther Sergeant married William Paul Crillon Barton. William and Hetty Sergeant Barton had 14 children. Seven daughters lived to adulthood.

  1. Elizabeth Barton (1815-1895) (Mrs. Samuel Abbott)
  2. Julia Barton (1817-1884) (Mrs. Jonathan Dickinson Miller)
  3. Adeline Barton(1818-1876) (Mrs. Thomas Howard Paschl)
  4. Emma Barton (1822-1882) (Mrs. Frederick Carroll Brewster)
  5. Mary Barton (1823-1856) (unmarried)
  6. Lavinia Barton(1827-1895) (unmarried)
  7. Selina Barton (1830-after 1871) (unmarried)

One of those daughters must be the subject of the portrait. The two oldest daughters, Elizabeth and Julia, both married in 1840. But, the sitter did not wear a wedding ring so neither is the subject of Portrait of a Young Lady. Adeline was 27 in 1845 and probably was too old to be the subject. Emma was 23; Mary, 22; Lavinia, 18; and Selina, 15. One of those four daughters is the young woman in the portrait. A search in all the historical societies and archives in and around Philadelphia area brought up nothing for any of those names.  For now, the identity of the subject is Miss Barton. Still left to be known was the artist’s identity.


American Portrait Artist Identification

Thomas Sully (1783–1872), Mother and Son, 1840
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York
Bequest of Francis T. Sully Darley, 1914
Accession Number: 14.126.5, www.metmuseum.org

In the mid-1840s, America’s first art center, Philadelphia, still held its own against New York City’s growing art world. The most popular portrait artist in Philadelphia for decades was Thomas Sully (1783-1872). Long, graceful fluid lines characterize Sully. He came from a family of actors and his paintings often have the feel of a stage set. Portrait of a Young Lady was far too practical to be by Sully. The portrait was also too anatomically correct. Sully could paint a fine picture, but when closely examined, necks and arms are disproportionately long.

Sully’s son-in-law, John Neagle, rivaled his father-in-law in popularity. Some of his portraits exhibited the same dark palette, similar dark eyes, a comparable light source and similar shading as Miss Barton. But Neagle relished putting the accoutrements of a subject’s profession in portraits. There were none in A Descendant of David Rittenhouse. Morellian Analysis proved John Neagle was not the artist.

The answer to the artist’s identity lay in the foray into family history. A cabinet-sized portrait of the father of the Barton sisters exists, Dr. William P. C. Barton, 1831, owned by the Philadelphia Museum of Fine Arts. The artist: William James Hubard. I immediately saw not only the family resemblance, but also the hand of the same artist.

An image of a portrait by William James Hubard, Henrietta and Sarah Mayo, shared by an expert on Hubard, confirmed the identity of the artist of Miss Barton.

William James Hubard (1807-1862)  deserves a page unto himself. Find it here.


Rittenhouse, Art authentication

William James Hubard, Miss Barton, ca. 1844
Oil on Canvas, 29.5 x 24.5 inches
Private Collection

In my opinion, the portrait of a Descendant of David Rittenhouse, purchased at auction in November 2014, was painted by William James Hubard (1807-1862) in Philadelphia, probably in the late winter or early spring of 1844. The subject was Miss Barton, one of four daughters of William P. C. and Elizabeth Rittenhouse Sergeant Barton: Emma Barton (Mrs. Frederick Carroll Brewster) (1822-1882), Mary Barton (1823-1856), Lavinia Barton (1827-1895); or Selina Barton(1830-after 1871).


(c) Fine Art Investigations, 2017
All Rights Reserved


[1] Priscilla Boyd Angelos, “About Us,” Meetinghouse Antiques, www.boydsantiques.com; Bonnie L. Cook, “Dolores H. Boyd, 79; sold antiques in Ft. Washington,” Philadelphia Inquirer, July 12, 2009

[2] Images in the family tree, beginning at top left and moving clockwise, are: Edward Ludlow Mooney, Jonathan Dickinson, Oil on Canvas, 30 x 25 inches, Princeton University Art Museum, Gift of the Artist, PP6; Charles Willson Peale, David Rittenhouse, 1796, Oil on Canvas, 49 x 39 1/2 inches, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian, NPG.98.73; Unknown Artist, Thomas Barton, No Date (ND), “Thomas Barton (1730-1780),” Penn Biographies, http://www.archives.upenn.edu/people/1700s/barton_tho.html, accessed December 2014; Copy after Charles Willson Peale, William Barton, ND. “William Barton (heraldist),” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Barton_(heraldist), accessed December 2014; William James Hubard, Dr. William P. C. Barton, 1831, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2009.77.1; Miss Barton; Charles Willson Peale, Elizabeth Rittenhouse (Mrs. Jonathan Dickinson Sergeant), 1789, Private Collection; Charles Willson Peale, Jonathan Dickinson Sergeant, 1786, Gift of Jonathan Dickinson Sergeant, Princeton University Art Museum, PP163.


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Portrait of an Unknown Gentleman

Portrait of an Unknown Gentleman

“Who was the artist?” the owners wanted to know.  The Portrait of an Unknown Gentleman was an especially hard project because the painting had little provenance. The owners purchased the portrait in Wisconsin at auction.  The estate may have been from Iowa, but the owners, antique dealers, thought the portrait looked southern. The only other clue was a nearly illegible signature at the upper right on the back of the relined painting.

Image of Portrait of a Gentleman, 1842

Portrait of an Unknown Gentleman, 1842

Image of portrait's signature and date (verso)

Portrait of an Unknown Gentleman Signature and date (verso)

The placement and the illegibility reminded me of other portraits where a family member had scrawled the sitter’s name to preserve the name of the ancestor. When signing the back of a canvas, antebellum portrait artists usually printed their names with precision, or at the very least, with artistry. The first initial “J.”, was fairly clear, as was the date, 1842, but the middle initial? The last name?


Watson” and I puzzled over the name. We enlarged it, changed the contrast, the color, tried various name combinations and attempted to match the various permutations with lists of artists and census records. We could not decipher a combination of letters that fit any name.

In the meantime, without provenance, I could give only a non-binding attribution. I compared Portrait of a Gentleman to examples from hundreds of antebellum American artists. The work of the peripatetic pair of artists Trevor Thomas Fowler (abt. 1800-1881) and Theodore Sidney Moise (1808–1885) seemed most comparable, for example, The Children of Orlando Brownin the eyes, eyebrows, mouths, stance of the subjects, and in the corner foliage. I must emphasize that this was a non-binding attribution. The owners saw the resemblances, too. I promised them that I would continue to try to find the name of the sitter.

Solving the Mystery

When I returned to the portrait. I printed out the best rendition of the signature and tried several different research paths but, as before, every attempt led to a dead end. But, I kept the piece of paper on my desk and glanced at it from time to time to see if a name would materialize. In the midst of a completely different research project,  I came across a hauntingly beautiful Portrait of an African-American Woman at the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta, Georgia. The pose, the expression, the technique, all echoed Portrait of an Unknown Gentleman. The portrait artist was James Hamilton Shegogue (1806-1872).  Suddenly, the scrawl on the back of Portrait of Unknown Gentleman became was readable: “Ha. The name identified the artist, not the sitter. Judging simply by the portrait at the Morris, Shegogue’s better style fit Portrait of Unknown Gentleman than did the style of Theodore Moise. Both men were from Charleston, South Carolina, and were nearly the same  age. Could they have studied together? Known one another? Shared techniques? Is that why I saw a similarity?

Next came the quest to find more examples by Shegogue. Through the Inventory of American Paintings, I found a small handful of images of drawings, prints, and a poor photograph. The Frick Art Reference Library was the best resource, with 15 black & white images.

The Artist

Equally frustrating was the search for biographical information. I was able to learn that James Hamilton Shegogue was born in Charleston, South Carolina, on February 22, 1806. By 1833, he was in Connecticut, where he married Sarah Hamilton Lord (1812-1906). James and Sarah would have three children. In 1834, Shegogue exhibited three paintings at the National Academy of Design. In following years, the Academy included increasing numbers of his artworks. He was elected an Academian in 1843. In 1849, members voted him onto the board for a three-year term as corresponding secretary.

I reviewed records of the National Academy. In 1842, Shegogue exhibited four portraits of a “Gentleman.” The portrait pictured above may be one of those.

Image of National Academy of Design Record for James Hamilton Shegogue for 1834-1845

National Academy of Design Record for James Hamilton Shegogue


Shegogue NAD Record

National Academy of Design Record for James Hamilton Shegogue
Detail from 1842

The New York Historical Society owns J. H. Shegogue’s copy of the Henry Inman (1801-1846) portrait of Nicholas Fish.  Shegogue expressed his admiration for Inman in an 1855 note to his friend Thomas Seir Cummings (1804-1894): “It gives me great pleasure to accept as a memento of our friendship the sketchbook of our late friend Henry Inman. Nothing that you have selected would be more esteemed by me”[1]   

Shegogue retired to Warrenville, Connecticut, in 1862. “His reputation faded rather quickly and today he remains an obscure figure among mid-nineteenth century New York artists.”[2]   He died in 1872.


Now, when I look at the scrawled signature from Portrait of an Unknown Gentleman, all I see is “J. H. Shegogue.” Some mysteries are easier to solve than others. Portrait of an Unknown Gentleman was not one.  The antique dealers who own the painting enjoy the portrait on the wall of their home. Now they know the subject was probably a young man from New York City. Since this long-term project began, an 1833 portrait by James Hamilton Shegogue appeared in the marketplace. Last week, Christie’s sold a multi-figured Civil War genre work, The Zouave Que Vive, by Shegogue for a respectable hammer price of $32,000 — $40,000 with buyer’s premium. Like the words scrawled on the back of Portrait of an Unknown Gentleman, is the name of James Hamilton Shegogue rising from near anonymity?


(c) Fine Art Investigations, 2017
All Rights Reserved


[1]Cummings Papers, James Hamilton Shegogue to Thomas Seir Cummings, December 27, 1855, reel NC1, frame 198, in Teresa A. Carbone, American Paintings in the Brooklyn Museum, Artists born by 1876, Volume 2 (D. Giles, 2006), 943.

[2] Ibid.

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The Puzzled Witness

The Artist at Center Stage

The Puzzled Witness, 1874, is George Caleb Bingham’s often overlooked last genre work. For 40 years, Bingham witnessed the people and the the politics of Missouri, and the nation. With hard-earned artistic skill and well-reasoned political perspective, he portrayed his observations. Sometimes he put himself in the picture as one of many characters in a scene, usually as the one recording the events. In The Puzzled Witness, he placed himself at center stage for the first time[1] and evaluated his role as witness.

Image of painting by George Caleb Bingham, Puzzled Witness 1874

George Caleb Bingham, The Puzzled Witness, 1874
Oil on Canvas, 23 x 28 inches
Private Collection


Unlike Bingham’s best-known colorful, active outdoor paintings of the antebellum years, Puzzled Witness is set in a dark, motionless interior.  This last genre scene is even darker that his earlier, lesser known artworks such as Country Politician1849, or The Checker Players1850, and lit more dramatically. The composition’s asymmetry focuses the viewer’s eye on the witness. He is a short man clothed in plain homespun. He wears boots and clutches a rumpled hat. His dog sits behind him. The rest of the men in the room wear shirts with stiff upturned collars, suits, vests and shoes. The witness is the only participant who does not a tie. The defense attorney sits at the end of a cluttered table. Scraps of paper have fallen to the wooden floor. The clutter is reminiscent of the symbolic disorder in the foreground of Raftsmen Playing Cards1847, or In a Quandary, 1851. Bright light on the clear portion of the tabletop draws attention to the witness’ empty white shirt. This focus has no other precedent in Bingham’s work.


In 1874, a St. Louis art critic interpreted The Puzzled Witness:

The artist has seized upon the strong moment. The witness for the prosecution is up, and the attorney for the defense has just put a puzzler to him. It is a stunner. The witness is, in point of fact, stumped. He scratches his head for the answer, but it don’t seem to be there, or perhaps, it is a neat bit of acting.

Missouri Statesman, 11 December 1874

In contrast to the forthrightness of Order No. 11 (see below), Bingham reveled in ambiguity in The Puzzled Witness. The St. Louis art critic could not determine if the witness was truly “stumped” or acting.

In 1874, nearly a decade after the end of the Civil War, some of the Missourians displaced by Order No. 11 had returned to the region. They, and those who had remained in the region throughout the war, tried to recover their lives, but many were disenfranchised. To assimilate into the post-war world, these usually rural folk had to dissemble their true feelings. They had not yet forged a Midwestern identity to circumvent the Union-Confederate division.  The Puzzled Witness may represent their awkward circumstances.


Even more, the painting addresses Bingham’s feelings. George Caleb Bingham is the puzzled witness. Before and during the Civil War, Bingham worked for a unified nation with a strong central government. When that same government failed to halt the atrocities of total war on the western frontier, as he later memorialized in Order No. 11 / Martial Law, his faith diminished, but he continued to serve as state treasurer for Missouri’s Union government. The wounds of war were still too fresh for others to comprehend his distinction between questioning of the excesses of governmental power versus treasonous criticism.  These misunderstandings of the painting’s intent by critics and viewers widened his personal ideological rift.  Later, the government denied him compensation for his Kansas City home that was confiscated and destroyed by Union soldiers. Still he worked as Missouri’s Adjutant General to help other victims receive justice.  He’d been a Whig, upholding republican principles for most of his life, but by 1878, his devotion to a  strong federal government wavered. He had married a relative of Stonewall Jackson and asked to be buried facing south. The resemblance to the central character and to Bingham can be seen in an 1878 photograph: straight bushy eyebrows, square face, strong chin.

The Puzzled Witness gazes at the tabletop. The clutter may symbolize the complicated history he witnessed.  After the Civil War and during and after Reconstruction, there was no easy answer for life at the Kansas – Missouri border or for an artist of deep thoughts and feelings.

Order No. 11

(c) Fine Art Investigations, 2013
All Rights Reserved

[1] Michael Edward Shapiro posited the theory that George Caleb Bingham himself is the “bewildered” witness in  George Caleb Bingham,  (Harry N. Abrams and the National Museum of American Art, 1993), 135, 137.


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