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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Stories Behind the Portraits: Frances Booker George

This gallery contains 2 photos.

Portrait If you are already familiar with the portraits of George Caleb Bingham, especially Mary Ann Gilliss (Mrs. Benoist Troost) at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, then you know at first glance that George Caleb Bingham … Continue reading

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Busy, happy holiday

What a busy, happy holiday for the George Caleb Bingham portraits branch of Fine Art Investigations. First came the discovery of two long sought after Bingham portraits: Joshua Belden (1802-1877) and Agnes Elizabeth Lewis (Mrs. Joshua Belden) (1806-1843). Then came fresh photographs of a portrait that is an old friend, Sallie Neill.

George Caleb Bingham, Mrs Henry A Neill (Sarah Ann (Sallie) Elliott), 1871 (Detail)

George Caleb Bingham, Sarah Ann (Sallie) Elliott (Mrs Henry A Neill), 1871
Oil on Canvas, 30 x 25 inches
Private Collection (Detail)

I never cease to be amazed at the difference in black and white images, such as those of the Beldens below, from color images in these links to detail color photographs of Joshua Belden and Agnes Lewis (Mrs. Joshua Belden).

Joshua Belden was a man with dark hair and fair skin, younger and handsomer than in the b & w image. Bingham, with his usual astute perceptions, engages the viewer to wonder about the personality of the man. Agnes Belden’s black dress and white fichu accentuates her statuesque beauty.

The Belden portraits eluded me because they were sold shortly before the existence of online databases for art sales.  When I think of the time I spent trying to track down a will for the widow of the previous owner… I am grateful to the owner of these portraits who rescued them from oblivion and who so willing shared images and information.


(c) Fine Art Investigations, 2017
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Another new Bingham – Louisa Watkins

George Caleb Bingham, Louisa Ann Conwell (Mrs. John Q. Watkins), 1867
Oil on Canvas, 30 x 25 inches
Private Collection

Louisa Watkins is the fourth post-Civil War posthumous portrait I have seen that depicts  a person George Caleb Bingham may never have met or barely knew. To create the portrait, he had to rely on a photograph. The others are Sarah Ann (Sallie) Elliott (Mrs. Henry A. Neill)Julia George, and Julia’s brother, Richard Booker George. All four subjects sit facing forward, in the immovable and resolute manner that people sat before a camera in the early days of photography.

With its widened temples, Louisa Watkins has the tell-tale “Bingham look.” Some of the Missouri Artist’s students could mimic that “look,” which causes mis-attributions even in the present day. But, everything about Louisa Watkins from hair to lace, to fingertips, speak of George Caleb Bingham. Provenance proved my theory that the Missouri Artist painted the portrait from a photograph after the sitter’s death.


The portrait’s ownership descended through the family. The most recent owner had in her possession a small document, handwritten in 1938 by a Watkins descendant.  I have learned that family memories can be the least reliable source, but the detail of this note rang true, especially the specifics of, “Daguerrotype made when she was 18 yrs. old. Painting made in 1867 from daguerrotype by Col. Geo. C. Bingham.”

1938 Louise Watkins Provenance Note

Provenance note for Louise Watkins Portrait, Written in 1938 
(Conwell was actual maiden name)




Louisa Ann Conwell was born on August 20, 1839, in Xenia, Greene, Ohio, to Richard Conwell and his second wife, Eliza Beatty. (The note writer was a few months off in the written recollection, but close enough.) Louisa was the eleventh of her father’s twelve children. Her father died when she was five. As her widowed mother raised her six children and a mentally challenged step-daughter, she had the help of at least three of her older stepsons, who lived nearby with their families.[1]  

In the late 1850s, Louisa, along with several of her older siblings and half siblings, moved to Kansas City, Missouri.  When she was 19, she met a 29-year-old businessman,  John Q. Watkins. On June 9, 1859, she married him. Their first child, Judith Chevallie Watkins, was born  on July 2, 1861.  A year later, on June 9, 1863, Louisa gave birth to a son, John Q. Watkins, Jr.[2]  

John Q. Watkins purchased Kansas City’s oldest bank in 1864. Originally founded in 1856 as Coates & Hood, with a subsidiary real estate firm, Northrup & Co., the bank was later renamed Northrup & Chick.[3] As Watkins Bank, the facility moved to a new building at the corner of Main Street and 2nd Avenue.[4]

Louisa and John’s third child, Robertine Lela, was born May 10, 1865. That same year, the men of Kansas City elected Watkins to the City Council.[5]

Louisa gave birth to their fourth child, her namesake, on May 11, 1867. The birth must not have been an easy one because a little over a month later, on June 20, 1867, Louisa died. Her resting place is in Kansas City’s historic Union Cemetery.

After her death, Louisa’s oldest child, Judith Chevallie, or Vally as she was called, 5, was sent to live in a convent school.[6] Watkins’ banking partner, George Bryant, and his wife, Bettie, adopted the baby, “Lulu,” and raised the younger daughter, Lela.[7] The early life of her son is not currently known, but by the age of 17, he lived with his father in rooms in or near the bank.[8]

Watkins never remarried. He invested in Kansas City’s first streetcar company and in the county’s first Horse Railroad Company in 1870. By 1874, he owned a silver mill in Colorado. The bankers of Kansas City elected him president of the town’s Clearinghouse.9]  When Watkins retired, he returned to his family’s Virginia plantation. There he died in 1899 at the age of 70.


Johnston Lykins (1800-1876), George Caleb Bingham’s good friend, presided over the Kansas City branch of the Mechanic’s Bank.  Lykins and John Q. Watkins would have interacted professionally. They probably attended some of the same social functions and charity events. Bingham was part of the same circle. He may have met Louisa Watkins before her death.  In addition to stylistic and historic evidence,[10]  the feature of the Watkins portrait that most defines it as a Bingham is its psychological engagement. Bingham imbued Louisa Watkins with an almost innocent, yet enigmatic, expression. That the model for the portrait was a tiny, ten-year-old daguerreotype makes the feat all the more amazing.


(c) Fine Art Investigations, 2015
      All Rights Reserved


[1] Family information derived from public records on Ancestry.com, including birth and death records, and census data on family members for the years 1840-1880. 


[3] Carrie Westlake Whitney, Kansas City. Missouri: Its History and Its People, 1808-1908, Volume 1  (Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1908), 145. Later in the history, Whitney used 1865 as the date of transfer.  

[4]Early view of Main Street and 2nd with the Watkins Bank in view on the corner. Delaware Street bluff in view behind the bank, Photograph dated July 1868, Scrapbook Collection #3 – Historic Kansas City, P24, Box 1, Page 7, Number 29, Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library,  http://www.kchistory.org/cdm4/item_viewer.php?CISOROOT=/19th&CISOPTR=369&CISOBOX=1&REC=10 , accessed November 2016.

[5] Whitney, op. cit., 675

[6] United States Census Bureau, Census of the United States, “St. Teresa’s Academy Catholic Convent,” June 8, 1870;  Third Ward, Sub 43, Kansas City, Jackson County, Missouri; National Archives and Records Administration, Series M593, Roll 782 , page 33, lines 35. .

[7] United States Census Bureau, Census of the United States, “Household of John Q. Watkins,” July 6, 1880; Kansas City, Jackson County, Missouri; National Archives and Records Administration Roll: 692, page 23, lines 20-21

[8] Un-sourced Statement in Ancestry.com, but confirmed with 1880 census, “Household of George Bryant,” Kansas City, Jackson County, Missouri, page D, lines 17-20; Watkins and Bryant partnership confirmed in Wm. Crosby and H. P. Nicholes, “Private Bankers, Missouri,” The Bankers’ Magazine, and Statistical Register, Volume 20 (Banks & Banking, 1866), 93.

[9] Whitney, op. cit., 675; Rocky Mountain News Print Company, The Colorado Directory of Mines: Containing a Description of the Mines and Mills, and the Mining and Milling Corporations of Colorado, Arranged Alphabetically by Counties, and A History of Colorado from Its Early Settlement to the Present Time (Rocky Mountain News Print Company, 1879), 193; I. S. Homans, The Banker’s Almanac and Register, 1877 (Banker’s Magazine, 1877), 83.

[10] In May 1870, Bingham moved from Independence, Missouri, the town adjacent to Kansas City to the east, into a new studio above Shannon’s Dry Goods Store in Kansas City, at 3rd and Main, one block from Watkins Bank.  Bingham’s proximity to Watkins made him the logical choice  His national and regional reputation made him the artist of choice for Kansas City businessmen and socialites.



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Robert W. Weir and Gulian C. Verplanck

Portrait of Robert Walter Weir, ca. 1885, by his son Julian Alden Weir (Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

Julian Alden Weir, Robert Walter Weir, ca. 1885
Oil on Canvas 24 x 20 inches
Los Angeles County Museum of Art M.72.104.1

Fine Art Investigations researches more than portraits.  One in-depth research project involved the artistry of Robert Walter Weir (1803-1889), who taught drawing at West Point for 42 years. Drawing was then a necessary skill for military officers, not only for creating maps or preserving exploratory discoveries in the age before cameras, but because a trained eye could make better field decisions.  Influential in Weir’s appointment to the military academy, was his friend Gulian Crommelin Verplanck (1786-1870), a descendant of New York’s early Dutch settlers, a history teacher at the National Academy of Design, a politician, and author.

 John Wesley Jarvis, Gulian C. Verplanck, ca. 1811

John Wesley Jarvis, Gulian C. Verplanck, ca. 1811
Oil on Panel, 28.5 x 33 inches
Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000.161

Both men were members of the Sketch Club, a friendly group of writers and artists that included William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878), Thomas Cole (1801-1848), Asher Brown Durand (1796-1886), Henry Inman (1801-1846) , and Samuel F. B. Morse (1791-1872). The goal of the club could be said to inspire one another, most famously through Durand’s painting, Kindred Spirits, 1849, depicting Cole and Bryant in the natural beauty of Kaaterskill Clove in the Catskills. But 15 years earlier, Weir and Verplanck inspired one another with a painting and a play.

On October 11, 1834, in the New-York Mirror, Verplanck wrote, “My friend Weir was at work upon a very pleasing landscape…It occurred to me that the picture would gain much additional interest by the addition of some historical figures, or a story connected with the scene.”

Gulian C. Verplank's "Bourbon's Last March" 1835 and Robert Walter Weir painting

Excerpt from Gulian C. Verplanck’s “Bourbon’s Last March” from 1835 Gift Book

Weir added historical figures to his landscape study of light and shadow. Its lengthy title, The Duke of Bourbon’s Halt at La Riccia on His March to the Assau Rome May 3d, 1527  fit the play Verplanck published in the New-York Mirror, and which was later included in a Gift Book.

Robert Walker Weir, The Duke of Bourbon's Halt at La Riccia on His March to the Assau Rome May 3d, 1527, 1834

Robert Walker Weir, The Duke of Bourbon’s Halt at La Riccia on His March to the Assau Rome May 3d, 1527, 1834
Oil on Wood, 35 x 47 inches
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, M.88.2.jpg

1834 Bourbon's Last March by Gulian C. Verplank New York Mirror

New-York Mirror, Saturday, October 11, 1834 with Verplanck’s play based on Weir’s painting


Frontispiece of "The Token"

The Token, 1835 Gift Book that included G. C. Verplanck’s play, “The Duke of Bourbon” based on the painting by R. W. Weir

Three years after the initial collaborative effort, Verplanck was influential in Weir’s commission to create one of four historic paintings for the rotunda of the nation’s capitol. On Christmas Day, 1837, Weir’s fifth child was born and later christened Gulian Verplank Weir. The painting that grew from the mutual inspiration of the artist and the politician was Weir’s most famous work, Embarkation of the Pilgrims, 1843.

Weir Embarkation of the Pilgrims

Robert Walter Weir, Embarkation of the Pilgrims, 1843
Oil on Canvas, 12 x 18 feet
United States Capitol Rotunda.jpg

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Mystery of Five Family Portraits: IV


The last two family portraits in need of artist identification were Mary Elizabeth Lee (1827-1902) and her husband, whose middle name was the same as his last, Dr. Robert Fleming Fleming (1816-1871). Mary Elizabeth was a daughter the subject of the second portrait, Juliana Marian Prosser (1805-1886) and Colonel Richard Bland Lee II (1797-1875), a grandson of the subject of the first portrait, Henry Lee II.


Mary Elizabeth was 19, when she married Dr. Robert F. Fleming in St. Louis, Missouri, on June 2, 1847. At 30, Fleming was eleven years her senior. By 1850, the couple lived in Fredericktown, Missouri, in St. Michael’s Township at the heart of southeast Missouri’s Lead Belt. The French founded the original settlement in 1717 as St. Michel, near Mine La Motte, the first lead mine west of the Mississippi, and for many decades, the most important lead mine on the continent.  To dig the raw material for bullets and cannon balls, the French imported slaves from Santo Domingo. After the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, land ownership slowly transferred from French to American hands. In 1838, a Philadelphia syndicate, that included the Fleming family, bought Mine La Motte for $16,666.  The company excavated up to a million pounds of lead each year, as well as large amounts of cooper, nickel, and cobalt. Dr. Robert Fleming and his brothers, Thomas Flinn Fleming (1820-1869) and Alfred Walton Fleming (1828-1898), managed the enterprise.[1]

Union and Confederate soldiers fought for control of Mine La Motte at the Battle of Fredericktown on October 21, 1861. Rebel casualties numbered 62. Federal forces did not keep a record of their losses, but their victory assured ammunition for the Union throughout the war. [2]   The Flemings were not in Fredericktown to witness the fight. Charleston, South Carolina was Robert’s birthplace and Mary Elizabeth’s people were staunchly Virginian. Sometime after June 1, 1860, when the census taker counted them in  Fredericktown, Missouri, they moved to Washington, D. C., where their son Walton was born on August 31, 1861. By December 1, 1863, they lived in St. Louis, Missouri, where Mary Elizabeth gave birth to a daughter, Julia (1863-1948). By the end of the decade, their home was in Alexandria, Virginia.[3]

Robert Fleming died August 19, 1871 at the age of 54. Mary Elizabeth, widowed at 44 and left with six children from 23 to 3, survived him by more than 30 years. She died April 20, 1902 in Washington, D. C., at the age of 74.


Manuel Joachim de Franca

The portrait of Mary Elizabeth Fleming was signed, “MJ Franca, 1848.” Especially since the Fleming family lived in Missouri, where the most popular portrait artist in antebellum years was Manuel Joachim de Franca (1808-1865), the artist was easy to identify. Born on the Portuguese island of Madeira in 1808,  de Franca fled to the United States during the Napoleonic Wars. He Americanized his name but his art retained the European elegance he learned in Madrid. His portraits merge continental gracefulness with New World honesty. A ovoid composition typifies his style.

Samuel Bell Waugh

Dr. Robert Fleming Fleming’s portrait was almost certainly painted posthumously. At the bottom left, a conservator noted a signature and date. The date could be read as 1871, but the signature itself was indecipherable.

Indecipherable artist's signature in artist identification

Indecipherable artist’s signature

The painting’s style did not fit the oeuvre of the few portrait artists working in Alexandria, Virginia, in the early 1870s.  Through educated sleuthing, Fine Art Investigations discovered a record of a portrait of Robert’s brother, Thomas, by Samuel Bell Waugh (1814–1885), and then found an example of Waugh’s signature:

Samuel Bell Waugh Signature

Samuel Bell Waugh Signature

Waugh’s thick flourish on the “g” in his last name and in the “7” of the date, as well as the two brush strokes that form the “h,” are all nearly identical in both paintings. Looking carefully, the “S” and “B” of the artist’s first initials on the Fleming portrait became recognizable. Comparing images of the portrait of Dr. Robert F. Fleming with works by Waugh from the same time period, showed the same ruddy palette and a similar rather stiff, but prestigious pose.


The investigation began with five family portraits of five family members, most from different branches of the same family tree.  The owner knew the names of four of the sitters, but not the names of the five artists. At the end of the investigation, Fine Art Investigations had given her the  names of all five sitters and the names of all five portrait artists. At the same time, what an enjoyable journey it was  traveling through history with the portrait owner’s family from colonial Virginia with American patriots and early portraitists, to Philadelphia in the early republic with merchants and artist , to Maryland to the story of slaves freed before the Civil War, and, finally, to Missouri, to  the history and significance of lead mining. What fascinating tales discovered while identifying the artists of five family portraits.

(c) Fine Art Investigations, 2012
All Rights Reserved


[1] United States Census Bureau, Seventh Census of the United States, Madison County, Missouri, October 28, 1850, NARA Roll: M432_405, Page: 222B, lines 6-11; Robert Allen Campbell, Campbell’s Gazetteer of Missouri: From Articles Contributed by Prominent Gentlemen in Each County of the State, and Information Collected and Collated from Official and Other Authentic Sources (R. A. Campbell, 1875), 342; Howard Louis Conard, Encyclopedia of the History of Missouri: A Compendium of History and Biography for Ready Reference, Volume 2, (Southern history Company, Haldeman, Conard & Company, proprietors, 1901), 472.

[2] National Park Service, “Fredericktown,” Civil War Battle Summaries, https://www.nps.gov/abpp/battles/mo007.htm, accessed September 2016.

[3] United States Census Bureau, Eighth Census of the United States, “Household of Robert F. Fleming,” St Michael, Madison, Missouri; Roll: M653_63, Page 7, lines 36-40; page 8, lines 1-2.


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The Mystery of Five Family Portraits: III


The third of the five family portraits depicted Judge Lewis Penn Witherspoon Balch (1787-1868). His grandson would marry a granddaughter of Julia Anna Marion Prosser (Mrs. Richard Bland Lee II) (1805-1886).


Lewis Penn Witherspoon Balch, ca. 1837.

Lewis Penn Witherspoon Balch

Balch was born on July 31, 1787, in Georgetown, District of Columbia. His father, the Reverend Stephen Bloomer Balch (1747-1833), was the founder and leader of Georgetown Presbyterian Church. The elder Balch studied with John Witherspoon (1723–1794), who was president of Princeton College, a signator of the Declaration of Independence, and a member of Congress.  With the patriot’s name as part of his own, it is not surprising that L. W. P. Balch attended  Princeton. After graduating in 1806, he studied law in Maryland under Roger B. Taney, who would become the fifth United States Supreme Court Justice and infamous for his decision in the Dred Scott case. Balch did not inherit Taney’s views. He eventually became a staunch abolitionist.

On March 14, 1811, Balch married Elizabeth Wever (1790-1874). By 1812, they lived in Leesburg, Virginia, where  Lewis not only practiced law but was a member of the  Loudon County Militia. Their first child was named for his father. Eleven more children followed, but only six lived past childhood. By 1830, the family moved to Frederick County, Maryland. [1]

Balch acted on his emancipation beliefs in 1834. Not only did he free his 22 slaves, he took them to Baltimore “and offered to send [them] to Liberia at his own expense.” The merchants of Baltimore “sold him what was necessary to fit out these twenty two negroes for the voyage to Liberia at cost price.” Even at cost, Balch spent $1,500, or about $40,000 today, to repatriate the people he had previously owned. A biographer wrote in an 1897 family history that Lewis Penn Witherspoon Balch  “impoverished himself” by acting upon his convictions.[2]  This may explain an effusive entry Balch later wrote in his diary:

Jany 27 1842  This day I received…a commission of deputy Atty Gen for Frederick County in place of James Raymond Esq resigned. The office is worth perhaps $1500 per annum but may be the means of increasing my other professional business. Bless the Lord Oh my soul and all that is within me bless his holy name.3] 

The year 1850 found the Balchs in Charleston, Jefferson County, Virginia, which became a part of West Virginia when war split the state. So strong a Union supporter was Balch that he cheered federal forces near his home even as “bullets were flying thick.” Following the war, he was appointed a state circuit judge for the northeastern counties of West Virginia.  He died in Leesburg in 1868.[4]


Given his birth date of 1787, his obvious maturity, his collar height, rolled jacket collar, and quiff, the portrait was probably painted between 1835 and 1845.


From his whereabouts in public records, Balch’s portrait should have been painted in Frederick, Maryland, or Charleston, West Virginia.  His personal diary, however, recorded travels outside the southern states. In 1839, he attended the wedding of his son, the Reverend Lewis Penn Witherspoon Balch, Jr. (1814-1875), at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, in New York City. The younger L. P. W. Balch wed Anna Jay (1813-1849), granddaughter of the first Supreme Court Justice John Jay (1745–1829), and daughter of William Jay (1789-1858), a founder of the American Antislavery Society. Balch was in New York City again for the Christmas and New Year holidays in 1843. [5] 


Image of Nathaniel Jocelyn, Sengbe Pieh (Joseph Cinqué), 1839

Nathaniel Jocelyn, Sengbe Pieh (Joseph Cinqué), 1839
New Haven Colony Historical Society

While comparing the Balch portrait with others painted between 1835 -1 845, one painting gave me pause, Nathaniel Jocelyn’s rendering of Cinque, the slave who led the Amistad Revolt. Portrait composition often follows a formula, but beyond the similar poses, each painting serenely, but powerfully, depicts authoritative men caught in mid-action. As tempting as it was to attribute Judge Lewis Lewis Penn Witherspoon Balch to Jocelyn – and I was beyond tempted because an abolitionist artist immortalizing a southern abolitionist paints such a fine story – I finally returned to objective methodology.

In the most probable region, the area around Baltimore, Maryland, the portrait artists working in the mid-1830s to 1840s were William Edward West (1788-1857), Oliver Tarbell Eddy (1799-1868), Alfred Jacob Miller (1810-1874), and Matthew Henry Wilson (1814- 1892). Eddy’s style was simpler and more open; Miller, best known for his western scenes, used looser brushstrokes; and Wilson’s style was terse.

William Edward West was a near match with not only the same powerful stance, but also a similar palette, a light source from on an upper corner, highlighting the forehead, the near eye and cheek, which left the far side of the face in deep shadow. West also portrayed Balch’s friend and the United States Attorney General under Zachary Taylor, Reverdy Johnson (1796-1876), a portrait owned by the Maryland Historical Society, and the young Robert E. Lee, whose third cousin would marry Balch’s grandson.


Again, attempts to vet the attribution proved futile. But, the portrait of the judge who nearly impoverished himself to give full independence to 22 enslaved human beings, appears to be by the hand of William Edward West.


(c) Fine Art Investigations, 2016
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[1] John W. Jordan, Colonial And Revolutionary Families Of Pennsylvania (Genealogical Publishing Com, 2004), 136; United States Census Bureau, Fourth Census of the United States, 1820, Leesburg, Loudoun, Virginia, NARA Roll: M33_137, page 3, last line;  Thomas Willing Balch,  Balch Genealogica, (Allen, Lane and Scott, 1907), 212, 219.

[2] United States Census Bureau, Fifth Census of the United States, 1830, Frederick, Maryland; NARA Roll: M19_57, page 107, line 14; United States Census Bureau, Sixth Census of the United States, 1840, Frederick, Frederick, Maryland, NARA Roll:165_113, page 16, line 10; United States Census Bureau, Seventh Census of the United States, 1850, Jefferson County, Virginia, NARA Roll  M432, page 75, lines 4-14; United States Census Bureau, Eighth Census of the United States, 1860, Charlestown, Jefferson County, West Virginia, NARA Roll: M653_1355, page 7, lines 32-36; Galusha Burchard Balch,  Genealogy of the Balch Families in America (E. Putnam., 1897), 458.

[3]  Thomas Willing Balch,  op. cit., 215

[4] Ibid.,218; J. E. Norris, History of the Lower Shenandoah Valley Counties of Frederick, Berkeley, Jefferson and Clarke: Their Early Settlement and Progress to the Present Time; Geological Features; a Description of Their Historic and Interesting Localities; Cities, Towns and Villages; Portraits of Some of the Prominent Men, and Biographies of Many of the Representative Citizens (A. Warner & Company, 1890), 295. Galusha Burchard Balch, op. cit.

[5]  Thomas Willing Balch,  215-216.

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