The Mystery of Five Family Portraits: III

Introduction

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).

Subject

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]

Date

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.

Region

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] 

Artist

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.

Conclusion

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
All Rights Reserved

 

 

[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.

About Patricia Moss

Patricia Moss is an art historian, or art detective if you will, who solves mysteries of 19th century American portraits. She located nearly 70 of Bingham’s lost portraits, a feat acknowledged by the Smithsonian’s Research and Scholar’s Center. From expertise with portraits of George Caleb Bingham (1811-1879), she developed skills that evolved into a comprehensive system based on the scientific method that conforms to the legal and ethical standards of art authentication. Moss served as a guest curator for the Bingham Bicentennial Exhibit, “Steamboats to Steam Engines: George Caleb Bingham’s Missouri: 1819-1879,” (March 10-September 8, 2011) at the Truman Presidential Museum and curated the opening exhibition, “George Caleb Bingham: Witness to History,” (September 2013 –), Jackson County Art Museum, Independence, Missouri. She is also the principal researcher for Fine Art Investigations.
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