Thomas Hovenden: Conventional Originality

On the FaceBook page for this site,,  I celebrate American portrait artists on their birthdays. December 28 marked the 173rd anniversary of the birth of Thomas Hovenden (1840-1895). He deserves more than a mention. He deserves a short blog.

Born in Ireland, Thomas Hovenden trained as a frame maker, woodcarver and gilder, as well as an artist. He came to America at the age of 23 and became known for his sympathetic yet dignified portrayals of common people, especially former slaves. Hovenden himself was a compassionate man. He died trying to save a girl from an oncoming train.

Celebrating American Portrait Artists

Thomas Hovenden, Contentment, 1881
Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus, Ohio

Hovenden’s self-portraits reveal his artwork as simultaneously conventional and original. In the costumed self-portrait of 1879, the second figure is his wife, Helen Corson Hovenden (1846-1935).

Artist Birthdays

Thomas Hovenden, Self Portrait of the Artist in his Studio, 1875
Yale University Art Gallery
New Haven, Connecticut


Portrait Research

Thomas Hovenden, Favorite Falcon, 1879
Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

In 1886, after his friend Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) was removed as lead instructor at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Hovenden replaced him. Among his students were Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937) and Robert Henri (1865-1929). 

Hovenden’s portrait of ethnologist Frank Hamilton Cushing (1857-1900), with hints of impressionism, is a fine portrait.  Yet when Thomas Eakins painted the same subject five years, the representation of Cushing took on a new life. In Eakins’ earth and rust tones, Hovenden deserves a nod of homage.  

Portrait Research

Thomas Hovenden, Frank Hamilton Cushing, 1890
Smithsonian American Art Museum
Washington, DC, 1999.44 006


Thomas Eakins,  Frank Hamilton Cushing, 1895 Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, Oklahoma

Thomas Eakins, Frank Hamilton Cushing, 1895
Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, Oklahoma

Hovenden’s painting, Last Moments of John Brown, was so appealing and popular that his image of the controversial man was fixed in the American mind for decades.  Then, in 1938-1940, in the Kansas Statehouse Mural, Tragic Prelude, John Steuart Curry (1897-1946) merged Hovenden’s recognizable image with Michelangelo’s God in the Sistine Chapel and sculpture of Moses in Rome and added his own perception. Curry unforgettably altered  the conception of John Brown.  He could not have done it without the previously indelible image by Thomas Hovenden.

American Art Research

John Steuart Curry, Tragic Prelude, 1938-1940
Kansas State House, Topeka, Kansas

The National Academy of Design created a concise biography of Thomas Hovenden   For more depth, see Thomas Hovenden: His Life and Art.

(c) Patricia Moss at fineartinvestigations at gmail

About Patricia Moss

I am an art historian, or art detective if you will, who specializes in 19th century American portraits. A snapshot preserves one moment in time while a portrait captures a life with all its complexities and contradictions. To help preserve the artistic and historic legacy in these portraits and to ensure portrait artists’ moral right to correct attribution, I developed a replicable procedure based on the scientific method that conforms to the legal and ethical standards of art authentication. Customized technological tools help me work efficiently to quickly find the date of execution, the artists in the region at the time, and comparative chronological images. Each authentication is vetted with experts and, as needed, confirmed with scientific analysis. Institutions with which I have worked include University of Missouri Museum of Art and Archaeology; Ashby-Hodge Gallery of American Art, Central Methodist University, Fayette, Missouri; State Historical Society of Missouri; William Jewell College; Columbia-Pacific Heritage Museum. Artists I have identified include Jacob Eichholtz, William Edward West, George Esten Cooke, Samuel Bell Waugh, William Morrison Hughes, Edwin F. Goddard, Alban Jasper Conant, William James Hubard, and Chester Harding. My expertise began with George Caleb Bingham. Since 1999, I have located nearly 70 of 100 “lost” portraits. Staff at the Smithsonian’s Research and Scholars Center named me “The Bingham Lady.” In order to better distinguish Bingham’s artistry, I studied and examined the life and work of his students and colleagues. Descendants of two, William Morrison Hughes (1818-1892) and George Calder Eichbaum, assisted me by providing me with access to and images of their ancestors’ oeuvre. I 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.
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