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.

 

 

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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