Who Was Alban Jasper Conant?

Alban Jasper Conant, Smiling Lincoln, c. 1860

Alban Jasper Conant, Smiling Lincoln, c. 1860, Oil on Canvas, 50 x 40 inches ,Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville, Illinois

Alban Jasper Conant, the artist of Woman of Strong Character, was a triple A polymath – an artist, an archaeologist, and an anthropologist. As an artist, he painted a president, a war hero, judges, legislators, and members of prominent families. His portrait of the Smiling Lincoln was Mary Todd Lincoln’s favorite. As an archaeologist and an anthropologist, he wrote Footprints of Vanished Races in the Mississippi Valley: Being an Account of Some of the Monuments and Relics of Prehistoric Races Scattered Over Its Surface With Suggestions as to their Origin and Uses, which was published in 1879 and was reprinted as late as 2010. He was a member of the Sociétié Ethnographique of Paris and the Anthropological Society of Washington. He was a curator of the University of Missouri. He was known to play several instruments and to have a fine singing voice.  In 1877, he wrote 11 chapters on the archaeology of Missouri for The Commonwealth of Missouri: A Centennial Record. In 1893 he published a book, My Acquaintance with Abraham Lincoln. He penned “A portrait painter’s reminiscences of Lincoln”, for McClure’s Magazine in March 1909 (Vol. 32, no. 5). In 1910 when he was 89, he wrote and published his final book, A Visit to Washington, DC – 1861-62.

A.J. Conant was born in Chelsea, Vermont on September 24, 1821, the son of a cabinetmaker and sign painter. They descended from a soldier who saw the Battle of Bunker Hill and survived Valley Forge. The family was not wealthy.  To earn funds to study art in New York at the National Academy of Design in the early 1840s, Alban taught music. During his stay in New York City, Henry Inman, one of the premier portrait artists of the day, encouraged him.

In 1845 A.J. Conant married Sarah Mahala Howes (1822-1867). They lived in Troy, New York, in 1850, and by 1860, Saint Louis. Biographies show the Conants moved west in 1857.  In 1860, Conant was one of the founders of the Western Academy of Art. When a patron commissioned him to paint the Republican presidential candidate, Abraham Lincoln,  he traveled to Illinois. Not long after, he was in Washington, DC, where he painted cabinet members, including Attorney General Edward Bates, and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.

Conant’s wife Sarah died October 30, 1867. In their twelve years of marriage, she bore eight children, four daughters, and four sons. Only three lived to adulthood. Conant remarried  in 1869 in San Francisco.  His bride was 22-year-old Briona Bryan (1847-1875). She gave him a fifth son, Alban Jasper Conant, Jr. She died at the age of 29.

Before 1880 Conant moved to Upper Alton, Illinois. By 1887, he was in New York City in a studio at the famed 10th Street Studios, a studio he kept the rest of his life.  He died February 3, 1915. [1]

The Missouri Historical Society in Saint Louis owns over two dozen paintings by Alban Jasper Conant, including one of Abraham Lincoln. Individuals across the nation own more still. His portraits hang at the United States Department of Justice, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Amherst, Princeton, Colgate University, Dickinson College, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, the State Supreme Court of New York, and the New York Historical Society. 

(c) Patricia Moss at fineartinvestigations at gmail

[1] “Howell Van Blarcom Application”, U.S. Sons of the American Revolution Membership Applications, 1889-1970, Volume 165, Application Number 32994; Joseph A. Dacus, James William Buel, A tour of St. Louis: or, The inside life of a great city, (St. Louis, Missouri: Western Publishing Company, 1878), 71-75; C R Barns; Alban Jasper Conant; William F Switzler; G C Swallow; R A Campbell; William Torrey Harris, The Commonwealth of Missouri: A Centennial Record (St. Louis, Bryan, Brand & Co., 1877), 703-706; A. J. Conant, Census of the United States, 1850, Troy Ward 3, Rensselaer, New York; Roll: M432_584; Page: 121A, lines 27-31; Household of A. J. Conant, Census of the United States, 1860, St Louis Ward 8, St Louis (Independent City), Missouri; Roll: M653_652; Page: 662, lines 10-17; Household of A. J. Conant, 1870, St Louis Ward 5, St Louis, Missouri; Roll: M593_815; Page: 139B, lines 19-27; Household of A. J. Conant, Census of the United States, 1880, Upper Alton, Madison, Illinois; Roll: 233; Family History Film: 1254233; Page: 206B, lines 20-26; Household of Alban J. Conant, Census of the United States, 1900, Manhattan, New York, New York; Roll: 1085; Page: 5B lines 54-55; Household of Amos W. Smith, Census of the United States, 1900, Bayonne Ward 4, Hudson, New Jersey; Roll: 971; Page: 27A6-13 (line 12); Household of Alban J. Conant, Census of the United States, 1910, 1910; Census Place: Manhattan Ward 15, New York, New York; Roll: T624_1031; Page: 4A, lines 48-49

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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