Rediscovered Bingham Portraits: The Dunnicas, Part 2

Rediscovered Bingham Portraits: Connoisseurship


Provenance and art historical research strongly suggested that family lore was true:  George Caleb Bingham painted the heirloom portraits of William Franklin Dunnica and his wife, Martha Jane Shackelford. (See Rediscovered Bingham Portraits: The Dunnicas, Part 1). Would connoisseurship confirm or deny that the portrait pair were rediscovered paintings by Bingham?


According to art historical research, Bingham painted the portraits between 1836 and 1839, when the subjects, William Franklin Dunnica (1807-1883) and his wife Mary Jane Shackelford (1820-1858) lived in Chariton (now Glasgow), Missouri, about 20 miles northeast of George Caleb Bingham’s hometown of Arrow Rock, Missouri. Bingham is known to have portrayed at least 10 Chariton / Glasgow residents during those years. He painted some in the fall of 1837; others, after a two-month visit to Philadelphia in spring 1838. The latter portraits show sophisticated techniques such as more fluid brushwork and increasingly flattering poses. (See the comparisons of the two paintings of Mary Jane Shackelford Dunnica in link to Correcting an Art Historical Mistake.) Below are images of 8 of those 10 paintings compared with images of the Dunnica portraits.


The similarities of Bingham’s Glasgow portraits to the portraits of the Dunnicas are, in my opinion, unmistakable. The Cockerill portraits may have been painted earlier than the others. Without having seen the paintings in person, they look stiffer than the others, more akin to Bingham’s earlier work before his visit to St. Louis. That, impression, however, could be a result of the photographs.

At first glance, the Belden portraits (cropped) and the Swinney portraits look nearly identical to those of the Dunnicas. William Dunnica and William Swinney were partners in the tobacco trade. Joshua Belden was William Swinney’s secretary. In the three portrait pairs, the height of the men’s shirt collars touch their chins. The lengths of their sideburns are comparable. All three women wear quite similar hairstyles. This conformity to the fashions indicates that all six portraits were painted around the same time. Hair, eyebrows, eyes, and ears, to the manner in which the artist tinted the cheeks, shadowed the face, the nose, and the necks of the women are all the same.

Links to color images at Gilcrease Museum of Dr. Thomas Cockerill and Emma Cockerill


Since the examples are known and accepted works by George Caleb Bingham, then the Dunnica portraits, not only logically, but through style and technique were, in my opinion, and that of Maryellen McVicker, painted by George Caleb Bingham.  Do you have any doubts that the artist was Bingham?

How did E. Maurice Bloch make such a mistake?



(c) Fine Art Investigations, 2018
All Rights Reserved


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Rediscovered Bingham Portraits: The Dunnicas, Part 1

Rediscovered Bingham Portraits: Art Historical Documentation


Several years ago, images of a pair of antebellum portraits arrived in my inbox: William Franklin Dunnica and Mary Jane Shackelford (Mrs. William F. Dunnica) of Glasgow (Chariton), Missouri. I knew instantly that George Caleb Bingham was the artist. But, as a professional art investigator, I knew the accuracy of a “blink” moment always needs to be tested.

The Dunnica portraits are reproduced here in black & white due to the potential for misuse. The colors are vibrant. The artist gave each dark-haired, dark-eyed subject color on their cheeks, just as George Caleb Bingham did. On Mr. Dunnica’s cheeks and under his nose, the artist suggested the slightest hint of a beard, just as Bingham did. In the portrait of Martha Jane Dunnica a blush red shawl subtly complements the deep green of her dress. White lace hides her cleavage. A long strand of coral beads adorns her neck. The background of green /brown with golden highlights is the typical shade used by Bingham.


The logical starting point for researching the authenticity of the portraits was, and is,  E. Maurice Bloch’s Paintings of George Caleb Bingham: A Catalogue Raisonné. From hours of poring over Bloch’s definitive text and from a previous portrait search, I knew the name “Dunnica,” but I did not remember these two paintings. I found them listed in the book’s back pages in Section D., “Attributed Paintings.” The scholarly community nearly universally dismisses the paintings Bloch placed in Section D.

To prove or disprove the heirloom portraits’ authenticity with verifiable certainty would require time. Both the portraits’ owner and I had other priorities, but last year, the heirlooms became a top priority for each of us. I set to work.

This is the first of four blogs about the adventure. The first two describe the process of authentication, beginning here with art historical documentation and continuing to connoisseurship in the second blog. The third explains how these two fine portraits ended up in the “trash bin” of the George Caleb Bingham Catalogue Raisonné. In the fourth and final blog, I use the portraits as an entry point to history and tell the stories I discovered behind the portraits. The true tales include a Civil War battle and confrontations with  Bloody Bill Anderson and William Quantrill.

Art Historical Documentation


The chain of custody was indisputable. Through primary source documents, I followed the subjects’ descendants as they moved from Missouri to another state and then across continents. The documents breathed life into the family’s history as the portraits descended within the family from one generation to the next.

Date of Execution

Comparisons of the portraits with fashion plates and other dated portraits indicated that an artist painted the likenesses between 1836 and 1839.


An accurate portrait authentication requires proof that the subjects and artist were in the same region at the indicated time. In 1836-1839, William Franklin Dunnica and his first wife, Martha Jane Shackelford, lived in the town of Chariton, Missouri, now known as the the town of Glasgow. In 1838, J. Calvin Smith, of the J.H. Colton & Co., drew a map of Missouri.

J. Calvin Smith, New Map of Missouri Showing the Township Surveys, 1838
Lithograph, 30 x 35 inches
State Historical Society of Missouri, Map 859 Sm61

In an enlarged detail of that map below, Chariton, Missouri, can be seen near the center. At a bend in the Missouri River, its name is written above the name of its county, Howard. George Caleb Bingham’s home in Arrow Rock lay less than 20 miles southwest on the other side of the river, under the name of its county, Saline.

J. Calvin Smith, New Map of Missouri Showing the Township Surveys, 1838
Lithograph (Detail)


Martha Jane Shackelford (1820-1858)

Martha Jane Shackelford was born on February 25, 1820, in Nashville, Tennessee, the daughter of Thomas Shackelford and Eliza Cheves Pulliam. On December 11, 1836, when she was 16, she married William Franklin Dunnica, 29.

William Franklin Dunnica (1807-1896)

Early Life

William Franklin Dunnica was the son of William Hamilton Dunnica, a wounded veteran of the Battle of Tippecanoe, November 7, 1811. William Hamilton fought for four more years until the end of the War of 1812 in 1815. Not long after he returned home to Woodford County, Kentucky, he and ten-year-old William Franklin filled a keel boat with trade goods. They poled their way to the Mississippi River. When the Mississippi joined the Missouri River, they floated down to heart of Missouri Territory. In the spring of 1818, “after a journey of the greatest difficulty and hardships,” they landed in a French village, Côte Sans Dessein  Inside the fort, they set up a trading center. The elder Dunnica, also surveyed, bought and sold land. Eventually, he brought his wife and other children to Côte Sans Dessein. [1]

Initial Careers

Until his father’s death in 1822, William attended the local schools. Then, he traveled back to Kentucky and attended university for two years. When he returned to Missouri, the town of Jefferson City had nearly subsumed Cote Sans Dessein. With a friend, Calvin Gunn, in 1826, Dunnica  founded the first newspaper in Jefferson City, Missouri, The Jeffersonian. The two men lobbied successfully for the young state’s capitol to be sited in Jefferson City.  Within a matter of months, Dunnica was offered a clerkship by the State Auditor. While clerking, he also worked as a land agent. [2]

Because of “his well-known business qualifications and his strict integrity and sobriety,” Dunnica drew the attention of a St. Louis businessman, George Collier. Collier hired him in 1831 to work at the United States Bank. “He held this position with great credit to himself, and to the entire satisfaction of the officers of the bank, until President Andrew Jackson ended the national bank system in 1833.” [3]


William then opened a store at the mouth of the Chariton river. Collier financed the enterprise while Dunnica was in charge of operations. Three years later, W. F. Dunnica was one of the founders of Chariton, Missouri. He married 16-year-old Martha Jane Shackelford on December 11, 1836. As a shopkeeper, Dunnica owned few slaves. To build a home on hilltop overlooking Chariton for his bride and himself, he would have rented more or hired a contractor. The newlyweds named their home Dunhaven. With quarters for their five slaves, outbuildings, and a conservatory, the estate covered an entire city block. The walls of such a home called out for portraits of the owners.[4]

410 Fifth Street, Glasgow, Missouri
Glasgow! Tour Guide & Community Information, ca. 1991
Photograph by Duane Perry[5]

For further biographical information on William F. Dunnica, including his roles in the Mormon War, the Battle of Glasgow, and an encounter with Quantrill’s Raiders and Bloody Bill Anderson, click here.


The logical choice for a portrait artistfor the Dunnnicas would have been George Caleb Bingham, the only artist working locally during the years 1836-1839. Moreover, the circumstances of the lives of the Binghams and the Dunnicas solidified the conclusion.

George Caleb Bingham

Early Career

On April 14, 1836, in Boonville, Missouri, eight months before the Dunnicas wed, George Caleb Bingham (1811-1879) married Sarah Elizabeth Hutchison (1819-1848). He was 25, and she, 17. They soon moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where Bingham opened a studio. Through exposure to art and to other painters, the young, self-taught artist from the western frontier improved his technique. As winter approached, about the time of the Dunnica wedding, George and Sarah, pregnant with their first child, traveled down the Mississippi River to Natchez, Mississippi.

Natchez was a popular winter haven in the nation’s antebellum years for those who could afford to escape the cold weather of states further north – and who could afford and had the leisure to sit for a portrait. Many artists traveled to Natchez and other such resorts in search of portrait commissions. Bingham, rarely one to pass up an opportunity, followed the trend. On March 26, 1837, Isaac Newton Bingham was born in the Mississippi riverfront town. By May, the Binghams had returned to Missouri with their newborn son, this time to Columbia, where George rented a studio above the law offices of a young attorney, James Sidney Rollins.

Building a Family Life

With savings from his southern tour and from his Columbia portrait commissions, Bingham bought a lot in Arrow Rock, Missouri, on July 27, 1837. To build the house, he needed to earn money for building supplies and labor. He had already portrayed all the prosperous residents of his hometown and of neighboring Boonville. The nearest potentially profitable location was Chariton, later known as Glasgow. [6]


Chariton /Glasgow

In 1836, Chariton /Glasgow was founded by 16 men:

  1. Joseph A. Blackwell
  2. John Bull
  3. Thomas Nicholas Cockerill
  4. Stephen Donohoe
  5. William Franklin Dunnica
  6. James Earickson
  7. Richard Earickson
  8. James Glasgow
  9. James Head
  10. D. W. Johnson
  11. William J. Moore
  12. John Fontaine Nicholds
  13. Benjamin G. Pulliam
  14. William Daniel Swinney
  15. Talton Turner
  16. Thomas White [7] 

Before the end of the decade, Bingham would paint portraits of members of five of the founding families: Cockerill, Donohoe, Dunnica, Pulliam and Swinney. He would also paint other prominent townsfolk: the Beldens, the Lewises, the Harrisons, and the Nicholds. [8]


Art historical documentation pointed at George Caleb Bingham as the artist of the Dunnica portraits. In the next blog, I explore the third leg of authenticity or the heirloom paintings: Connoisseurship.

(c) Fine Art Investigations, 2018
All Rights Reserved

[1]  1817 – Ferguson’s Description of Cote Sans Dessein, “The World of Hannah Chribbs Evans,, accessed March 2018; O. P. Williams. & Co., History of Howard and Cooper Counties, Missouri (National Historical Company. 1883), 437.

[2] Williams, 438.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Dunhaven is currently the oldest structure in Glasgow, Missouri, according to James H Steele., ed., Howard County MO: From Prairie Land to Promised Land, A Remembrance Across Two Centuries (Donning Company. 2016), 136; United States Census Bureau, Sixth Census of the United States, “Household of W. F. Dunican,” 1840, Chariton, Howard, Missouri, page 44, line 15. 

[5] Friends of the Lewis Library of Glasgow [Missouri], Glasgow – The Way It Was (Walsworth Publishing Company, 2001), 134.

[6] Bingham purchased the lot from Meredith Miles Marmaduke (1791-1864), who would become the eighth governor of Missouri (1844-1844).

[7] Williams, 206. I list 16, although J. Y. Miller, Glasgow, Missouri, historian, helpfully fact-checked this manuscript. He noted that although the number of founders is sometimes listed as 14, the actual number was 16. But, because three of those men, Pulliam, Johnson, and Moore, soon became inactive as landowners, the people of Glasgow count the number of founders as 13.

[8]  George Caleb Bingham’s portraits of John Fontaine Nicolds (Bloch #60) and Elizabeth Morton Woodson (Mrs. John Fontaine Nicholds) (#61) and John Hickman Turner (#101) are currently unlocated. Please notify Fine Art Investigations if you know, or have a clue, to their current location.

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Democratization of American Art

American Art Union


In New York City, in 1842, a group of patriotic entrepreneurs, who wanted to promote American art and American artists, formed the American Art-Union (AAU). The businessmen recognized the potential of improved printing technologies. Not only could books and newspapers be printed more easily and quickly, through printed reproductions, art could be as well. For an annual membership fee of $10 (the equivalent of about $100 today), the American Art-Union guaranteed each member a reproduction of a painting purchased by Art-Union jurors. The fee also entered members in an annual lottery to win an original painting.

Distribution of the American Art Union prizes…c. 1848
Library of Congress LC-DIG-pga-02613 (digital file from original print)

The AAU also maintained a free public art gallery in New York and published a magazine, The Union. Subscribers from all over the country could see the choices of the directors as the best of American art. As a result, prints of paintings by American artists hung in an ever-greater number of homes.


Through their purchases, the American Art-Union directors provided good artists not only income, but name recognition. To meet the approval of the jurors, the subject of the painting had to be “taken from every day scenes of life, those that are not suggestive of, or create painful emotions.”[1] Selections ranged from landscapes created by artists associated with the Hudson River School such as Thomas Cole (1801-1848), Jasper Francis Cropsey (1823-1900), and John Kensett (1816-1872), to scenes from popular plays and novels, such as Washington Irving’s Legend of Sleepy Hollow by John Quidor (1801-1881). Artists Asher B. Durand (1796-1886) and John Blake White (1782-1859) painted famous moments from the Revolutionary War, Capture of Major Andre and General Marion Inviting a British Officer to Share His Meal. The jurors approved humorous pastoral scenes with subtle political commentary like Farmers Nooning by William Sidney Mount (1807-1868) and more overt political commentary like  Old ’76 and Young ’48 by Richard Caton Woodville (1825-1855).

Some art critics of the time wondered how businessmen qualified as arbiters of taste. Critics also complained that by increasing the quantity of art, quality would suffer. But, over time, the democratization of art proved successful. Art critics now agree that the AAU’s directors selected well. [2]


In 1852, in response to a lawsuit by religious organizations, the New York State Supreme Court ruled the American Art-Union’s annual lottery illegal. But the Art-Union was already nearly dead from financial mismanagement. While in existence, the American Art-Union provided support to contemporary American artists. Their widely distributed choices gave Americans a visual identity of their country and themselves.

(c) Fine Art Investigations, 2012, 2018
All Rights Reserved

[1] A. Warner to Frederick E. Cohen, letter, New York, Aug. 12, 1848, coll. New York Historical Society, quoted in E. Maurice Bloch, George Caleb Bingham: The Evolution of an Artist, (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1967), 81.

[2]Joy Sperling, “Art, Cheap and Good:” The Art Union in England and the United States, 1840–60, Nineteenth Century Art Worldwide: A Journal of 19th Century Visual Culture, Vol. 1., No. 1, Spring 2002.

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Joseph Henry Bush (1794-1865)

That [Bush] was not famous in the old world, and in the art world everywhere, was because he had not that desire for travel abroad, and for free association with the noisy and active ones of his profession, which would have given him a prominence he did not yearn for. He was content to know that the emanations of his pencil were admired and prized by those he was proud to call his friends.[1]



Joseph Henry Bush was the grandson of a German immigrant, Philip Bush, Sr. (1733-1812), who arrived in the American colonies about 1750. Four years later, he fought under Lt. Col George Washington in the Seven Years War. In 1757, Bush wed a Pennsylvania-born daughter of German immigrants, Catherine Mary Slough (1740-1810). They opened a tavern in Winchester, Virginia, where Washington and his men often congregated. “The host very often spoke with enthusiasm of this young officer’s noble bearing and attractiveness for all who came in contact with him.” In Winchester, Philip Bush was famous for evicting the Duke of Orleans (1793–1830) for imperious behavior.”[2]

Philip and Catherine Mary Bush had nine children. The fifth was Philip Bush, Jr. (1765-1810). He was trained as a jeweler and goldsmith in Virginia, but moved to Kentucky in 1788. By 1806, he owned a 105-acre plantation three miles west of the state capitol, Frankfort. He sold his land to open the Washington Inn, named in honor of his father’s commander, but the townsfolk called it “Phil Bush’s Tavern.” [3]

Philip Bush, Jr.’s wife was Elizabeth Palmer (1766-after 1828). She was half-French on her mother’s side and born near Charleston, South Carolina. The Bushes had several children, but only two sons lived to be adults, Joseph Henry, and his brother, James Miles (1808-1875). Philip was an amateur portrait painter who created likenesses of family members and encouraged his son Joseph’s talent. But the tutelage ended. When Joseph was 13, Philip died at the age of 45, in Frankfort, Kentucky, on September 4, 1810.[4]

By managing the inn, the widow Bush was able to support herself and her children. She probably had help from her family since her younger sister, Catharine Palmer (1768-1854), had married a former United States Senator, John Adair (1757-1840), who, in ten years would be governor of Kentucky (1820-1824).


In 1815, a group of Frankfort men raised funds to send Joseph to Philadelphia to study with Thomas Sully (1783-1872). Sully was one of the most popular portrait artists of the day. Henry Clay (1777-1852) personally delivered young Bush to the City of Brotherly Love and even loaned Bush expense money. After studying with Sully for three years, Bush exhibited at the Philadelphia Academy before returning to Frankfort.[5]

In the Frankfort newspaper, the Commentator, on October 18, 1821, Bush advertised, “Gentlemen who wish to have their portraits painted can be accommodated by applying to J. H. Bush in the rooms above the Printing Office.” His biographer reported, “It was not long before he received numerous orders for portraits.” From Frankfort, Bush moved to “the Athens of the West,” Lexington, Kentucky, where he opened a studio above a bank. But he chose Louisville as his permanent summer home. “His winters were passed in New Orleans and Natchez and by request he visited the planters of Louisiana…His work was in constant demand through the South.” His fee for a bust portrait was $150.[6]

Joseph Henry Bush never married. His fellow artist and friend, Samuel Woodson Price (1828-1918), observed, “It is not positively known that he ever fell victim to the charms of the fairer sex, though there is a rumor to the contrary.” Price believed, “No artist was more wedded to his profession than Bush”, relating that Bush felt even Van Dyck and Rubens “might have been better painters if they had remained single.”[7]

Brother: James Bush

Bush’s devotion to his profession, combined with his business acumen, helped his brother James, fourteen years his junior, attend Centre College in Danville, Kentucky. After graduating at the top of his class, the younger Bush moved to Lexington, Kentucky, to attend Transylvania Medical School. There, he studied under a renowned surgeon of the time, Dr. Benjamin Winslow Dudley (1785-1870), who was chairman of the departments of Surgery and Anatomy. Dudley was years ahead of his time in condemning blood-letting and demanding clean instruments. He pioneered surgical treatments for epilepsy, aneurysms, and kidney stones. James Bush became Dudley’s colleague and successor.[8]

Joseph Henry Bush, Mathisen Miniature, ca. 1840-1842
Aqueous Medium on Ivory, 1 7-8 x 2 3-16 inches

In 1839, Transylvania Medical School’s leaders asked Dr. Bush to head the Department of Anatomy. He accepted, and at university expense, traveled to London and Paris, to learn the latest surgical techniques and to purchase books and instruments. He returned to the United States on September 21, 1839. As souvenirs for his artist brother, he probably bought the latest artistic supplies available in the two European capitols. Bush was ahead of his time in his use of aqueous mediums.[9]

Last Years

Joseph Henry Bush

George Peter Alexander Healy, Joseph Henry Bush, May 1864

As painted portraits declined in favor of photography, Joseph adapted by painting portraits from photographs. The degree of his success is apparent in the figures recorded by the Louisville census taker on June 19, 1860. The value of his real estate was $4,000; his personal property, $20,000. But his health was failing. In 1861, he moved into his brother’s home, where he died in 1865. Not long before Bush’s death,  George Peter Alexander Healy (1813-1894) painted a portrait of the distinguished man who looked every inch a consummate artist.[10]

Master of Artistic License

Many fine paintings by this artist who did not yearn for fame are relatively inaccessible. Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, arguably owns the greatest number, and possibly the finest of his works, for most are of his family. Also, in Lexington, the Filson Museum is the repository for several of Bush’s paintings. In Louisville, Kentucky, at the Speed Art Museum owns several.  But, Joseph Henry Bush’s most famous painting hangs in the White House, the official portrait of Zachary Taylor (1786-1850) and a superb example of Bush’s skill with artistic license.

Joseph Henry Bush

Joseph Henry Bush, Zachary Taylor, ca. 1848
Oil on Canvas, 46 x 36 inches
White House
Washington, D.C.

Taylor was a hero of the Mexican-American War and the 12th president of the United States. Taylor’s appearance differed from the norm.  One of his soldiers described him as, “Old Rough and Ready, as he is not inaptly styled, whom you must know by-the-bye, is short, fat, and dumpy in person, with remarkably short legs.” “Although his large head and torso were mismatched with his short legs…he looked like a man born to command.” Taylor’s legs were so short, he needed help to mount his horse.[11]

Bush’s first act of artistic license was to choose a composition longer than waist length but shorter than full-length. The pose allows a viewer to see the grandeur and power of the general – and to unconsciously presume that Taylor’s legs were proportionate. Bush slimmed Taylor’s large head so much that when I looked at the paintings and photographs, I wondered if they represented the same man. After cropping, I could see the similarities. From left to right and from back to front, with paint, or with clever use of light and shadow, Bush narrowed Taylor’s skull and jaw, and not just the soft tissue; he shortened the jawbone considerably. By simply suggesting wrinkles, rather than by copying the deeply etched lines seen in Figure 16, Bush dropped years from Taylor’s face. Bush portrayed Taylor’s mouth accurately with its fuller lower lip and barely visible upper lip. In the photographs, Mathew Brady took pains to blunt the look of Taylor’s beak-like nose through lighting, pose, and possibly, through retouching. Bush opted for a more realistic look, though he softened the shape of the nostrils.

Joseph Henry Bush

I hope sooner, rather than later, artworks by Joseph Henry Bush are more readily available to a wider public and well-deserved greater fame enhances the memory of this modest man.


(c) Fine Art Investigations, 2018
All Rights Reserved


[1] Lewis Collins, Collins’ Historical Sketches of Kentucky: History of Kentucky, Volume 1 (Collins & Company, 1878), 624.

[2] “When the Duke of Orleans, afterward Louis Philippe King of France, who reigned from 1830 48, left France to avoid arrest, he and his two younger brothers stopped at Bush’s Hotel in 1797. While the first meal was being prepared Bush and the King, who had recently visited Mannheim, talked in German of the grand old town its people and attractions One brother being indisposed the King suggested that he and his party should have a private table This touch of royal exclusiveness roused the blood of the old German and caused him to exclaim, ‘If you are too good to eat at the table with my other guests, you are too good to eat in my house. Begone.’ And they went. (Samuel Woodson Price, The Old Masters of the Bluegrass: Jouett, Bush, Grimes, Frazer, Morgan, Hart. [J. P. Morton & Company, 1902], 71; Collins, 624)

[3] Price, 71; Noble W. Hiatt and Hiatt, Lucy F., The Silversmiths of Kentucky: Together with Watchmakers and Jewelers, 1785-1850 (Standard Print Company: 1954), 18.

[4], Hiatt, 19; James Bush’s middle name is variously spelled Miles or Myles. I chose to use the name written on his tombstone, Miles.

[5] “Adair, John (1757 – 1840),” Biographical Dictionary of the United States Congress,, accessed May 2015; Henry Clay, The Papers of Henry Clay: The Rising Statesman 1815—1820 (University Press of Kentucky, 2015), 230.

[6] Edna Talbot Whitley, Kentucky Antebellum Portraiture (National Society of Colonial Dames of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, 1956), 638; George Washington Ranck, History of Lexington, Kentucky: its early annals and recent progress, including biographical sketches and personal reminiscences of the pioneer settlers, notices of prominent citizens, etc., etc. (Cincinnati: R. Clarke, 1872), 149; Price, 76

[7] Price, 79-80.

[8] Henry Barkley Archibald, Kentucky’s Pioneer Lithotomists (C. J. Krehbiel, 1913), 55-138; John E. Kleber, ed., Kentucky Encyclopedia (University of Kentucky Press, 1992), 272.

[9] Kentucky State Medical Society, Transactions of the Kentucky State Medical Society (The Society, 1877), 181-182.

[10] United States Census Bureau, Seventh Census of the United States, “Galt Hotel,”, August 9, 1850, Louisville District 2, Jefferson, Kentucky, Roll, M432-20b, Page 152, line 29 (Hotel identified through J. Stoddard Johnson, Memorial History of Louisville from its First Settlement to 1896 [Biographical Publishing Company, 1896], 88); United States Census Bureau, Eighth Census of the United States, “Household of Joseph H. Bush,” June 19,1860: Louisville Ward 4, Jefferson, Kentucky; Roll: M653-376; Page 51, Line 33.

[11] H. Montgomery, The Life of Major General Zachary Taylor, (J. C. Derby, Inc., 1848), 338; Paul Joseph, Zachary Taylor (Abdo Publishing Company), 1999, 28; Michael R. Beschloss, American Heritage History of the Presidents (New Word City, Inc., 2015); Neil A. Hamilton, Presidents: A Biographical Dictionary (Infobase Publishing, 2010), 99.

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A Descendant of David Rittenhouse Family History

In the Mystery of A Descendant of David Rittenhouse, to discover the names of both the sitter and the artist who painted the portrait, Fine Art Investigations researched the David Rittenhouse family history. What a history it turned out to be. Family history led to identification of the artist. What a character he turned out to be.

Family History of "A Descendant of David Rittenhouse," ca. 1845

A Descendant of David Rittenhouse, ca. 1845


David Rittenhouse

David Rittenhouse was born in Philadelphia in a neighborhood known as Rittenhousetown. His family was one of paper manufacturers that stretched back generations in the Netherlands. There, the name was spelled Rittinghuysen, which translates to Knights’ Houses.[1]

Rittenhouse Coat of Arms
From A Genea-biographical History of the Rittenhouse Family, 1893

The first of Rittenhouse’s ancestors to come to America was Willem Rittinghuysen (1644-1708) who immigrated to Pennsylvania by 1688. That year, in Germantown, outside Philadelphia, he founded the colonies’ first paper mill. He was Pennsylvania’s first Mennonite preacher, and in 1701, its first Mennonite bishop. He and his wife, Geertruid Kersten Pieters (1642-1708), had three children, Nicholas (1666-1734), Elizabeth (1670-1728), and Gerard (1674-1742).[2]

Son Nicholas was also a Mennonite preacher. In 1689, he married Wilhemina Dewees (1673-1737). Ten of their children lived to maturity. One of their younger sons, Matthias (1702-1779), worked at the paper mills until shortly after his father’s death in 1794. When the mill passed into the hands of an older brother, Matthias and his Quaker wife, Elizabeth Williams (1702-1792), moved to Norriton in Montgomery County to farm. They, too, had ten children, including David Rittenhouse, born April 1, 1732. Matthias, a Rittenhouse biographer wrote, was:

a very respectable man; he possessed a good understanding, united to a most benevolent heart and great simplicity of manners….[he was] inclined to the religious principles of the Society called Friends, although he had been bred a Baptist (as the Mennonites were then sometimes called, and sometimes Anabaptists)…Yet, with truly estimable qualities, both of the head and heart, old Mr. Rittenhouse did not, probably, duly appreciate the early specimens of that talent which appeared so conspicuous in his son David. Hence he was for some time opposed to the young man’s earnest desire to renounce agricultural employments for the purpose of devoting himself altogether to philosophical pursuits, in connection with some mechanical profession as might best comport with useful objects of natural philosophy, and be most likely, at the same time, to afford him the means of a comfortable subsistence. At length, however, the father yielded his own inclinations in order to gratify what was manifestly the irresistible impulse of his son’s genius. He supplied him with money to purchase, in Philadelphia, such tools as were more immediately necessary for commencing the clock-making business...[3]

Biographers of David Rittenhouse relate contradictory, sometimes hyperbolic, anecdotes about his precocious achievements. All agree that by his teenage years, he had mastered the mathematical theories in Isaac Newton’s Principia. Initially he earned his living as a clockmaker. He experimented with wood and metals to develop a more accurate pendulum. He built surveying instruments, barometers, chronometers, hygrometers and thermometers.[4] At times, he worked as a surveyor.

Throughout his career, he served on commissions engaged in boundary surveys. These included surveys of portions of the boundaries of Pennsylvania with Maryland, New York, and what became the Northwest Territory as well as portions of New York’s boundaries with New Jersey and Massachusetts. In 1784 he assisted in surveying a ninety-mile westward extension of the Mason-Dixon line, and in late 1772 or early 1773 he set the southwest corner of Pennsylvania, a point from which a line was run north in 1785 to establish the Pennsylvania-Virginia boundary. Experienced in common or terrestrial surveying, he also undertook topographical surveys of canals and rivers.[5]

But, Rittenhouse’s passion was astronomy. He built the first astronomical telescope in America. He discovered the gas clouds surrounding the planet Venus.[6] In 1769, from the observatory Rittenhouse built on his front lawn in Norriton, he, Benjamin Franklin and a crowd from Philadelphia, observed the transit of Venus. Rittenhouse meticulously recorded other planetary transits, comets, meteors, solar and lunar eclipses, Jupiter’s satellites.

Thomas Jefferson’s favorite invention by Rittenhouse was the orrery, a scale model of the solar system. Rittenhouse’s uncle, the Reverend Thomas Barton (1728-1780), an Anglican minister, paid his expenses for the first of two. Barton had married Matthias Rittenhouse’s sister Esther (1731-1774). The University of Pennsylvania remembers Barton’s gift as the state’s first research grant.[7]. One orrery is owned by the University of Pennsylvania; the other, by Princeton University.

Rittenhouse Orrery, University of Pennsylvania

During the Revolutionary War, Rittenhouse turned his genius to weaponry. He selected sites for weapons manufacture and supervised production. In Philadelphia, he arranged for the lead weights in clocks to be replaced with iron so the lead could be used for bullets. He was a member of the state constitutional convention.

The British occupied Philadelphia from September 1777 until June 1778. In a letter to Rittenhouse, Thomas Jefferson expressed concern for the Orrery. Had it been damaged? Its room at the College of Philadelphia (University of Pennsylvania) had been locked. Only the provost had the key. No one entered without his permission or without his presence. The Orrery survived the war intact.[8]

In 1779, Rittenhouse was appointed state treasurer, a position he held until 1787. In April 1792, when President George Washington selected him to be the first director of the United States Mint, Rittenhouse tried to decline the post. Alexander Hamilton and his friend Jefferson prevailed upon him to accept. He finally took the oath of office in July and served until 1795. [9]

David Rittenhouse married twice. His first wife was Eleanor Coulston (1735-1771), whom he married in 1766. They had two daughters: Elizabeth (1767 – 1799) and Esther (1769 –1799). Eleanor gave birth to her husband’s namesake in February 1771, but mother and son died shortly after. He remarried in December 1772. Hannah Jacobs (1739-1799) became stepmother to the two girls. When David Rittenhouse died on June 26, 1796, his only descendants were Elizabeth and Esther.

Esther Rittenhouse

Esther Rittenhouse married Dr. Nicholas Baker Waters, (1764 – 1794) in 1790. Waters was “a physician of respectable talents and amiable disposition.” He lived only four years, dying of pulmonary disease in August, 1794. Esther was left a 25-year-old widow with a 3-year-old son, David Rittenhouse Waters (1791 – 1813). Esther lived five more years. Her son became an attorney, but David R. Waters died unmarried in 1813 at the age of 22. [10]

Since Esther Rittenhouse Water’s genealogical line ended with the death of her son, any descendants of David Rittenhouse would be children of her sister Elizabeth, and her husband, Jonathan Dickinson Sergeant. (1746-1793).

Elizabeth Rittenhouse

Elizabeth Rittenhouse Sergeant

Charles Willson Peale, Elizabeth Rittenhouse (Mrs. Jonathan Dickinson Sergeant, 1789
Private Collection

Jonathan Dickinson Sergeant (1746- 1793) was the son of Jonathan Sergeant (1709-1777), treasurer of Princeton (1750-1777), and Abigail Dickinson (1711-1799). Abigail was a daughter of Jonathan Dickinson (1688-1747), the first president of Princeton University. Sergeant was an American patriot who actively fought the Stamp Act. He helped draft the New Jersey constitution and was a member of the Continental Congress. When the British raided New Jersey, they burned his home. Sergeant moved to Pennsylvania where he became the state’s Attorney-General from 1777-1780. When he married Elizabeth Rittenhouse on December 20, 1788, he was a widower with eight children and 21 years older than she. Elizabeth gave him three more children before he died five years later in the yellow fever epidemic of 1793. Elizabeth lived only six years more. She died at 32. Their three children, and the only second generation descendants of David Rittenhouse, were:

  1. Esther Rittenhouse Sergeant (1789 – 1870)
  2. David Rittenhouse Sergeant (1791 – 1872)
  3. Frances Rittenhouse Sergeant (1793 – 1847)

David Sergeant never married. Frances married attorney John Cole Lowber (1789 – 1834). Of their four children, one daughter died in infancy, another died at 14. Two sons lived to adulthood. William (1824-1888), became a Navy surgeon. He married but had no surviving children. His brother, Henry (1827-1899), never married. The Rittenhouse genealogical line depended on one person: Esther Rittenhouse Sergeant.

Esther Rittenhouse Sergeant

Esther Sergeant, or Hetty as she was known, married William Paul Crillon Barton, MD (1786-1856) on July 14, 1814. His grandfather, the Reverend Thomas Barton (1728-1780), was the same man who funded David Rittenhouse’s first two orrerys. Barton had married her great-great-aunt, Esther Rittenhouse (1731-1774). Unlike his patriotic nephew, David Rittenhouse, Thomas Barton was a Loyalist. The Barton family spent the Revolutionary War in England. One son, Benjamin Smith Barton (1766-1815), attended medical school there. Their youngest son, William (1754-1817), studied heraldry.


William Barton

When William returned to America in 1779, he became an attorney in Philadelphia. In 1781, he published Observations on the Nature and Use of Paper Credit, followed in 1786 by The True Interests of the United States and particularly of Pennsylvania considered with Respect to the Advantages Resulting from a State Paper Money. Both the College of Philadelphia (University of Pennsylvania) and the College of New Jersey (Princeton) awarded him honorary master’s degrees. In 1813, William Barton wrote his cousin’s biography, Memoirs of the Life of David Rittenhouse. But, the accomplishment for which he is most remembered is designing the Great Seal of the Republic.

In 1814, Barton published A Treatise Concerning a Plan for the Internal Organization and Government of Marine Hospitals in the United States: Together with a Scheme for Amending and Systematizing the Medical Department of the Navy. Within its 242 pages, he detailed a plan for navy hospitals at every major port from architectural design, furnishings, heating and ventilation, to staff positions, descriptions and salaries. Frustrated with the meagerness of his own salary, he joined with other United States Navy physicians to request officially that their pay be at least commensurate with US Army physicians, and preferably with doctors in the British Navy.[13] 

William Paul Crillon Barton

William Barton married Elizabeth Rhea. Their son William Paul Crillon Barton (1786-1856) was influenced by his uncle Benjamin, a physician and botanist who advised the Lewis and Clark Expedition.[11] The younger man studied medicine and botany. In 1809, he entered U.S. Navy service as surgeon aboard the new nation’s first warship, the frigate USS United States, commanded by Stephen Decatur. As the ship sailed the waters of the Caribbean searching for privateers, Barton studied the tropical diseases that afflicted the sailors. His experiments with lime juice and lemonade convinced him that, like the British, the American Navy needed to include citrus in their provisions. The Navy formally accepted his recommendation in 1812.[12]

In 1830, he published Hints for Medical Officers Cruising in the West Indies. As well as refining medical advice for the climate, he emphasized the importance of morale on health. He encouraged music aboard ship and moderate use of tobacco and spirits.

Not long after the book appeared, artist William James Hubard (1807-1862) painted Barton’s portrait. About the painting, the Philadelphia Museum of Art wrote:

Barton is shown here on one of his rambles through the outskirts of Philadelphia in search of new botanical specimens. Samuel Gross, his student at Jefferson Medical College and later the subject of Thomas Eakins’s masterpiece The Gross Clinic, fondly remembered these excursions. Gross reminisced that Barton “experienced as great delight in the discovery of a new plant as Audubon did at the sight of an undescribed bird. [14]

On August 31, 1842, Congress passed a Navy appropriations bill that incorporated efficiency plans proposed by Dr. William P. C. Barton in his 1814 book. President John Tyler appointed him the first chief of the U.S. Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery.[15]

William and Hetty Sergeant Barton had 14 children. Seven daughters lived to adulthood.

  1. Elizabeth (1815-1895) (Mrs. Samuel Abbott)
  2. Julia (1817-1884) (Mrs. Jonathan Dickinson Miller)
  3. Adeline (1818-1876) (Mrs. Thomas Howard Paschl)
  4. Emma (1822-1882) (Mrs. Frederick Carroll Brewster)
  5. Mary (1823-1856) (unmarried)
  6. Lavinia (1827-1895) (unmarried)
  7. Selina (1830-after 1871) (unmarried)

One of those daughters must be the subject of the portrait. Since the sitter did not wear a wedding ring when she posed for the painting in the mid-1840s, she was single. The two eldest daughters, Elizabeth and Julia, both married in 1840. Neither is the likely subject of Portrait of a Young Lady. Adeline married in 1858, but was 27 in 1845 and probably was too old to be the subject. Emma was 23; Mary, 22; Lavinia, 18; and Selina, 15. None of the historical societies or archives in the Philadelphia area hold any files or images on any of the women.[16] Evidence below suggests the sitter was Emma Barton, but there is no documentation. For now, the identity of the subject is Miss Barton. 

To learn the name of the artist, return to Mystery of the David Rittenhouse Descendant.

(c) Fine Art Investigations, 2014-2017
All Rights Reserved


[1] William Barton, Memoirs of the Life of David Rittenhouse (Parker, 1813), 80-82; David Kolb Cassel, A Genea-biographical History of the Rittenhouse Family: And All Its Branches in America, with Sketches of Their Descendants, from the Earliest Available Records to the Present Time, Including the Birth of Wilhelm in 1644 (Rittenhouse Memorial Association, 1893), 26

[2] Cassel, 137-138.

[3] Cassel, 94.

[4] Cassel, 162.

[5] Martin Ritt, “David Rittenhouse, American National Biography On-Line,

[6] Charlie Samuels, Inventors and Inventions in Colonial America, (The Rosen Publishing Group, 2002), 13

[7] M.J. Babb, “The Relation of David Rittenhouse and His Orrery to the University, Penn History, University of Pennsylvania Library,

[8] Barton, 274

[9] Barton, 385

[10] Ibid, 450. David Rittenhouse Waters was remembered: “Although he had just entered on the threshold of the world, this excellent young man exhibited many proofs of extraordinary attainments in literature and science, as well as of a superior genius. He appeared to have inherited from his maternal grandfather, congenial talents. In his life, his amiable disposition endeared him to all who had an opportunity of knowing his virtues; in his death, not only have his relatives and friends experienced an afflicting bereavement, but his country has sustained the loss of a citizen of great promise.” (258-259)

[11] “Benjamin Smith Barton (1766-1815),” Penn Biographies, Penn University Archives and Records Center,

[12] John T. Greenwood, F. Clifton Berry, Medics at War: Military Medicine from Colonial Times to the 21st Century (Naval Institute Press, 2005), 11-14

[13] Ibid, 13

[14] “Portrait of Mr. William P. C. Barton, Professor of Botany, Physician, and Botanist, William James Hubard, American (born England), 1807 – 1862,” Philadelphia Museum of Art,|1

[15] US Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, “The Bureau of Medicine and Surgery (BUMED)—A Brief History,“ Navy Medicine,

[16] Historical Society of Philadelphia, Library Company of Philadelphia, Germantown Historical Society

[17] Numerous public records on

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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. The examples below include Bingham’s second wife, Eliza Keller Thomas Bingham, her sister, Sallie Thomas, and two sisters of Bingham’s good friend James Sidney Rollins, Eliza and Mary Elizabeth.  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 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.



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George Washington Bingham

George Caleb Bingham was named for his paternal grandfather, George Washington Bingham, a wheat and tobacco farmer who lived on the eastern side of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  The artist remembered his grandfather as “a tall and white-headed gentleman, overflowing with the milk of human kindness.” [ii]  Was he?

The first known record of George Caleb Bingham’s paternal grandfather is in Hanover County, Virginia’s 1782 census: George Bingham, household of two. Those two people were George, 29, a veteran of the Revolutionary War, and his bride, the former Louisa Vest, 21, who was pregnant at the time. A few months later, Henry Vest Bingham, George Caleb Bingham’s father, was born. He was the first of eight children: six girls, Elizabeth, Rhoda, Mariah, Rebecca, Mildred, Maria, and a boy, John. The children grew up surrounded by cousins, uncles, aunts, and probably, grandparents. In that 1782 census, on the line below George Bingham, the census taker wrote, “John Bingham” with a household of six. Two lines above, was the name Josias Bingham, household of seven; one slave.[iii]

George Bingham Genealogy

Department of Commerce and Labor, Bureau of the Census, Heads of Families at the First Census of the United States Taken in the Year 1790 and Records of the State Enumerations: 1782 To 1785 Virginia (Government Printing Office, 1908) page 29. The Binghams are in the first column, above the indentation. See detail below.


George Bingham Genealogy

George Bingham, 1782 Census, Hanover County, Virginia – Detail. Page 29, Column 1, lines 38, 40, 41

“In 1784, after serving in the Hanover Militia, George Washington Bingham bought land in Orange County, Virginia, that extended from the county line along Lynch River to the top of what has become known as Bingham Mountain.” [iv] After Rhoda’s birth in 1785, the family moved west from Hanover County to Orange County[v], to the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, about 20 miles north of Charlottesville.[vi]

Dyke, Virginia, became the nearest town. There, George W. Bingham farmed wheat and tobacco. He was also a preacher, licensed to perform marriages in Orange County. In 1795, he was one of ten men who bought an acre of land from Harry and Sally Austin in order to establish a Methodist church, the first denomination to appear in the Blue Ridge mountains. They built the church on the north side of the Lynch River. Originally, it was called Austin’s Meeting House. Later it became known as Bingham’s Meeting House. A church still stands there today.

George Caleb Bingham's grandfather's church

Bingham’s Church
204 Church Lane, Dyke, Virginia

In 1838, Orange County split, with the Western part becoming Greene County. The new dividing line ran straight across the former, larger county and through the middle of Bingham’s Church.  “The church now straddles the Albemarle-Greene County Line. The preacher stands in Albemarle County and the congregation sits in Greene County. At times the church has struggled. It was twice closed during the 1950s because of low membership, but because of it’s historic value it has come to life again and again as Greene County’s oldest church.”[vii]

George Caleb Bingham Genealogy

Virginia Department of Geology and Mineral Resources Map
Detail with Bingham’s Mountain and Church Lane near the border of Greene and Albemarle Counties

Bingham wrote that his grandfather “was exceedingly kind and indulgent” to his numerous slaves, “never using the lash or allowing it to be used upon his place.’’[viii] Rose-colored glasses often tint the past, but the artist’s grandfather may, moreso than many, have lived by the principles he preached. Census details hint that G. W. Bingham’s eight slaves were a family: an adult man and woman with six children, four girls and two boys.[ix]

Some twenty years later, when the artist visited his own childhood home, he was troubled that a slave the Binghams had sold to neighbors when they left for Missouri had been abandoned by his owners. In a letter to his mother, George Caleb Bingham quoted the elderly man’s wife, “now that they had got all the cream out of him they didn’t want him any more.” The young artist, pressed money into the man’s hands and asked him to contact him if he were ever in distress.[x] I have often wondered if the man did, and if so, what was Bingham’s response.

Still, Bingham’s attitude and action were a step or two above the norm. Could the man for whom he was named, George Washington Bingham, have influenced the artist’s enlightened thinking?

Many thanks to Jackie Pamenter of Greene County [VA] Historical Society for her insights.

(c) Fine Art Investigations, 2018
All Rights Reserved


End Notes

[i] George Caleb Bingham, unpublished memoir, undated, in E. Maurice Bloch, George Caleb Bingham: Evolution of an Artist (University of California Press, 1967), 9.

[ii] George Caleb Bingham wrote that his grandfather George Washington Bingham was “born and raised in some of the New England states.” (E. Maurice Bloch, George Caleb Bingham: The Evolution of an Artist (University of California Press), 10) If true, his paternal family probably arrived in the first wave of settlement. But, a 610-page Genealogy of the Bingham Family in the United States, published in 1898, contains no information related to George Bingham. (Theodore A. Bingham, Genealogy of the Bingham Family in the United States, Especially of the State of Connecticut (Harrisburg Publishing Company, 1898).

[iii] Department of Commerce and Labor, Bureau of the Census, Heads of Families at the First Census of the United States Taken in the Year 1790 and Records of the State Enumerations: 1782 To 1785 Virginia (Government Printing Office, 1908) page 29, column 1, lines 38, 40, 41.

[iv] Edgar Woods, Albemarle County in Virginia: Giving Some Account of what it was by Nature, of what it was Made by Man, and of Some of the Men Who Made it (Michie Company, printers, 1901), 135.

[v] Most Bingham histories state that the family lived in Albemarle County. Facts, including the 1820 census, as well as church history, indicate the family residence was actually in Orange County.

[vi] E. Maurice Bloch, George Caleb Bingham: The Evolution of an Artist (University of California Press), 10.

[vii] Donald Covey, Greene County, A Brief History (History Press, 2007); Woods, op. cit., 135.

[viii] E. Maurice Bloch, George Caleb Bingham: The Evolution of an Artist, op. cit., 10.

[ix] United States Census Bureau, Fourth Census of the United States, “Household of George Bingham,” Orange County, Virginia, 1820, National Archives and Records Administration, Series M33, Roll 141, page21, line 7. Detail of Record is:

Free White Persons – Males – 26 thru 44: 1

Free White Persons – Males – 45 and over: 1

Free White Persons – Females – Under 10: 1

Free White Persons – Females – 16 thru 25: 1

Free White Persons – Females – 45 and over: 1

Slaves – Males – Under 14: 1

Slaves – Males – 14 thru 25: 1

Slaves – Males – 45 and over: 1

Slaves – Females – Under 14: 4

Slaves – Females – 26 thru 44: 1

Number of Persons – Engaged in Agriculture: 5

Free White Persons – Under 16: 1

Free White Persons – Over 25: 3

Total Free White Persons: 5

Total Slaves: 8

Total All Persons – White, Slaves, Colored, Other: 13

[x]George Caleb Bingham, “Letter to Mary Bingham,” September 25, 1841, Petersburg, Virginia, in  Lynn Wolf Gentzler, editor, Roger E. Robinson, compiler, “But I Forget That I am a Painter and Not a Politician”: The Letters of George Caleb Bingham (The State Historical Society of Missouri and Friends of Arrow Rock, Inc. 2011), 57.

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Evolution of an Art Detective

Fannie Medora Sombart, after 1880
Oil on Canvas, 48 x 32 inches

In 2002, I was not yet an art detective. I was in the midst of earning advanced degrees in art history and history. But, the Bingham Portrait Project, my search for George Caleb Bingham portraits, had brought me to the attention of a board member of an historic site. The organization owned a Bingham portrait of a young woman, Fannie Medora Sombart, that had been donated to them 15 years before. The board members and volunteers, almost exclusively women, displayed their most valuable artifact by their beloved Missouri Artist in the main hall across from the grand staircase. In their home tours, they featured it.

Shortly before my involvement, several art connoisseurs, all of them men, stated, without explanation, and in a manner that the board and volunteers perceived as condescending and paternalistic, that the portrait was not by Bingham. Most of the women dismissed the pronouncement, but seeds of doubt grew. The board member asked if I could help resolve the concerns.

From the beginning, I knew George Caleb Bingham was not the artist. Nothing about the piece resembled Bingham — size, palette, pose, brushwork. The painting was taller and narrower than any portrait by Bingham; the palette, not as harmonious; the pose, a bit awkward; the brushwork, busier. Modeling was not as crisp or as psychologically engaging. But, there was something else that was absolutely wrong that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.

Finally, I figured it out. The subject’s clothing was different from any other Bingham portrait. She wore a slim skirt, a bustle, a laveuse (extra fabric draped over the hips like a washerwoman’s apron), and small straw bonnet with an upturned brim.

Fannie Medora Sombart
Dress Detail


These styles came into fashion in the 1880s: Bingham died in 1879.The fashion plates below show that in 1879, with swirls of fabric, designers emphasized the skirt. In 1880, the emphasis had moved up to hips through the addition of a laveuse and a bustle. The portrait subject appears to wear both a bustle and a laveuse, neither of which came into fashion until after George Caleb Bingham’s death.

Peterson’s Magazine, January, 1879
The swirling fabric of the skirt is the fashion emphasis

1880 Day Dresses
The addition of the laveuse places the fashion emphasis on the hips. An example of the straw hat with upturned brim is on the model at the far right. It was the latest fashion trend, but was not manufactured until 1880[1]

Despite my 100-page illustrated report detailing all the reasons why the portrait was not the work of George Caleb Bingham, the board members, honest and trustworthy people, had trouble believing that the prestigious and valuable donation had all been based on a lie.  How had this happened?

From local historians, I learned the anonymous donor from 1985, now dead, as was the art dealer, was one of the region’s wealthiest people. From a newspaper article, I learned the authenticator had been a socially prominent painter and gallery owner. He embellished the authentication with a story I had never heard. He said Bingham waited to paint the ears of his portrait subjects until he was paid. Guides at the historic home repeated the anecdote during their tour.

Through a friend of a friend, I found someone who had known the art dealer well. According to his former model, the man played the role of the artist to perfection. He was a man of sophisticated tastes. He wore a cravat. He was an extraordinary dinner guest. He had a fine sense of humor, yet time and again, he told tales of his life in eastern Europe. He was a freedom fighter who had spent time in the Gulag. From scavenged horsehair, he made brushes and painted portraits of the guards. In exchange for the portraits, the guards were to give him food or light duty. He learned not to finish a painting until the guard upheld his part of the bargain. For the rest of his life, he painted the ears in last. After his release from the forced labor camps, he escaped to the United States. He spent extravagantly, and often, he was out of money.

Still more research revealed that in the early 1980s, federal prosecutors accused the donor of altering her company’s scales and underpaying employees. The donor avoided jail-time, but owed a huge bill for tax fraud. Among the individual’s acquaintances was the artist turned art dealer. What arrangement did they have?  Where did the dealer find the portrait?  How much did he earn? It is public knowledge that he appraised the portrait at $48,000. At that time, 1985, the highest price a Bingham portrait had ever reached at auction was $16,500. Even following the rule of thumb of doubling the auction price for a private sale, the donation was over-valued. But his number gave the donor a valuable charitable deduction to reduce the tax bill.

Such lies and unethical actions are not uncommon in the art world. The ethical standards and guidelines are constantly broken. The average person does not know how to avoid art fraud. The average person does not notice the inherent conflict of interest of art dealers selling the same pieces they authenticate. For reasons I do not fully understood, I felt a commitment to right this wrong. As an art detective, am I quixotically tilting at windmills? Or am I restoring the integrity of George Caleb Bingham’s legacy – and the legacies of other artists – one portrait at a time? In the large scheme of life, this work is small, but with each correct attribution, it feels as though one small piece of the universe is back in order, and that fewer artists are spinning in their graves. Not all corrected attributions are heart-breaking. Far more often, the truth resonates with the portrait owner. More than 80% of my clients become life-long friends.


By Patricia Moss
Principal, Fine Art Investigations


(c) Fine Art Investigations, 2018
All Rights Reserved


[1] Marion Sichel, History of Women’s Costume, (Chelsea House Publications, 1990), 51.


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