Thomas Hovenden (1840-1895)

December 28th  marks the anniversary of the birth of Thomas Hovenden (1840-1895). 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 is said to have died trying to save a girl from an oncoming train.[1]

Celebrating American Portrait Artists

Thomas Hovenden, Contentment, 1881
Columbus Museum of Art
Columbus, Georgia
G 1993.23

Hovenden’s self-portraits reveal his artwork as simultaneously conventional and original.  Conventional in style, but unconventional in pose. 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 later, 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. Curry unforgettably altered the conception of John Brown.  

Professional Art Research

Thomas Hovenden, The Last Moments of John Brown, ca. 1884
Oil on Canvas, 46 x 31 inches
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco 1979.7.60

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.

[1] Michael Schantz, Thomas Hovenden: American Painter of Hearth and Homeland,

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All Rights Reserved

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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