On Silhouettes

April 28, 2014

In very general terms, “silhouette” refers to a cut, drawn, or painted shape in black on a piece of white paper or other material. Originally, these black-and-white likenesses were known by various other labels, including “shades,” “shadows,” “shadow portraits,” “shadow pictures,” Speed Art Museum“black profiles,” “black shades,” “profile shades,” “shadowgraphs,” “scissortypes,” and “skiagrams” (the last a term still used in medical photography).

“Silhouette” is actually an eponymous term, named after Étienne de Silhouette. Born in Limoges, he had studied economics and attained minor fame for his French translations of several works by Alexander Pope and other English writers when he gained favor with Madame de Pompadour, mistress of King Louis XV. Silhouette was appointed France‘s Controller-General of Finances in 1759, but his budget-slashing measures were so austere that he was removed from office after only eight months. By that time he was considered such a cheapskate that the mocking term “à la Silhouette” had been coined to describe anything miserly or inexpensive. He retired to a chateau in Bry-sur-Marne, where it was said he spent time on his hobby of cutting paper profiles that he reputedly used as cheap interior decorations.

Although English painter Henry Fuselli used the term “silhouettes” in London as early as 1810, it is likely that the popularization of this art form’s most familiar and enduring label was due to the influence of Augustin-Amant-Constan-Fidèle Edouart (1789-1861), one of the foremost profile artists of his time and maker of the first and third images shown here. Edouart began calling his shadow portraits “silhouettes” in 1829, referring to himself a “silhouettist,” and others soon followed. Some speculate that Edouart thought the French term was a more elegant way to distinguish his work from more expensive painted profiles, others that he believed the then-commonly used terms “black shades” and “black shade man” were somehow dismissive of his art.

Born in the French harbor town of Dunkerque, Edouart was a decorated soldier in Napoleon’s army but lost most of his property at the time of the evacuation of Holland. He moved to England in 1814 where, like many other émigrés, he first tried to earn a living teaching French, but found too much competition. Edouart then began making the intricate hair portraits known as “mourning art” and successfully established himself in London. In 1825 he began cutting silhouettes and by the following year was working exclusively in this form. Edouart traveled in England, Ireland, and Scotland; he arrived in Edinburgh in 1829 and spent three years there. He also wrote A Treatise on Silhouette Likenesses, published in 1835.

Edouart was best known for his simple, lifelike, and remarkably expressive full-figure profiles, often featuring distinctive personal accessories such as hats, canes, and eyeglasses. These figures were sometimes done as group portraits, or several were later arranged together in a larger composition. Edouart cut freehand with scissors from black paper; it is said he could perfectly execute a silhouette in less than two minutes. Despite his prolific output, Edouart relied on no assistants and disdained the use of mechanical tracing devices. He refused to use color, bronzing, or gilding in the embellishment of his figures, although in his later work he sometimes indicated hair, clothing, and other physical details in pencil or chalk. Edouart cut two original silhouettes of every sitter and kept the duplicate in his folios, meticulously recording the name and date on the back of each profile and at the bottom of every page; often he went back to add handwritten notations about the marriage or death of a subject, or the silhouette of a family member that he had cut later.

From 1839 to 1849 Edouart visited America. Many of the most prominent political figures, distinguished citizens, and noted celebrities of the 1840s sat for him, including six presidents and ex-presidents. (Edouart also cut many silhouettes among the Society of Friends, or Quakers, in both Great Britain and America.) Misfortune struck during Edouart’s return voyage to England when his ship wrecked off the island of Guernsey. Although all aboard were saved, only about fourteen of his folios were rescued. Edouart eventually returned to France, where he died in Quines near Calais at the age of 72.

Speed Art MuseumThe deft cutting skills of silhouettist William Henry Brown (1808-1883), maker of the second and last images shown here, have been favorably compared to those of Edouart. Born in Charleston, South Carolina, Brown moved to Philadelphia as a teenager. He made his artistic debut when he was only sixteen with a full-length silhouette of Lafayette, made during Lafayette’s triumphal visit to Philadelphia in September 1824, nearly fifteen years before Edouart arrived in America. Brown initially trained in the profession of engineering, however, which he continued to practice in Philadelphia until at least 1841. But by the early 1830s Brown was increasingly devoting himself to a career as a silhouettist. He began this work first in New England, then returned to the South, where his subtly embellished full-length figures became very popular. Brown spent a great deal of time in Charleston in the 1840s and early 1850, as well as traveling widely throughout the region. He visited Mississippi several times, including Vicksburg in 1842 or 1844, Natchez in 1844, and Jackson in early 1846; he also went to St. Louis and New Orleans.

Like Edouart, Brown cut his silhouettes freehand. As Brown later wrote of himself in his 1874 book, The History of the First Locomotives in America, “from his earliest recollection, he has been gifted with a rare and peculiar talent or faculty (entirely intuitive in him) of executing with wonderful facility and accuracy the outlines or form of any person or object from a single glance of the eye, and without any machinery whatever, but with a pair of common scissors and a piece of black paper.” Brown’s fame spread when E.B. & E.C. Kellogg of Hartford, Connecticut, in 1845 published a collection of his full-length silhouettes on lithographed backgrounds in Portrait Gallery of Distinguished American Citizens, with biographical sketches, and fac-similes of original letters. (Each letter facsimile was in the subject’s own handwriting.) Almost the entire edition was destroyed by fire, but fortunately the Kelloggs had also published individual lithographs of silhouettes from the book.

Brown was one of the last silhouettists to work on a very large scale. As he wrote in 1874, “This peculiar style of outline portraiture … was not confined to shaping the mere outlines of persons or faces, but was extended to portraying entire family groups, military companies, fire companies with their engines and horse-carriages, sporting scenes, race-courses, and marine views, representing a harbor and shipping. All were executed in black paper, and with a pair of scissors …” In 1831, Brown cut the inaugural run of the first American-built locomotive in New York, the “De Witt Clinton,” along with the train’s tender, first two coaches, passengers, engineer, and conductor; he later presented this six foot long silhouette himself to the Connecticut Historical Society, where it is still on view. Brown’s silhouette of the St. Louis Fire Brigade included an engine, two hose carriages, and sixty-five firemen; the finished work was twenty-five feet long. Brown also developed “pasties,” collages of watercolor and pen overlaid with cut-out paper figures. One of his most celebrated compositions using this technique was Hauling the Whole Week’s Picking, an 1842 panorama that consisted of four panels and measured about nine feet, now in the Historic New Orleans Collection. Brown continued to pursue his profession as a silhouettist until the late 1850s, when demand for silhouettes had dramatically fallen with the increasing prevalence of photography. He resumed his career as an engineer in Philadelphia, then in 1859 went to work for Pennsylvania’s Huntingdon & Broad Top Railroad. Brown eventually returned to Charleston, where he died in 1883.

Silhouettes were created using four basic methods: painted on paper, card, vellum, ivory, silk, or porcelain; painted in reverse on glass; “hollow-cut,” usually with the assistance of mechanical tracing devices; and cut freehand with scissors or, less frequently, sharp knives or embroidery needles. American examples of painted silhouettes, usually done in black ink on paper, are scarce; American silhouettists also did not reverse-paint on glass. Silhouettists had to blacken their own paper until the 1820s, when black paper became commercially available. Freehand, or “cut-and-paste,” silhouettes are cut from black (or dark-colored) paper and then pasted onto a piece of white (or contrasting light-colored) paper. These profiles can be either bust-length or full-length. Sometimes several full-figure silhouettes were assembled in a familiar setting, such as a family group engaged with their hobbies in a drawing room or outdoors with their pets; the background sheet of the composition might be a drawing or watercolor detailed by hand, or a stock lithograph. Cut freehand silhouettes, such as those shown here, were made by artists having the talent to cut an accurate portrayal without using any tracing aids.

In both hollow-cut and freehand silhouettes, the image appears dark on light. But with the hollow-cut process the profile is cut out from the center of a sheet of white (or light-colored) paper, leaving a “hollow” paper outline that is then backed with another sheet of paper or fabric that is black (or other contrasting dark 1938.1.72color). Hollow-cut silhouettes are usually bust length. One production method involved positioning the subject so that a strong light cast the sitter’s profile onto the paper, where its outline could be traced. However, hollow-cut silhouettes were seldom done entirely by hand. Instead, mechanical tracing devices were used for speed and accuracy. These commonly had a bar connected to a stylus or pencil, so that while the bar was physically moved along the sitter’s profile, its outline was traced onto a small sheet of paper by the stylus or pencil. This mechanism was often connected to a pantograph, which could copy, enlarge, or reduce the life-size image onto another sheet of paper; the sheet could also be folded to produce multiple portraits.

Unlike the images shown here, most silhouettes made in the United States were hollow-cut, largely because of the dominance of machine-cut silhouettes. Ancient Greek and Roman painters are believed to have been the first artists to invent mechanical devices for capturing the outline of a person’s shadow cast by sunlight, lamplight, or candlelight. The 1772 publication of Essays on Physiognomy, for the Promotion of the Knowledge and the Love of Mankind by Johann Caspar Lavater, a Swiss minister, revived interest in the practice of physiognomy, a pseudo-science which claimed that personality traits are linked to physical features. He believed human character could be revealed through interpretation of the silhouette and developed an apparatus that allowed an artist to trace a sitter’s shadow, cast by a lit candle onto a screen. Lavater’s device resembled an early version of the physiognotrace, designed in France by Gilles-Louis Chretien around 1783-1784. But it is Englishman John Isaac Hawkins who is credited with inventing (and patenting) the physiognotrace, a five-foot tall mechanical device with a tripod resembling an easel, in 1802. Hawkins gave a friend in Philadelphia, artist and entrepreneur Charles Willson Peale, the right to use the physiognotrace in his museum from 1803 on. It was an immediate and long lasting attraction; over 8,500 silhouettes were cut during its first year of operation.

Historically, shadows have been associated with mystery, darkness, evil, and death since ancient times. But early artists eventually discovered that drawing the human shadow against a lighter contrasting background could not only capture its physical shape, but also express identity and personality through stance and other specific characteristics, even when the figure or face was viewed from the side. Profiles and “shades,” as black shadows portrayed against a white background were known in antiquity, appeared in early Egyptian, Persian, Minoan, Greek, Etruscan, and Roman art and decorative accessories. When in 1738 archaeologists began unearthing Herculaneum and Pompeii, cities buried by twelve feet of volcanic ash from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D., their discoveries sparked a renewed interest in classical art throughout Europe. And ancient coins, pottery, and mosaics with profile images helped bring the once-popular art form of “shadow portraits” back in style.

Before the development of modern cameras and photography in the nineteenth century, personal portraits were a luxury. Commissioning a full color likeness, whether a large oil painting on canvas or a small delicate watercolor on ivory, was an expense that only the wealthy could afford and typically took hours or days to complete. Miniature portraits were quite fashionable among the aristocracy, who had worn portraits as jewelry since at least the fifteenth century. There seems to be some debate whether silhouettes first emerged as a decorative art form in England after Elizabeth Pyburg (or Rhijberg) cut paper profile shades of England’s King William III and Queen Mary in 1699, or they originated in France during the late 1600s and flourished in the German court at Weimar before reaching England. In any case, the fascination with silhouettes grew into a European craze by the early 1800s.

Speed Art MuseumFrom about 1750 until 1850, silhouettes became a particularly popular form of portraiture with the middle and lower classes, since the simple black profiles offered the ordinary person an affordable alternative to more traditional portable painted portraits. These inexpensive paper likenesses could be obtained in a matter of minutes, typically for only a few cents to a quarter even when done by a professional, compared to the cost of a few dollars for a painted profile and twenty dollars (or more) for a detailed miniature portrait in watercolor or oils. Many silhouettists were amateurs and it was even considered a suitable pastime for ladies. (Women were among the most skilled professionals, too, as were some youths, considered child prodigies). Some silhouettists developed a recognizable style, such as in their treatment of hair and clothing details, or how they cut the curve at the bottom of a bust-length profile. Silhouettes were often given as mementos and could be kept loose, framed, or compiled in albums and scrapbooks.

Early eighteenth century silhouettes were all black, but by the end of the century silhouettists had begun to add detailing by hand and even a hint of bronzing. As consumer demand for more elaborate decoration rose, conspicuous embellishments such as jewelry, lace collars, and elaborate hairstyles appeared. By the early nineteenth century, silhouettes were becoming associated with elegance, an appeal that reached across all income levels. Wealthy patrons commissioned silhouettes as tiny as one-quarter inch to be mounted with precious stones in jewelry and other accessories much more expensive than the image itself. An astounding number of silhouettes had been produced for customers in every economic class by 1850; some silhouettists claimed to have produced thirty thousand or more during their active years.

After the Revolutionary War, silhouettes made their way to America, where they quickly became popular. Portraiture had become an important element in establishing the new country’s national identity, as had the currently fashionable Neoclassical style in architecture and the decorative arts, which shared the same classical roots as the silhouette. Amateur silhouettes appear in America as early as the 1780s. Much of the silhouette’s success in America was due to mechanical tracing devices, however, and studios using them were first set up by a few French immigrants In the 1790s. There also were many talented anonymous artists, known today by designations like “the Puffy Sleeve Artist” and the “the Red Book Artist,” who produced hollow-cut silhouettes with hand painted or stock lithograph bodies in a distinctively American style during the early 1800s. Silhouettes reached the height of their popularity in America from about 1810 to 1850.

Many of the professional silhouettists in America were English or French by birth, seeking their fortunes in a new land. The making of silhouettes was quite a potential commercial opportunity: adept freehand silhouettists could cut a likeness in minutes without investing in any special equipment beyond a pair of scissors, while simple mechanical devices gave less skilled practitioners the ability to make a silhouette (and numerous duplicates) accurately, quickly, and inexpensively. Even renowned artists like Gilbert Stuart and John James Audubon occasionally turned to cutting silhouettes for ready cash. Silhouettes were particularly popular in New England, but as national demand grew for these inexpensive portraits, professional silhouettists became readily available in most major American cities, while many itinerant silhouettists regularly traveled through the smaller towns and less populated countryside. (Mechanical tracing devices were cumbersome and difficult to transport so typically were found in urban areas.) Often silhouettists were relentless self-promoters, advertising the latest techniques and innovations in local newspapers or broadsides to entice curious customers, and relying on showmanship to make the art of cutting an entertainment. Silhouettes soon appeared in the homes of anyone who could afford them.

But within a few years of Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre’s 1839 announcement of his new photographic process in Paris and its introduction to America in 1840 by Samuel F.B. Morse, daguerreotypes already were becoming common and at prices competitive with painted portrait miniatures. The cost of these mechanically captured images plummeted after William Henry Fox Talbot obtained a patent in 1841 for the calotype process, which evolved into modern chemical photography. Although silhouettes and photographs initially co-existed in Europe and America, the development of paper photography in the late nineteenth century provided an even quicker, cheaper, and more accurate form of portraiture that could be easily duplicated and circulated. Eventually photographs replaced silhouettes, although these remain charming reminders, as well as important pictorial historic records, of a bygone era. .

KOAR images shown here (top to bottom):
2011.1.9.9        David Myerle, by Auguste Edouart, 1841
1938.1.72         John I. Jacob, attributed to Auguste Edouart, 1845
2011.1.9.10      Cassius M. Clay, by William Henry Brown, 1845
2011.1.9.11      Richard Mentor Johnson, by William Henry Brown, 1838

Read more about Cassius Marcellus Clay in “KOAR’s Russian Connection,” posted on October 15, 2012, at:

More on silhouettes can be found at the following links:

“Antique Silhouettes” by Peggy McClard, March 5, 2009

Brief silhouettist biographies,bibliographies, and silhouette history posted on her website:
http://www.peggymcclard.com/aaa%20History%20of%20Silhouettes.htm http://www.peggymcclard.com/aaa%20Silhouettist%20Biographies.htm

“Profiles of a New World — the Portrait Silhouette in North America” by Emma Rutherford in America in Britain, Volume XLVIII, 2010

“Shadows From The Past” by Jane Viator in Antiques Roadshow Insider, November 2010

“Side by Side, Faces in Black and White” by Gregory LeFever in Early American Life Magazine, June 2009

More on William Henry Brown can be found at the following links:

Art in Mississippi, 1720-1980by Patti Carr Black, 1998, p.78-79, 94

Artists in the Life of Charleston: Through Colony and State from Restoration to Reconstruction  by Anna Wells Rutledge, 1949, p.149-150

Connecticut Historical Society Museum & Library

On William Henry Brown, see “A Relative’s Reminiscences of William Henry Brown,” Antiques vol. 44, no. 6 (December 1943), pp. 300-1; Alice Van Leer Carrick, A History of American Silhouettes: A Collector’s Guide, 1798-1840 (Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1968), pp. 150-62; and Anna Wells Rutledge, “William Henry Brown of Charleston,” Antiques vol. 50, no. 6 (December 1954), pp. 532-33.

And also on Edouart:


A Belgian in the Bluegrass

March 17, 2014

This hand-colored print on paper, drawn and engraved by Courtois of Malines, is of “Little Loretto” in Marion County. It seems curious that a tiny religious frontier settlement in Kentucky would be the subject of an engraving made in Belgium …


In 1785, sixty Catholic families from Charles, Price George, and St. Mary’s counties in Maryland formed a league pledged to emigrate to Kentucky (then still a county of Virginia) within a specified period of time. By settling together for mutual support and protection, they also hoped that their spiritual needs would be quickly recognized by Bishop John Carroll of Baltimore, appointed the previous year to lead the United States’ first diocese, which encompassed the entire country. The first twenty-five families found a new home near the headwaters of Pottinger’s Creek in the hilly Knobs region of the commonwealth. Holy Cross, the first Catholic church west of the Allegheny Mountains, was built here in 1792, the same year Kentucky was recognized as a state. At that time, this area became Washington County (named after George Washington), a part of which in 1834 was renamed Marion County, after General Francis Marion, the “Swamp Fox” of the Revolutionary War.

In 1793 Father Stephen Theodore Badin, a religious exile from the French Revolution and the first Catholic priest ordained in the United States, was assigned to missionary work in Kentucky by Bishop Carroll. Badin walked from Baltimore to Pittsburgh, where he boarded a flatboat to Limestone (now Maysville). He lived first near Holy Cross, then in late 1794 moved a few miles away to St. Stephen’s Farm, where he had built a chapel named after his patron saint. From there he traveled by horseback to serve all of Kentucky’s Catholic families, then numbering a little less than seven hundred. Within twelve years this grew to nearly seven thousand, scattered throughout the entire state. In 1805 the Bishop sent Father Charles Nerinckx to assist Badin.

The eldest of the fourteen children, Nerinckx was born in Herffelingen, Belgium, on October 2, 1761. After studies at Enghien, Gheel, and Louvain, he entered the theological seminary of Mechlin in 1781 and, after his ordination in 1785, became vicar at the cathedral there. (The Dutch-speaking town of Mechelen, in the province of Antwerp, Flanders, is known in French as Malines and in English as Mechlin.) In 1794 Nerinckx moved to Everberg-Meerbeke (near Louvain), where he was pastor and rebuilt the parish church. But in 1797 the Belgian government, still under the power of the anticlerical French Directoire, required that all priests take an oath of hatred against royalty. Nerinckx refused, and evaded arrest for seven years by hiding at the Hospital of Dendermonde, which was administered by his aunt, a Benedictine nun; during the day he hid, often in the attic or a chicken coop, while at night he ministered to Catholics in need and conducted masses at 2 a.m. In 1804 Nerinckx finally managed to escape by walking ten days to Amsterdam, where he boarded a ship bound for America and landed in Baltimore. Bishop Carroll first directed Nerinckx to study English at Georgetown in Washington, D.C.

Like Badin, Nerinckx practically lived in the saddle. The two priests journeyed separately through 2013.15.15 rightall of Kentucky for several years, but divided their territory in 1812. It took Nerinckx six weeks to make a circuit of his district, roughly a two-hundred-mile square covering nearly half the state. He moved to the Hardin’s Creek congregation in Marion County, a little more than ten miles from St. Stephen’s Farm and several miles east of Pottinger’s Creek, taking up residence in the vestry at the rear of the church, which he had named St. Charles in honor of his patron saint. Soon after his move Nerinckx, with three dedicated local teachers, founded the first community of religious women in the United States, originally called The Little Society of the Friends of Mary at the Foot of the Cross.

Mary Rhodes had already begun a school in a small dilapidated log cabin abandoned by a settler about a half mile from St. Charles; later she was joined by Christina Stuart, and then Ann Havern. For convenience, they fixed up a nearby log cabin where they could sleep in a loft, with beds for boarding students laid out on the bare ground floor of the living area at night and stored on the “high shelf” by day. The straw beds had plain covers, not fancy quilts, and their work table was half a split log. A combined kitchen and refectory (dining area) used a table made of boards nailed to a stump left standing in the middle of the cabin by the former tenants, who probably had used it for a similar purpose.

The women felt drawn to form a religious community and requested Nerinckx’ help, in writing a Rule (code of conduct for their new order) and receiving approval from Bishop Benedict Joseph Flaget, appointed to Kentucky when four more dioceses had been established (out of Baltimore’s territory) in 1808 at Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Bardstown; the area covered by the Bardstown diocese included most of what is now Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan. On April 25th a formal commitment ceremony was held; three more novices (Ann Rhodes, Sarah Havern, and Nellie Morgan, later known as Sister Clare) were received on June 29th and, on that day, the first large tree was cut down to begin construction of more suitable facilities for the school and convent. Nerinckx called upon the St. Charles congregation for assistance; he began a subscription program that raised a few hundred dollars, mostly in trade, and asked those who could not afford this to help by obtaining logs. Nerinckx later wrote this about the founding: “A small spot of land, of about 50 acres unmeasured, indifferent for natural conveniences, bought by Sister Anna Rhodes for $75 for the SOCIETY, about the Chapel of St. Charles, on Hardin’s creek, County of Washington, Kentucky, United States of America, called LITTLE LORETTO, was begun the 25th of April, 1812.”

As construction began in earnest, trees around the two existing cabins were felled and hewed into logs, which both provided building materials and cleared the area. Nerinckx staked out the places to erect each structure and the sisters themselves rid the yard of stumps, chipping them down then burning away what remained. Once foundation timbers were laid, small stones hauled from Hardin’s Creek were built up under them for support, with mud and straw used to fill in empty crevices. The sisters and their neighbors helped with the construction, and whenever in town Nerinckx pitched in as well; it was noted that for years afterward the imprint of his fingers could be seen in the clay mortar plastered into the spaces between logs.

Nails and glass had to be purchased and sometimes a little cash was needed by hired builders. Francis Melton of Washington County contracted to build “three double cabins of sixteen feet in the clear, with a passage between them of eight feet, to be finished in a workmanly manner, and completed before the end of July, 1813, – the timber to be taken, as much as possible, from General Walton’s and other willing neighbors’ land – Charles Nerinckx to pay for the work2013.15.15 left sixty dollars in cash, and sixty dollars in trade rated at the common trade price, at Mr. Charles Hayden’s on Pottinger’s creek.” In 1814, Nerinckx found in Pittsburgh handy new cooking appliances that could alleviate some of the sisters’ housekeeping chores, for $100 apiece plus transportation costs; called stoves, these were the first to be seen in the county and possibly the entire state of Kentucky.

The plan created by Nerinckx called for two rows of buildings, with a large square yard extending back from the road between them. The first building to the right of the entrance was the school, a one-story double cabin with its wooden chimney outside. Next came the chapel and convent, a structure two stories high that consisted of two square cabins with upper rooms; the space between the cabins was enclosed by weather-boarding to form the chapel. (The two rooms at either side of the chapel were intended for use by the community, but not completed until two years later.) The third building, a similar double cabin, was used for the kitchen and refectory.

On the left, the first building was Nerinckx’ residence, which it is said he built with his own hands. Like the school, it was a one-story double cabin having a wooden chimney outside and with the space between protected by weather-boarding to form a small entry; one room served as his sitting room, study, bedroom, and refectory, while the other was reserved as accommodations for the Bishop or visiting priests. In the second building was Nerinckx’ kitchen; his cook took the priest’s meals over to the St. Charles sacristy when needed and also ran errands for the sisters. The third building served as a work room, an infirmary, and a guest house. As soon as his own house was finished, Nerinckx moved to Little Loretto.

The two old cabins that had served as schoolhouse and convent were torn down and their logs used to build a small double cabin at the far end of the yard, which first was a meat-house and later a dwelling. Behind were built stables and outhouses, at convenient places and distances. The extensive square yard was leveled and sown with blue grass. A small plot at the outer side of the chapel was reserved as a graveyard for the sisters and planted with trees, shrubs, and flowers; a large square cross was placed in the middle, surrounded by an evergreen arbor. A rail fence was built around the buildings and yard. Outside the fence was a garden that extended to the summit of the hill and, on the opposite side, stretched to the creek; on its downward slope Nerinckx himself planted an orchard.

When the chapel was finished, it was blessed and given the name “Little Loretto” in honor of Our Lady of Loreto, for whom Nerinckx had a particular devotion. In Italy, Loreto is the site of the Basilica della Santa Casa, a pilgrimage shrine since at least the 14th century which, according to tradition, contains the original home of the Virgin Mary. The suffix -eto ending “Loreto” is not a diminutive but from the Latin -etum, meaning a grove or wood; loreto is from the Latin lauretum, a grove of laurel. The name Nerinckx had chosen was not misspelled, however; “Sisters of Loreto” had already been used (since 1609) by a different order, whose members since have included Mother Teresa of Calcutta. But in frontier Kentucky, where little was known of the details of Catholic history, the neighbors began referring to the “the Sisters over at Loretto,” which became how the community was, and is, known. The founding sisters officially renamed their Society the “Sisters of Loretto at the Foot of the Cross,” more simply called the “Sisters of Loretto.”

Nerinckx wished to appeal in person to family and friends in his native Belgium for funds and religious supplies, as well as recruit more priests for Kentucky and submit the Society’s Rule for papal approval. Bishop Flaget requested that he wait two years, and the War of 1812 2013.15.15 visionforced further delay, but Nerinckx finally embarked in September 1815. Soon after arriving in Belgium he made a speech entitled A Glance at the Present Condition of the Roman Catholic Religion in North America, also issued in pamphlet form. In Rome, Pius VII gladly welcomed the new Society, but was concerned that some portions of its Rule were too rigidly austere; any revisions necessary were to be communicated later in writing. (Nerinckx’ account of his journey to Rome was printed in Belgium after he returned in 1816.)

While in Belgium, Nerinckx commissioned two works of art. One was the engraving of Little Loretto shown here that illustrates the site, with the sisters surrounding a vision of Mary and the Crucifixion at center; at bottom is a key in Dutch, French, and English that identifies the buildings by letter captions. Although probably made from a design provided by Nerinckx, it is likely the European engraver, unfamiliar with Marion County, Kentucky, who was responsible for the fanciful botanical and topographical elements such as the palm trees and tropical flora, rocky mountain peaks, and a sizable waterfall. The other artwork was a woodcut of “the Suffering Jesus on the Cross, almost hidden by a huge flaming heart. In the gaping wound of the Divine Heart the pierced Heart of Mary is seen, surrounded by smaller hearts representing the professed sisters … On the rock at the foot of the cross the standard of the Society waves: “O Suffering Jesus! O Sorrowful Mary!” and a picture of the old Loretto Convent is seen in the background… One of these [works] Father Nerinckx had framed, with glass on both sides, the reverse bearing … [a lengthy religious inscription] in his own handwriting.” In the engraving here, two crimson banners carried by angels bear the same words.

According to one biographer, “There were also many paintings, some of them very valuable, which through the help of his great friend, Mr. Peemans of Louvain, he secured from churches that had been wrecked and sacked by the French. Among the best of these was a Crucifixion, now in the church at Bardstown, and a supposed genuine Van Dyke in the Cathedral of Louisville, representing St. Bernard with the Sacred Host, administering a solemn reproof to William of Aquitaine for his schismatical and disorderly conduct.” Some of the paintings owned by the Archdiocese of Louisville (the seat moved from Bardstown in 1841) have been on display since the Cathedral of the Assumption’s renovation in 1994.

Nerinckx brought 8,000 pounds of goods back to Kentucky from his second trip to Europe in 1820. He was also instrumental in bringing from Belgium the first group of Jesuits who settled in western states. While abroad, Nerinckx learned that Bishop Flaget had received recommendations from the Propagation of the Faith Office in Rome: the Rule was to be changed to one based on the Rule of St. Augustine, and the Society’s Constitutions modified. When Nerinckx spoke with the Bishop about these requirements in 1823, he commented that “the sisterhood in its present state is flourishing and yielding fruit in a considerable degree, and our Rt. Rev. Bishop [Flaget] and myself have thought it prudent not to trim nor touch the tree that bore so well without it.”

In 1824, Nerinckx requested permission to move farther west. Bishop Joseph Rosati of New Orleans assigned Nerinckx to the Upper Louisiana Territory, now Missouri, where he hoped to develop missions among Native Americans. Ironically, Bishop Carroll had recommended in 1808 that Nerinckx be appointed Bishop of New Orleans, but Nerinckx had declined the honor because 2013.15.15 gardenshe thought there was too much to be done in Kentucky. Since arriving in the state, Nerinckx had organized at least one new congregation a year in settlements with a substantial Catholic population and was directly responsible for the construction of more than a dozen new church buildings. Nerinckx told the sisters of his decision in person and also wrote them a farewell letter. After leaving Little Loretto on June 16, Nerinckx visited their first school outside of Kentucky, which the sisters had been invited to establish the year before at The Barrens in Perry County, Missouri. Less than two months later Nerinckx contracted a serious fever and died on August 12, at the age of sixty-three, in St. Genevieve, Missouri.

After Nerinckx’ death, Bishop Flaget requested the sisters relocate from Little Loretto to St. Stephen’s Farm. Badin, who had lived there until 1819, transferred the land to them at the request of the Bishop, as an exchange for property occupied by a boys’ school. Heeding Nerinckx’ admonition to “Be united and pull the same way,” the sisters moved, by wagon. After settling in at the farm, they returned to Little Loretto to set fire to all the buildings except for Nerinckx’ cabin; they regarded their original home as sacred ground and did not want the buildings to fall into the hands of others. The community nearby took its name from the sisters and by 1833 was large enough to have its own post office; Loretto is now best known as the home of Maker’s Mark, one of Kentucky’s famed bourbon whiskeys, distilled at Star Hill Farm.

By the time of Nerinckx’ death twelve years after its founding, the Sisters of Loretto had grown to more than one hundred members and established six schools and five convents in two states, with an auxiliary called the Jericho Branch at Mechlin, Belgium; over the years, they had established forty-two schools in Kentucky. Land donated in Nelson County for a school that Nerinckx had named “Gethsemani,” which later closed in 1848, was sold to Trappists from the Abbey of Melleray in western France. The Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, now considered the motherhouse of all Trappist communities in the United States, is the oldest monastery still in use in this country; it is also well-known for the spiritual writings of Thomas Merton (Father Louie) and its handmade cheese, fruitcake, and fudge from Gethsemani Farms.

The Sisters of Loretto currently have communities in sixteen states and in Europe, Canada, South America, and Africa. The motherhouse is still located in the rural town of Nerinx, renamed from St. Stephen’s Farm in honor of their founder; the Nerinx post office, about 60 miles from Louisville, opened in 1899. Badin’s residence, the first brick house in Marion County when it was built in 1816, is still in use. Ten years after his death, Nerinckx’ body was transported to the motherhouse for burial and a marble statue of him was erected in 1910; half of his cabin at Little Loretto was brought back to the motherhouse in 1895, where it is still on view.

KOAR image shown here: 
2013.15.15           Little Loretto, by Courtois of Malines, circa 1815

More information can be found at the following links:

“On the road to Jubilee 2012: A new American sisterhood takes root and grows strong” by Kathleen Vonderhaar SL in Loretto Magazine, Fall-Winter 2009, p.10-14
Note: A map in this article, drawn in the early 1950s, depicts five counties in central Kentucky which became known as the “Holy Land” of Kentucky.

Kentucky Illustrated: The First Hundred Years, by Martin F. Schmidt, 1992, p.101

Life of Rev. Charles Nerinckx: Pioneer Missionary of Kentucky and Founder of the Sisters of Loretto by William Joseph Howlett, 1915

The life of Rev. Charles Nerinckx, with a chapter on early Catholic missions of Kentucky; copious notes on the progress of Catholicity in the United States of America, from 1800–1825; an account of the establishment of the Society of Jesus in Missouri; and an historical sketch of the Sisterhood of Loretto in Kentucky, Missouri, New Mexico, Etc., by Camillus Maes, 1880
http://archive.org/details/lifeofrevcharles00maes  [pdf download]

“Charles Nerinckx” by Camillus Maes in The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 10, 1911

“Bluegrass Belgian: Kentucky’s Missionary Dynamo, Father Charles Nerinckx” by Brian Kelly, December 27, 2008


A Few Updates …

September 30, 2013

New images recently added to KOAR from the Filson Historical Society include portraits that relate to two blogs posted here earlier this year.

The life and work of William Kendrick (1810-1880), one of the first jewelers in the Louisville area, is part of “Bottoms Up!” which was posted on April 30, 2013, and can be directly linked at: https://kentuckyonlinearts.wordpress.com/2013/04/30/bottoms-up/ William met Maria Stroup Schwing (1814-1885), daughter of Louisville goldsmith and jeweler John Godfried Schwing, at a party when she was nine years old and he was approaching fifteen. They married seven years later on January 19, 1832, and had nine children. By the time of William’s death in 1880, he had become one of Louisville’s most prosperous and respected merchants. Their son William Carnes Kendrick (1852-after 1930) wrote Reminiscences of Old Louisville, a lengthy typescript account of the city that includes references to many local businesses and business owners, starting with a “Memoir to My Father, William Kendrick” and ending with the catastrophic “Recent Flood” that left Louisville under several feet of water for many weeks. It can be found at: https://speedweb.speedmuseum.org/pdfs/kendrick.pdf
This, along with many other publications, can also be found through the KOAR website at: http://www.koar.org/publications.htm

Louisville artist Carl Christian Brenner (1838-1888) is profiled in “Brrr, It’s Cold Outside …” which was posted on February 5, 2013, and can be directly linked at: https://kentuckyonlinearts.wordpress.com/2013/02/05/brrr-its-cold-outside/
2013.2.4Carl’s most iconic paintings are detailed landscapes of his favorite haunts: scenes from what is now Cherokee Park and along River Road in Louisville, Pewee Valley in Oldham County, and the hills just across the river in New Albany, Indiana. His favorite subject was beech trees. Brenner married Anna Glass (1843-1936), daughter of an eminent Louisville violinist, in 1864 and they had six children. Three sons inherited his artistic talent; Edward became an architect and Proctor Knott (named after Carl’s close friend, Kentucky governor James Proctor Knott) studied art before taking holy orders at St. Meinrad Abbey in Indiana. Carolus (1865-1924), who painted this portrait of his father, studied art in Germany and France before settling in Chicago. Several works by Carolus are also in KOAR and the Filson Historical Society has photographs taken by both Carolus and his brother Edward in its special collections. A catalogue of the J.B. Speed Memorial Museum’s 1947 exhibition “Kentucky Paintings by Carl Christian Brenner” can be found at: https://speedweb.speedmuseum.org/pdfs/brenner.pdf

The Filson Historical Society was founded in 1884 in Louisville, Kentucky. Named to honor Kentucky’s first historian, John Filson, it is the commonwealth’s oldest privately supported historical society. Their website is: http://filsonhistorical.org


KOAR images shown here (top to bottom):
    2013.2.8 William Kendrick
    2013.2.9 Maria Kendrick
    2013.2.4 Carl Brenner

Cornelison Pottery, Bybee, Kentucky

August 29, 2013

Over 270 images featuring more than one hundred and fifty ceramic pieces shown in the Early 20th Century Art Pottery from Madison and Fayette Counties exhibition at the Lexington Public Library (November 12, 2011-January 22, 2012) were recently added to KOAR.

2012.59.7Central Kentucky pottery may not be quite as well known as other regional brands, such as Rookwood in Cincinnati, but as co-curator Jerry Nichols says, “This is Southern, homegrown, real stuff versus factory-produced stuff, so you could argue it is better. This is true Kentucky art, made of our natural resources and labor.” The Lexington exhibition included work from three potteries, one with two production lines: Cornelison Pottery (later known as Bybee Pottery), Waco Pottery, and the Bybee Pottery Company of Lexington. Details about the last two potteries can already be found in KOAR (by clicking on the “Link to Artist Details”), from an earlier exhibition at the Hopewell Museum in 2012.59.7 mark2Bourbon County, Waco and the Bybees: Central Kentucky Art Pottery, 1900 to 1935 (May 27-September 27, 2009). There is less information given on the Cornelisons’ pottery, however, so this post focuses on them.

Bybee is a small rural town in the foothills of the Cumberland Mountains in southeastern Madison County, Kentucky. Bybee Pottery, owned by six generations of the Cornelison family, operated as the Cornelison Pottery until around 1954, when it finally adopted the name of the town with which it was so closely identified. (Alas, causing much confusion with the now-extinct Bybee Pottery Company of Lexington!) Bybee Pottery was the oldest continuous industry and last surviving traditional pottery in Madison County, the oldest working pottery west of the Alleghenies and second oldest in the United States, when operations were suspended in 2011, just two years after it had celebrated its bicentennial. At that time, Jim Cornelison called the idea of permanent closure “a misconception. The pottery is not closed, we just aren’t producing anything at the moment.”

The Cornelison-owned Bybee 2012.6.20Pottery claimed it was originally established in 1809; actual written sales records proving its existence date as far back as 1845. Pottery was produced for over a century in the same log building, which always looked much as it did when the business began. The oldest and central portion of the structure, a landmark from pioneer days, was built of V-notched logs with solid walnut ceiling beams. Tall people often were forced to duck under these beams since the accumulation of clay dust eventually raised the floor level several inches. Many longtime employees came from the community. “We have had generations of families work here, and not just ourselves,” Buzz Cornelison, Jim’s brother, noted. “Most of the people we have hired over the years are neighbors.”

Webster Cornelison founded Bybee Pottery, which passed down to James Eli, then to Walter (who was proprietor during the 1920s heyday of art pottery), and to Walter’s son Ernest in 1939. Most Cornelisons had not been potters themselves; they had hired potters. That was until the fifth generation, when Walter Lee Cornelison (Jim’s and Buzz’s father) came along. As Buzz explained, “My great-grandfather made a kick wheel for my father when he was a little boy, and he said he had his own corner … his 2012.58.2own clay. Every once in a while, somebody would walk by and say, ‘Try it this way’ and show him something. That’s the way he learned to throw.” Walter spent decades at the potter’s wheel, even after he took over the business, producing hundreds of thousands of pieces now prized for their quality.

The art of ceramics begins with mineral-rich clays having a crystalline structure that becomes more plastic when mixed with water. The clay used to make this pottery can be found in an open pit about three miles from Bybee. Historic records show that the first settlers mined this same clay-rich soil near the Kentucky River in southern Madison County, then still on the American frontier, and took the clay to Fort Boonesborough for making crude dishes. Since Kentucky’s pioneer days at least fifty small potteries have been located near the clay deposits of Madison County.

The Cornelisons’ process of making pottery remained very similar to the methods used two centuries earlier. The clay was open-pit mined several 2012.61.1feet beneath the topsoil, more recently dug out by bulldozers, backhoes, and tractors rather than shovels. (After removal of the hundred tons of clay typically used in a year, the hole was filled in and marked for the next year’s dig.) The fresh clay was then ground to remove any pebbles or impurities in a simple pug mill, traditionally powered by a mule-drawn wheel. The clay was formed into “logs” then stored in an ancient vault to keep it moist and pliable until needed. The only thing ever added to the clay was a little water.

After being weighed on an old balance to ensure uniformity, the clay was thrown by hand on a traditional foot-controlled potter’s wheel, now powered by electricity. Once off the wheel, the clay body will retain whatever shape it has been given as it is allowed to dry. Finishing details (such as handles, flukes, and spouts) can be added by hand while the clay is still in 2012.6.24a leather-hard state. The clay form must be thoroughly dried before firing in the kiln, heated to 2,200° for 24 hours; natural gas eventually replaced wood for fuel. Firing chemically transforms the clay into a material resembling the moderately hard stones from which clays originate.

Finally, adding glazes created Bybee’s signature colors and patterns. Glazes are silica-based substances that provide a lustrous non-porous (thus waterproof) surface. Fluxes added to lower the melting point of the silica, such as certain mixtures of minerals or metal oxides, can act as color-inducing agents. Typically, glazes are hand-applied after the bisque (first, or unglazed) firing by dipping, brushing, sponging, or pouring directly onto the surface of the piece. Then it must be fired again, this time at a somewhat lower temperature (to preserve the integrity of the ceramic body), transforming the glaze into an amorphous glass structure that fuses with the surface of the clay.

By the early 1900s, demand had diminished for the utilitarian crocks, churns, jars, and jugs used in a largely 2012.57.3agrarian society. The need for everyday pottery became obsolete with the increasing prevalence of modern storage vessels made of glass or tin and the industrialization of the potter’s craft. Many of the remaining traditional potteries in Madison County went under. But the Cornelisons, like many other American Arts and Crafts potteries determined to continue creating handmade objects, adapted to the twentieth century by shifting their production to “art” pottery that was designed to be beautiful as well as functional. (Waco Pottery and Lexington’s Bybee Pottery Company soon followed; all three Kentucky potteries gained national recognition during the economic boom of the 1920s.) Practical and decorative tableware, cookware, and containers glazed with bright custom-made colors created a distinctive look that marked each piece as a handmade Bybee original.

KOAR images shown here, from top to bottom:


Want to know more? Try the links below:

http://archive.org/details/2302BybeePottery (video)
Appalshop Archive: Bybee Pottery (includes a tour of the pottery and how pottery is made)

“Madison’s Oldest Industry is Pottery” by Dr. Fred Engle, Madison’s Heritage Online (July 14, 1971)

http://www.kentucky.com/2009/02/22/702106/bybee-pottery-celebrates-200-years.html (includes audio and video links)
“Bybee Pottery celebrates 200 years “ by Tom Eblen, Lexington Herald-Leader (February 22, 2009)

“After two centuries, Bybee Pottery now facing its toughest challenge” by Bill Robinson, Richmond Register (May 31, 2011)

“Bybee Pottery One of the Oldest Potteries Left in America” by Tommy Fox (November 29, 2011)

Bottoms Up!

April 30, 2013

It is once again that time of year in Derby City (aka Louisville) to share the mystical lore of the mint julep. After all, few drinks are held in such high esteem that they merit their own elegant namesake vessels. Julep cups began to be made before the drink was invented, however, and originally appear in period inventories as tumblers or beakers, terms by which they are still known more generically today.

1991.1.10.1 combThe silver julep cup has long been a symbol of achievement and prestige popular throughout the South. For more than two centuries Kentuckians have given, received, and used them as they were intended at special events, from ceremonial family gatherings such as christenings and weddings, to public contests at local and state fairs. And, of course, at the state’s favorite pastime, horse racing. As far back as 1816 the Kentucky Gazette noted that julep cups had been awarded as prizes at horse races in the Commonwealth.

The julep cup (i.e., tumbler or beaker) is a classic American silver form. Julep cups were made in many Southern states, and each often developed its own unique style. In Kentucky, the distinctive straight body lines with graceful moldings at base and rim may trace its origins to silversmiths Asa Blanchard of Lexington and William and Archibald Cooper of Louisville. There are currently twenty-three julep cups (tumblers) on the KOAR website; the first shown here is credited to William Kendrick and the rest to John Kitts, both of whom worked in Louisville.

William Kendrick (1810-1880) was born in Paterson, New Jersey, to English immigrant Walter Kendrick. Walter moved his family to Louisville in 1818, ten years before it was incorporated as Kentucky’s first city (in 1991.1.10.3 comb1828) with a population surpassing 7,000. (The settlement that became Louisville had been founded by George Rogers Clark in 1778.) About 1824, young William began a seven year jeweler’s apprenticeship to Evans C. Beard. (Beard was in partnership with silversmith Elias Ayers as Ayers & Beard from about 1820 to 1831, then with watchmaker George A. Zeumar as E.C. Beard & Co. from 1831 to 1851.) After coming of age, William was in the partnership of Lemon & Kendrick with James Innes Lemon from 1831 to 1841. Kendrick opened his own jewelry and fancy store on the east side of Fourth Street between Main and Market in 1842, “his stock in trade consisting of (in his own words), ‘$20.00 cash, a silver watch worth about $19.00, and a few watch tools, the whole amounting to about $150.00.'”

Kendrick married Maria Schwing, daughter of Louisville goldsmith and jeweler John Godfried Schwing, in 1832, and was listed as a jeweler on both the 1850 and the 1870 census. He moved his store to Third Street in 1855, where he stayed fifteen years before moving in 1870 to 114 West Main Street, on the south side just east of the National Hotel. In 1873, he went into partnership with his son, William Carnes Kendrick (1852-1938), as the firm of William Kendrick & Son. In 1875 their shop moved to 336 Fourth Street, on the west side between Market and Jefferson, then as business increased moved again to more spacious quarters at 110 Fourth Street in 1877; on both occasions newspaper articles in Louisville’s Courier-]ournal noted the firm’s success. By the time of William Kendrick’s death in 1880, he had become one of Louisville’s most prosperous and respected merchants.

1991.1.10.4 combWilliam Carnes Kendrick was joined by younger brother George Penton Kendrick (1856-1937), listed as a manufacturing jeweler and diamond merchant in the 1880 census, to continue the firm as William Kendrick’s Sons, which remained in business until 1932, when it was reorganized. (The business descended through a third and fourth generation of Kendricks before being purchased in 1966 by jeweler and watchmaker Joseph C. Merkley, who renamed it Merkley Kendrick Jewelers, under which name it is still open today as “the oldest independent jeweler in Louisville and the second oldest in America”.) In 1937, William Carnes Kendrick wrote Reminiscences of Old Louisville, a lengthy typescript account of the city that includes references to many local businesses and business owners, starting with a “Memoir to My Father, William Kendrick” and ending with the catastrophic “Recent Flood” that left Louisville under several feet of water for many weeks. It can be found at:
This, along with many other publications, can also be found on the KOAR website at:

John Kitts was listed in the Louisville City Directory of 1841 as a watchmaker employed at Lemon & Kendricks. Kitts later opened his own jewelry business and was involved in a number of partnerships in Louisville until 1878. A bit more has been written about Kitts and Kentucky silver in general in two earlier blogs here:
    https://kentuckyonlinearts.wordpress.com/2010/12/10/silver-in-kentucky-1800-1860/ )

But back to those mint juleps …

A julep is generally defined as a sweet drink, and from the French can be traced back to the Persian term gulab, meaning rose water, or a drink made from water and rose petals. The mint julep originated in the southern United States during the early to mid eighteenth century, most likely in Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina. The first mention of it in print seems to be from an 1803 book published in London, England, where John Davis described the mint julep as “a dram of spirituous liquor that has mint steeped in it, taken by Virginians of a morning.” U.S. Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky introduced the mint julep to Washington, D.C., at the Round Robin Bar in the famous Willard Hotel.

1991.1.10.5 combThe tradition of serving the mint julep in a silver cup migrated westward to Kentucky. A chilled mint julep in a silver cup was to be served with a napkin or a small linen doily. The cup should be held only by its bottom and top edges, which allows frost to form on the outside of the cup while sipping. (Hand placement is critical in preventing transfer of body heat through the touch of bare fingers, especially since the days mandating that gloves be worn in public have long passed.) The cup will not frost properly if it is in the wind, if it is wet, if the ice has not been drained of excess water, or if the cup is excessively handled. As Pete Wells wrote of juleps in a June 24, 2009, Dining & Wine column in the New York Times, “For all the chest-thumping this class of drinks has caused, it’s a simple affair: sweetened liquor stirred in a mound of finely crushed or shaved ice. But until you’ve had one made without shortcuts, one that truly frosts the outside of its cup, it’s impossible to imagine how refreshing a julep can be.”

There has been, of course, much debate over the perfect mint julep recipe. According to David Wondrich, Esquire magazine’s resident cocktail historian, “In the dark backward of time, the Proper Construction of the Julep … was one of those topics that an American male with social aspirations was expected to regard as a matter of honor — at least, if said specimen was a son, nephew, cousin or acquaintance of the South. Just about every state in Dixie had its own sacrosanct way of handling the mint, the sugar, the ice, the booze. Duels were fought. Names were called.”

Some maintain it is the mint that has caused most of the trouble, whether the fresh mint should be muddled (crushed) in preparation so that essential oils and juices can be released into the mixture to intensify its flavor, as is usually preferred in Kentucky, or the leaves should be left to slide unmolested into the cup. Most would agree that only the freshest mint, and of that just the smallest tenderest leaves, should be used. A few sprigs of mint should also top the ice so this will be the first aroma encountered by the partaker.

Other advice is readily offered regarding how to finely crack the ice before packing it in the cup, how to speed the formation of frost on the cup by stirring briskly or twirling the glass, exactly what ingredients (such as old-fashioned cut loaf sugar) to use, and so forth. But in describing the “preparation of the quintessence of gentlemanly beverages” Kentucky Lt. Col. Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr., eloquently wrote, “A mint julep is not the product of a FORMULA. It is a CEREMONY … a rite that must not be entrusted to a novice, a statistician, nor a Yankee. It is a heritage of the old South, an emblem of hospitality …” For the pleasure of perusing the remainder of his romantic paean, from the gathering of fresh mint and crystal-clear spring water to the moment when “you have a beverage eminently appropriate for honorable men and beautiful women … where the aroma of the juleps will rise Heavenward and make the birds sing …” see his entire 1937 letter to Gen. William D. Connor, who had asked Buckner to oversee preparation of mint juleps for President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Gen. Douglas MacArthur at West Point two years earlier, at:

Although bourbon is now the preferred spirit in mint juleps almost everywhere, the first mint juleps were made with rum, rye whiskey, genever (an aged gin) and other available spirits. But by the early eighteenth century farmers were using stills to make corn whiskey along the American frontier that would become the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Bourbon County, a vast area still part of western Virginia when founded in 1785, was named after the French royal House of Bourbon, who had helped the United States defeat the British in the Revolutionary War. After Kentucky was admitted to the Union in 1792 Bourbon County was repeatedly subdivided, eventually becoming thirty-four modern day counties, but the entire region continued to be called Old Bourbon for many decades. Kentucky-made products exported from this area, such as corn whiskey, were shipped out through the Ohio River port of Limestone (now Maysville) with “Old Bourbon” stenciled on barrels to indicate their point of origin. In Bourbon, Straight: The Uncut and Unfiltered Story of American Whiskey, Charles K. Cowdery points out that “Old Bourbon whiskey was different because it was the first corn whiskey most people had ever tasted.” After about 1840 this was shortened to just “Bourbon”, the identity Kentucky corn whiskey soon became known by the world-over.

1951_1_17Local distillers attribute much of the unique nature of Kentucky bourbon to its geography, the limestone bedrock under the Blue Grass region formed by fossils of shelled crustaceans that inhabited the shallow tropical ocean covering this area in prehistoric times. As water filters through the limestone minerals are released into the ground soil, enriching crop yield (including the corn as well as the distinctive bluegrass on which thoroughbred foals graze) and providing nutrients for yeast, which is added to the corn mash to convert sugars into alcohol during the fermentation process. Limestone also breaks down over time to form massive caves like central Kentucky’s Mammoth Caves, the longest cave system in the world. The springs that flow from these underground caverns provide plentiful sources of pure iron-free water.

Like the mint julep, no story is more hotly contested than the origin of bourbon. “The fact of the matter is, we are never going to know who invented bourbon,” says Michael R. Veach, author of Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: An American Heritage. “Bourbon, I think, is more of an evolution than an invention.” Bourbon developed into its present form by the late nineteenth century and is now legally defined as a type of American whiskey made from a fermented mash primarily consisting of corn (at least 51%) and aged in new charred white oak barrels, usually for at least two years. All straight bourbons now use a “sour mash” process, in which mash from a previous distillation (strained wet solids still containing live yeast) is added to the new fermentation. The clear corn whiskey is then aged in newly charred American oak barrels, where it interacts with caramelized sugars in the wood beneath the layer of char, making the flavor smoother and mellower, and also giving bourbon its characteristic amber color. (After draining, the barrels still contain twenty pounds of bourbon within the wood so cannot be re-used to make bourbon; they are sometimes sold to the Scotch whiskey industry.)

Each distillery has its own sour mash culture and bourbon recipe, a closely guarded secret by the master distiller. Experimentation and refinement with various ratios of ingredients, subtleties in the distillation process, and lengths of aging time yield different flavors of bourbons. Distilleries located in the Kentucky Blue Grass region make about nine out of every ten bottles of bourbon, although it may be produced anywhere in the United States where it is legal to distill spirits. The Kentucky Distillers’ Association estimates that the state has 4.9 million barrels of bourbon currently aging, a figure that exceeds the state’s population.

“My argument is the true mint julep waited for bourbon to be invented,” says Joe Nickell, author of the Kentucky Mint Julep. Legend has it that in 1875 mint was planted outside the club house of the new racetrack in Louisville so that mint juleps could be served at the first Kentucky Derby. Today, almost 120,000 juleps are served by Churchill Downs over the two-day period of the Kentucky Oaks and the Kentucky Derby. Nothing quite like that sweet bite of bourbon mixed with fresh mint, served ice cold, on the first Saturday in May …


The Kendrick Family Papers 1852-1973 are at the Filson Historical Society Special Collections in Louisville:
Margaret-M. Bridwell’s article on “The House of Kendrick” for The Filson Club History Quarterly (vol.22, 1948), which includes a portrait of William Kendrick, is available online at:

For more on early racing in Louisville, read our earlier blog at:

David Wondrich’s “High Kentucky School of Julepistics” recipe and tips can be found online, at:

Much more about Kentucky bourbon can be found at:


KOAR images shown here, from top to bottom:
    1991.1.10.1           Kendrick, William
    1991.1.10.3           Kitts, John
    1991.1.10.4           Kitts, John
    1991.1.10.5           Kitts, John
    1951.1.17              Mammoth Cave



March 11, 2013

For those (like me!) who had never heard of watchpapers before, perhaps this blog will help clarify the purpose of these tiny, often exquisite, yet highly practical, works of art.

The fine watchpaper recently added to KOAR (2012.4.1) came from a London-made gold watch that contained a stack of five papers. This was Anderson Collectionthe base paper actually in contact with the iron hinge, which visibly stained the paper. (Three of the other watchpapers were from Cincinnati.) It was engraved by David Humphreys, who arrived in Lexington, Kentucky, from Virginia as early as 1788.His brother Joshua, also a clock and watchmaker in Virginia, had apparently arrived in Kentucky in 1780 or very shortly thereafter, but it is unclear if they ever worked together. David Humphreys may have been as well known for his engraving as for his silversmithing. He was chosen to engrave the first Seal for the new state of Kentucky in “An Act of the Kentucky Legislature on December 20, 1792.” Humphreys also engraved the plates of the surveys which John Hughes used to illustrate his “Hughes Reports,” the first publication of the “various decisions by Kentucky’s Supreme Court.” He later “made a Map of the Seat of War 1812-15,” a copy of which was given to the Lexington library by William Levy. Humphreys was still in Lexington until sometime after 1815, although the date of his death or departure from the city is unknown.

The first pocket watches seem to have originated in England during the seventeenth century. They were a highly prestigious item, and in America they were taxed by some states. (Solid 14-carat gold was taxed at a higher rate.) Most eighteenth-century pocket watches were “pair cased”, meaning that there was an inner case (or “box”) housed within an outer protective case to prevent dust and moisture from entering through the winding hole of the inner case. The outer case had to be removed in order to wind the watch. Often a fitted silk liner prevented chafing between the two cases. Watchpapers were originally used as a packing between the inner and outer cases to protect the watch’s inner workings. The earliest printed watchpapers appeared around 1760, with most surviving examples dating from the nineteenth century.

Watchmakers soon realized they could use these as an advertising medium that would continue to remind the watch’s owner of the watchmaker each time the watch was wound. A watchpaper could be placed inside the case when the watch was sold or when it was subsequently brought back for cleaning or repairs. This also had the advantage of taking up any slack in the case joint due to wear, which gave the owner an impression of a tighter, better fitting outer case. (However too many papers could also cause stretching of the joint, possibly leading to a weakening of the case.) Many watches contained more than one paper, as each repairer usually put their own paper at the top of the stack without discarding those of others. There were perhaps thousands of fancy goods and jewelry stores that performed repair services over the two hundred years pocket watches were in vogue and most, if not all, used watchpapers to advertise themselves.

These small circular papers were approximately two inches in diameter. The paper was usually white, cream, buff, orange, blue, green, yellow or rose. Sometimes engravers printed color combinations such as white on silver, gold on blue, blue on gold, or red or green on white. Most of the papers were engraved, although a few were letterpress printed. The name and location of the watchmaker’s shop was on the front, while the price and date of repairs, and even the owner’s name and address,  could be noted by hand on the reverse, providing a detailed written record of the pocket watch’s history. The paper itself varied in thickness, but the earliest are on higher-grade and thicker paper. Many were originally produced with small cuts around the edge to allow for a better fit within deeply concave cases.

Since sundials were then the only easily available way of finding the correct mean time, the earliest watchpapers included an “equation-of-time” table around the circumference that allowed owners to correctly set their watches. Due to the change of earth’s tilt in relation to the sun throughout the year, the sun is up to about fifteen minutes faster or slower than actual mean time. The table provided the number of minutes fast or slow of mean time that the sun would be for every week of the year. These tables continued to be featured on watchpapers into the nineteenth century.

In addition to serving as a practical supplement to pocket watches, eighteenth-century watchpapers can be works of art in their own right and are fine examples of printing at that time. The earliest surviving American watchpaper was likely contained in a pocket watch sold by Samuel Bagnall of Boston around 1740-1741. In 1758, Hugh Gaine ran the first notice of an American watchpaper in a New York newspaper advertisement; other engravers followed suit. Designs range from the naïve, perhaps done by the watch repairers themselves, to the quite elaborate; popular iconography included Father Time, Aurora in her chariot, cherubs, allegorical women, Masonic symbols, hourglasses, clocks and eagles. The constraints of such a small size seem to have motivated many accomplished engravers to new artistic heights. Ironically, while watchpapers were intended to show off the name of the watchmaker or repairer, engravers seldom marked their own names on them, although a few incorporated their name somewhere in the design. Many well-known eighteenth-century American engravers who printed bookplates also did watchpapers; these included Paul Revere, Peter Maverick, and Nathaniel Hurd.

The key-wound, pair cased watch began to be replaced with the newer, slimmer, single cased watches by the middle of the nineteenth century. However, the pair cased watch continued to be produced and sold in some areas (such as Scotland) well into the late nineteenth century, and even into the first quarter of the twentieth century in more rural and farming communities.

Brrr, It’s Cold Outside …

February 5, 2013

Can you imagine painting outdoors during the bitter cold snaps we have endured this year in north-central Kentucky?

1958.24That is exactly what Louisville artist Carl Christian Brenner did! “The weather never stopped Brenner,” wrote Jean Howerton Cody in a 1979 Louisville Courier-Journal column. “He would set up his easel and a folding chair in a portable hut with large glass exposures and paint away in rain or snow.” Brenner loved nature and being outdoors, especially rambling around the forests and fields of his adopted hometown and its vicinity. As Diane Heilenman described in a 1985 Louisville Courier-Journal article, “Wearing his artist’s hat and carrying a staff and a paint box, Brenner was a familiar figure in Louisville parks and Pewee Valley woods.”

Brenner’s most iconic paintings are detailed landscapes of his favorite haunts: scenes from what is now Cherokee Park and along River Road in Louisville, Pewee Valley in Oldham County, and the hills just across the river in New Albany, Indiana. His favorite subject was beech trees, as illustrated above. He painted other Kentucky views as well, including the Cumberland Mountains and the Falls of the Cumberland River in Whitley County. At various times Brenner also visited the Southern wetlands and highlands to paint, and traveled West to the Plains states, Colorado, California, Washington, Oregon, and the Rocky Mountains. (Brenner is also known to have occasionally painted portraits and experimented with printmaking and graphic art.)

“Brenner’s view of the 2008.2.8city’s parks and woods were THE thing in Victorian Louisville,” declared Heilenman. “Louisville author Meliville O. Briney once wrote, ‘If you grew up in Louisville, a Brenner painting on the wall is as much a part of your pleasant childhood as a rose-back sofa in the parlor or the fire of cannel coal that burned in grandma’s grate.’” While his works demonstrate a wide range of styles, including Realism and Romanticism, after 1878 Brenner was considered part of a group of Louisville artists known as Tonalists, who used muted color to evoke mood. Brenner paid special attention to seasonal effects and time of day through his sensitive rendering of natural light and shadows.

Carl Christian Brenner was born August 1, 1838 in Lauterecken, Bavaria (Germany), and attended public schools there from age six to fourteen. According to “A Biographical Sketch of Carl Brenner” in The Biographical Encyclopaedia of Kentucky of the Dead and Living Men of the Nineteenth Century (1878), a teacher who recognized his artistic talent made application to King Ludwig I for Carl’s admission to the prestigious Academy of Fine Arts in Munich. The king readily granted permission but Carl’s father, a glazier by trade, refused consent for Carl to pursue further art studies. His father objected to art as a career, believing that nobody could make a living as an artist, and wanted Carl to train (and join two other sons) in the family business.

The Brenner family emigrated to the United States in 1853, when Carl was fifteen. They landed in New Orleans, where there was a strong German presence in the arts community, and stayed there briefly before journeying upriver that winter to Louisville, Kentucky, which also had a substantial German population. Carl remained in Louisville for the rest of his life. He originally worked with his father as a glazier (which turned out to have been a handy skill for constructing that portable hut!), then later as a house, sign, and ornamental painter. Carl’s artistic workmanship drew much admiration, however, even when used just for painting signs.

1988.9.2Not long after arriving in Louisville, Brenner’s talent was noticed by an influential patron of the arts, George P. Doern, publisher of the Louisville Anzeiger, a German-language city newspaper. After seeing Brenner’s pencil sketches of scenes along the Mississippi River, Doern advised him to become a landscape painter. In 1863, Brenner received his first professional artist’s commission, a vast panorama (35,000 square feet) of Civil War scenes, from its beginning through the battles at Chancellorsville, for the Masonic Hall of Louisville. By 1867, Brenner had rented a studio at 103 West Jefferson Street, where he pursued his true passion of painting canvases when he was not painting signs and houses to afford his avocation.

In 1871, Brenner began devoting more of his energies to landscape painting. His friend, U.S. Representative (and future Kentucky governor) J. Proctor Knott is said to have boosted Brenner’s career around 1874 by arranging for the sale of his painting Beeches to William Wilson Corcoran, founder of the Washington, D.C., gallery that bears his name. (Brenner named one of his sons after Knott.) Encouraged by the Corcoran sale and the Civil War panorama commission, Brenner gave up his business to become a full-time landscape painter at the age of forty, using his earnings as a glazier, house, and sign painter to establish his own studio at 407 South Fourth Street (Fourth and Jefferson) in 1878.

Brenner had become a very popular and well-esteemed figure about town. “Night-time sales of his work in his gas-lit studio were social events of the time,” stated Heilenman. (Sounds a bit like the current First Friday Trolley Hop tour of art galleries in downtown Louisville, doesn’t it?) Cody shared a contemporary account of one such event: “Every year, just before Christmas, Brenner conducted his annual auction at his studio. A newspaper account in 1885 noted, ‘The studio was well filled last evening. The bidding was lively, although the pictures went for very modest sums.’ The top price was $113.” Heilenman also noted, “Prices rose from $35 a painting in the 1870s to more than $1000 just before his death.”

During his lifetime, 1999.12.8Brenner was the most well-known of Kentucky artists. His paintings were exhibited in Vienna, Philadelphia, New York, and California, as well as regionally in the first Louisville Industrial Exposition in 1874 (and every subsequent annual exposition) and the 1883 Southern Exhibition on the site of what is now St. James Court in Old Louisville.

Brenner’s 1864 marriage to Anna Glass, daughter of an eminent Louisville violinist, produced six children. Three sons inherited his artistic talent; Edward became an architect and Proctor Knott studied art before taking holy orders at St. Meinrad Abbey in Indiana. Carolus showed such promise that he was sent to the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, since his father knew for certain that one could indeed make a living as an artist! Several works by Carolus are also in KOAR, one of which is included as the last image here. (Perhaps more on Carolus in a future blog…)

Carl Christian Brenner died of a kidney ailment on July 22, 1888, in Louisville and is buried in St. Louis Cemetery. “Henry Watterson, editor of The Courier-Journal, wrote in 1888, shortly before Brenner’s death at the age of 50, ‘It was a grand triumph of Carl Brenner, an untutored sign painter of limited education and little or no instruction in art, to have painted the beech better than any American dead or alive,’” Cody quoted, then later continued, “Brenner, at the time of his death, was written up in the London Magazine of Art. Not bad for a self-taught artist from Louisville.”


An image of Carl Brenner sketching on the Kentucky River is available at: http://homepages.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~mmhesse/Brenner.html#sketching

“Brenner on the wall used to be central to being a kid” by Jean Howerton Cody in the Louisville Courier-Journal, November 8, 1979, is available at: http://homepages.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~mmhesse/Brenneronthewall.jpg

“A Legacy – Carl Brenner 1838-1888” by Diane Heilenman in the Louisville Courier-Journal, February 3, 1985, is available at: http://homepages.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~mmhesse/BrennerLegacy.jpg

Available through the KOAR Publications webpage (http://www.koar.org/publications.htm) are:

Catalogue of the J.B. Speed Memorial Museum’s 1947 exhibition “Kentucky Paintings by Carl Christian Brenner” at: https://speedweb.speedmuseum.org/pdfs/brenner.pdf

Patty Prather Thum’s “Artists of the Past in Kentucky”, which contains an informal biographical sketch of Brenner on p. 11-12, at: https://speedweb.speedmuseum.org/pdfs/Thum_1925.pdf


KOAR images shown here (top to bottom):

1958.1.24                Carl Christian Brenner, Winter
2008.2.8                  Carl Christian Brenner, Winter Landscape
1988.1.9.2               Carl Christian Brenner, Winter Sunset
1999.1.12.8             Carolus Brenner, Untitled


A Civil War Prisoner’s Dream

December 31, 2012

A very Happy New Year to all! Now that Steven Spielberg’s new hit film Lincoln, based in part on historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, is out and we are nearly midway through the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, perhaps it is time to blog about the sculptor of another work featured in the KOAR image header (above), the marble bust of Abraham Lincoln.

Albert P. Henry was born in Versailles, Kentucky, on January 8, 1836. His parents moved to Princeton, in the Pennyrile region of western Kentucky, when he was young. Henry demonstrated an interest in art early 1940.39in life. According to information gathered in the 1920s from family members in Washington, D.C., and Kentucky, while still a boy Henry used a block of marble thrown from a steamboat to carve an ambitious group sculpture composed of an Indian girl holding a dove while a wolf creeps up to snatch the bird from her grasp; though crude, the proportion and perspective were said to be well expressed. Henry started his business career as a clerk in the Hillman Iron Works, where he occupied his leisure time by modeling small portrait busts and casting them in iron to be used as weights to keep doors open.

At the outbreak of the Civil War Henry, commissioned as a captain, joined the 15th Regiment, Kentucky Cavalry (Volunteer) organized in the fall of 1862 at Owensboro and mustered into United States service at Paducah on October 6. The Confederate Forts Henry and Donelson, which guarded the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers respectively, had fallen in February of that year to Ulysses S. Grant, supported by Andrew Foote’s Western Flotilla of four ironclads and three “timberclads”, opening Tennessee to Union invasion and occupation. After the leader of the 15th Kentucky Cavalry, Lieut. Col. Gabriel Netter, was killed in 1863 the command passed on to Henry, by now a lieutenant colonel.

Henry was captured at Spring Creek, Tennessee, on June 29, 1863, when his horse was shot from under him during a skirmish near Fort Henry. He was taken to Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia. It was primarily an 1940.1.41.1officer’s prison but by 1863 there were over 1,000 men crowded into large rooms on two floors with open, barred windows that left them exposed to weather and temperature extremes. The prisoners cooked their own sparse rations (beef, bacon, flour, beans, rice and vinegar) with inadequate fuel; there also was a shortage of clothing and blankets. In the Libby Chronicle, a newsletter written by inmates that summer, an ironic poem entitled “Castle Thunder“ voiced the humor that could be found even amid such harsh living conditions:

     We have eighteen kinds of food, though ‘twill stagger your belief,
     Because we have bread, beef and soup, then bread, soup and beef;
     Then we sep’rate around with ’bout twenty in a group,
     And thus we get beef, soup and bread, and beef, bread and soup;
     For dessert we obtain, though it costs us nary red,
     Soup, bread and beef, (count it well) and beef and soup and bread.

While confined in Libby Prison for nine months, Henry devoted much of his time to carving the bones of oxen, often used to obtain bone fat (by boiling fresh bones split open lengthways) for making soap. He managed to smuggle some of these carvings from the prison in a wooden box with a false bottom. Among them was a cup upon which he had carved The Prisoner’s Dream, showing on its lower portion the interior of a cell with an armed sentry at the door while the prisoner sleeps on the floor, using his boots for a pillow; above this is carved the tranquil scenes from his dreams. There is a black-and-white photographic print of Henry wearing his Civil War uniform in the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division; a digital image of this full-length standing portrait can be viewed online at: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2002714668/

After the close of the war Henry was appointed consul at Anconia, Italy. Before leaving the 1943.1.1LUnited States, however, he already had executed marble busts of Kentucky’s Senator Henry Clay and President Abraham Lincoln from life. Although comparatively unknown as a sculptor, Henry’s small bust of Senator Clay was acquired about 1865 by the Library Committee of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., for the Office of the Architect; it later was placed in the room of the Senate Committee for many years, then put on display in the Hall of the House of Representatives. The bust of Lincoln was located in the Custom House at Louisville; from there it was “Deposited by Citizens of Louisville” at the J.B. Speed Art Museum according to a 1949 exhibition catalogue, which can be found at:
(This is one of many publications available through the KOAR website, at:

While in Italy Henry spent a considerable amount of 1930.54time in Florence, where he studied under sculptors Hiram Powers and Joel Tanner Hart. It was during this period abroad that his most ambitious work was done, an idealized bust of internationally acclaimed American singer and actress Genevieve Ward. She began her career as an operatic star in Milan and Paris but after losing her singing voice due to illness in 1862 had turned to acting. Ward was one of many engaging American women expatriates in England during the late Victorian and Edwardian periods between around 1870 and the end of World War I; they were educated, nearly all moneyed, and distinctive for being outsiders free from many of the social constraints that restricted English women of that time. Henry’s portrait bust of Genevieve 1952.13was a celebrated work of art in Louisville, displayed proudly in the reception room of the historic Galt House (illustrated here in a lithograph printed on a silk handkerchief) on the occasion Ulysses S. Grant’s official visit to Louisville in 1879.

On her 84th birthday on March 27, 1921, the year before her death, Genevieve Ward was created Dame Commander of the British Empire. Although born just a year earlier, by then Albert P. Henry had been gone nearly fifty years; he died on November 6, 1872, in Paris, Kentucky.

Kentucky Sideboard

November 4, 2012

Earlier this year, The Speed Museum purchased an extraordinary Kentucky-made sideboard. Its complex profile, richly figured veneers, precise inlays, and the exceptional quality of its craftsmanship place it among the most ambitious Kentucky sideboards to have survived from the early nineteenth century. It was made between about 1800 and 1815, probably in Lexington or its surrounding area.

It is not known who originally owned the sideboard. The previous owner, Robert Brewer, acquired it from Eleanor Hume Offutt, one of the most important early dealers of Kentucky antiques; she had opened Wilderness Trail Antiques in Frankfort in the late 1920s. He purchased the sideboard in 1951at the urging of his mother, Juliet Goddard Brewer, an influential early collector of Kentucky antiques and an outspoken advocate for preserving Kentucky’s architectural heritage.

Sideboards have symbolized status throughout their history. In the Middle Ages, wealthy diners might sit to eat at a “side-board”, a type of table set along the side of a room. By the late seventeenth century, the “side-board” had evolved into a service piece, used to hold wine bottles, silver, dishes of food, and other items. The sideboard as we recognize it today, offering a combination of storage and display, developed in the eighteenth century. Within its drawers and compartments, owners stored textiles, silverwares, liquor, candles, and similar domestic goods until they were needed for use. Early nineteenth-century Kentucky: estate inventories and other documentary sources show that sideboards were often among the most expensive pieces of furniture one could own.

Inlay had become the preferred decorative treatment for fashionable American furniture in the late eighteenth century. The cost of inlaid furniture was considerably higher than for plain examples, so most furniture made in Kentucky in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries would have had little, if any, of the inlaid decoration affordable only for those who had the economic means to pay beyond the utility of an object. In Kentucky, regional differences in inlay styles and patterns evolved and today frequently assist in the identification of local schools of early Kentucky cabinetmaking. For example, though the form and inlay of this sideboard were influenced by Baltimore cabinetmaking practices, the decoration on its legs exhibits a distinctive bellflower and line pattern. Similar decoration has only been found on a few other Kentucky pieces, all of which most likely came from the same maker or shop. To date, the group includes The Speed’s sideboard, a pair of dining table ends, and possibly a blockfront card table.

Fortunately, Robert and Kathy Brewer treated this sideboard with great care for over sixty years. As a result, the sideboard remains relatively undisturbed. Preserving, analyzing, and understanding its layers of history became a team effort between furniture conservators, an analytical laboratory, and The Speed’s curators. Several months of conservation treatment and technical analysis included microscopic examinations of wood samples as well as x-ray fluorescence spectrometry and Fourier transform infrared microspectroscopy to analyze the compositions of different materials. Some of the discoveries?

  • The sideboard retains an old finish history comprised of shellac coatings. Shellac is made by dissolving in alcohol the resins secreted by particular types of insects, including the so-called lac beetle.
  • The wood used to make the inlay along the bottom edge of the sideboard is most likely eastern hophornbeam, a hard, heavy wood that grows in Kentucky but rarely seems to have been used by early Kentucky cabinetmakers.
  • Three of the “bone” shields around the keyholes are twentieth-century replacements made from celluloid, an early type of plastic.

During conservation, one of the celluloid shields was replaced with a new one made of bone; two celluloid examples still remain.

KOAR’s Russian Connection

October 15, 2012

Who would have imagined a future link between the rosy-cheeked toddler in this Kentucky painting and the Russian imperial court?

The impressive portrait (8’-4” x 6’-6”) of the John Speed Smith Family in Richmond, Kentucky, was painted in 1819 when little Sally Ann Lewis Clay (1818-1875) was only a year old. Colonel John Speed Smith (1792-1854) was well on his way to an outstanding law career, and became one of the prominent men of eastern Kentucky. A descendent of James Speed, who in 1690 immigrated to Virginia from England, John was born in Jessamine County on July 3, 1792, the year Kentucky petitioned the Commonwealth of Virginia to be recognized as a
free and independent “Commonwealth” and join the recently established union as its fifteenth state. A graduate of Transylvania College in Lexington, he had taken part in the Indian campaigns and acted as aide-de-camp to General Harrison in the War of 1812. During President Monroe’s administration, Smith was a Representative in Congress; immediately afterwards, he went on a mission to South America for President John Quincy Adams. President Andrew Jackson appointed him U.S. District Attorney for Kentucky. Smith also served six terms in the Kentucky Legislature, part of the time as Speaker, and four years in the state senate.

In 1815, on his twenty-third birthday, John married Elizabeth Lewis Clay (1798-1887), then seventeen. Eliza was the daughter of General Green Clay, a veteran of both the American Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, and a cousin of famous Kentucky statesman Henry Clay and Alabama governor Clement Comer Clay. Green Clay was thought to have been the wealthiest man in Kentucky of his time, reputed to own tens of thousands of acres, several distilleries and a tavern, and many ferries across the Kentucky River.

The charming new home shown off in the John Speed Smith Family portrait had been built in 1818 on land given by Green Clay to his daughter. (The Smiths lived here until 1829, when John built “Castle Union” near Speedwell in Madison County; their original one-story brick Georgian house on North Street at Aspen Avenue in Richmond was demolished in 1957.) The painting reveals in unusual detail a fashionable interior of that time, with patterned carpet, decorated “fancy” chairs, and sheer curtains behind red drapes. Along with the stylish clothing, from the Colonel’s fancy ruffled shirt and gold watch fob to his wife’s empire gown and comb tucked into a modish ringlet hairdo, this portrait gives a glimpse into an unexpectedly refined lifestyle in what was still considered a “frontier” state. The book Eliza is holding indicates her education as well, fairly uncommon for women of the day. This portrait is considered a major visual portrayal of Kentucky life and its significant role in American history.

It is also a remarkable example of early work by Chester Harding (1792-1866) who at this time was still self-taught. Born in New England, he had tried a variety of trades before moving to Pittsburgh, where he began painting signs and houses. Around 1818 an itinerant artist introduced Harding to portraiture, at which he had some success before moving to Kentucky to join his brother, a carpenter and chair maker living in Paris. Harding found that painting was his passion and he became quite a popular portraitist in the region, charging $25 for each, half of what Matthew Jouett in nearby Lexington was getting. Harding earned enough money to afford formal training and eventually went on to great fame after studying in Philadelphia, in London with Sir Thomas Lawrence, and in that “other” Paris (i.e., France) before returning to America and settling in Boston.

But back to the Russian connection with that barefooted little girl in the pink-ribboned bonnet and matching coral necklace … One of Sallie Ann’s future brothers, Green Clay Smith, was a member of Congress when Kentucky-born President Abraham Lincoln was nominated for a second term and he came within one vote of being Lincoln’s running mate. One of Sallie Ann’s uncles, Eliza’s brother Cassius Marcellus Clay, nicknamed “The Lion of White Hall”, became well-known as an abolitionist and was appointed by Lincoln to be Minister to the Russian court at St. Petersburg. (In 1853, Cassius M. Clay granted ten acres to another abolitionist, John G. Fee, who founded the town of Berea and, in 1855, Berea College, the first non-segregated, coeducational college in the South and one of a handful in the nation to admit both male and female students at that time.) As Cassius M. Clay was preparing to go abroad, the Civil War broke out with no federal troops in Washington, D.C., so before departing he organized a group of 300 volunteers, dubbed “Cassius M. Clay’s Washington Guards”, to protect the White House and U.S. Naval Yard from a possible Confederate attack. Sallie Ann’s son, William Cassius Goodloe, withdrew from his senior year at Transylvania to be his great-uncle’s private secretary in St. Petersburg; Goodloe also acted as Secretary of Legation until the summer of 1862, when he returned for a commission in the Union army. After Czar Alexander II issued the 1861 Emancipation Manifesto freeing the serfs in Russia, Cassius M. Clay pressured Lincoln to issue an emancipation proclamation in America; later he was influential in negotiations for the purchase of Alaska. The Czar presented these portraits of himself and his wife, Czarina Maria Alexandrovna, to Cassius M. Clay before his final return to America in 1869. And if the name sounds a bit familiar, it was indeed shared by Louisville-born boxing champion Muhammad Ali and his father, until Ali‘s conversion to Islam in the 1960s.


The portraits of Czar Alexander II and Czarina Maria Alexandrovna are on view in the Kentucky Historical Society’s exhibition “Great Revivals: Kentucky Decorative Arts Treasures” at the Old State Capitol in Frankfort, Kentucky, until 2015.