Scholars, curators get close look at early Kentucky art history

July 12, 2014

140709MESDA0279Robert Leath, chief curator at the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Winston-Salem, N.C., held a drawer from an early Kentucky chest so he and students in MESDA’s Summer Institute could see the interior construction. The chest is part of an exhibit of early Frankfort-made furniture now on display at the Governor’s Mansion. Photos by Tom Eblen


FRANKFORT — Most people think early Kentucky was only a place of log cabins and coonskin caps. They don’t imagine that Kentuckians two centuries ago were producing great paintings, fine silverware and inlaid furniture as elegant as anything coming out of Philadelphia or New York.

Last week, 10 up-and-coming scholars and museum curators got a traveling lesson in Kentucky’s rich history of visual art and craftsmanship.

The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Winston-Salem, N.C., brought its prestigious Summer Institute to Kentucky for the first time. Students, faculty and guests got an intensive five-day tour of Central Kentucky landmarks and some of the state’s most valuable public and private collections.

“These are going to be the museum and institution leaders of the near future, and they have the potential to bring a lot of attention to Kentucky,” said Mack Cox of Madison County, a leading collector and scholar of early Kentucky furniture, paintings and long rifles. “We’re way behind (other states) in understanding and rediscovering our decorative arts past.”

I caught up with the group Wednesday morning at the Governor’s Mansion, where Cox was giving MESDA students and faculty an animated tour of an exhibit of pieces made by Frankfort artists between 1790 and 1820. They ranged from the sophisticated cabinetmaker William Lowry to convicts at the old state penitentiary, who made simple but elegant chairs.

“What you’re seeing, Kentuckians largely don’t know about,” Cox told the group, noting that such utilitarian objects as long rifles and powder horns were sometimes turned into beautiful works of art with elaborate engraving and metalwork.

The exhibit, part of the mansion’s 100th anniversary celebration, includes pieces from the Kentucky Historical Society, the Speed Museum in Louisville and the private collections of Cox, Mel Hankla of Jamestown and Tom Meng and Clifton Anderson of Lexington.

(The exhibit is free and open to the public during mansion tour hours through Aug. 26. For more information about the mansion and centennial events, such as a cocktail reception July 25, go to:

As Cox described each piece and the research that went into figuring out who made it and when, the students took photos and used little flashlights to examine details.

140709MESDA0137From Frankfort, the group traveled to Lexington for a tour of African Cemetery No. 2 on East Seventh Street, which has been restored in recent years. Its 5,000 graves include those of black Civil War soldiers and famous jockeys and trainers.

The group visited the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation’s Hunt-Morgan House and Pope Villa, two of Lexington’s most significant early 1800s mansions, and then went to Madison County to see White Hall, home of the fiery emancipationist Cassius M. Clay.

Other stops during the week included the William Whitley House in Stanford; the Old Capitol and Liberty Hall in Frankfort; Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill in Mercer County; the National Underground Railroad Museum in Maysville; Hopewell Museum and Cane Ridge Meeting House in Bourbon County and the Filson Historical Society and Locus Grove mansion in Louisville.

Before their trip, the students spent two weeks attending classes. When they return to North Carolina, they must finish Kentucky-related research projects and papers. Graduate-level course credit is awarded through the University of Virginia.

In his talk to the group, Cox pointed out stylistic traits of several significant Kentucky portrait painters of the early 1800s, including William Edward West. Because some of their paintings have been misattributed over the years to Matthew Jouett, the state’s best-known early portraitist, many Kentuckians don’t know how much talent was working here at the time, he said.

Catherine Carlisle, an art history graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, hopes her summer project will shed new light on one of those little-known Kentucky artists, Alexander Bradford.

“I’m thrilled to be able to see so many examples of the beautiful, beautiful portraits that were coming out of Kentucky, and so early,” she said.

While some of the students had never been to Kentucky, and knew little about its artistic heritage, it was a homecoming for Grant Quertermous, the assistant curator at James Madison’s Montpelier estate near Orange, Va. He is from Paducah.

“I really wanted to do this one,” he said. “It has been great to give everyone exposure to Kentucky.”

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New book gets the picture of Kentucky portraiture

December 26, 2010

Art historian Estill Curtis Pennington likes to solve mysteries, share discoveries and celebrate Kentucky culture. He does a bit of all of that in his new book, Lessons in Likeness: Portrait Painters in Kentucky and the Ohio River Valley, 1802-1920.

The book (The University Press of Kentucky, $50) is likely to become an important reference work on Kentucky’s cultural history, thanks to his three decades of shoe-leather research. Lessons in Likeness has been nominated for the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Charles C. Eldredge Prize, which honors scholarship with new insights into America’s artistic heritage.

But don’t let that scare you off. Despite its academic ambition and seemingly arcane topic, this is an enjoyable read for anyone interested in Kentucky history or curious about the often- colorful characters who made the only images we have of our 18th- and early 19th-century ancestors.

The large-format book is richly illustrated and well-written, with many humorous and revealing anecdotes. Many portraits in the book come from the collection of the Filson Historical Society in Louisville.

Photography has made portraiture something of an artistic stepchild. But the media can be very different.

“A portrait is not a photograph; it is a likeness, which was the old-fashioned word,” Pennington said. “A portrait is a product of the imagination. It is what the artist saw in his mind’s eye and laid out. It is an interactive process that involved a sitter with expectations and an artist with abilities.”

The first section of Lessons in Likeness is a chronological essay that puts Kentucky portraiture in the context of social and artistic trends. The second section profiles the best and most influential artists who worked in Kentucky. They included famous names such as Matthew Jouett and John James Audubon (who drew people as well as birds) and many artists who have been almost forgotten.

“I love finding artists who are virtually unknown in our own time and bringing them back to some kind of attention,” Pennington said. “It’s cultural archaeology.”

Of course, not all old portraits are great works of art. Before photography, a portrait was the only way to preserve a loved one’s likeness, so there was a market for pictures by less-talented artists. “These painters were the mall photographers of their time,” Pennington said, adding that it was often a point of pride to be “self-taught.”

But Kentucky produced many fine portraitists. Some of the best were born in and near Lexington in the decades around the turn of the 19th century. They include Jouett, who studied under Gilbert Stuart, early America’s most famous portrait painter; and Oliver Frazer and William Edward West, two of the first Kentucky-born artists to study in Europe.

Before the Civil War, Kentucky was the crossroads of the American frontier — an exciting and almost mythical place. Famous Kentuckians such as Henry Clay and Daniel Boone were popular portrait subjects.

John Filson’s colorful “autobiography” of Boone shaped many Europeans’ views of America, and Kentuckians were celebrated elsewhere as raconteurs. Stuart, the Philadelphia painter most famous for his George Washington portrait on the dollar bill, had the same nickname for his student Jouett as West’s friends in Europe had for him: “Kentucky.”

Pennington discusses what Kentucky portraitists learned from one another and how society influenced their work. Even before the Civil War, some painters skillfully addressed the complexities of race relations in works that have been debated ever since. “The key phrase is what informs the object, and how does the object inform us,” he said.

Lessons in Likeness also reflects Pennington’s interest in itinerant artists, who left work scattered around the South. “Piecing it all together was like a giant jigsaw puzzle for me, figuring out where they had been and the impact they may have had,” he said.

Pennington began his work in 1980 after studying at the University of Kentucky and George Washington University and in Europe, and working for the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian Archives of American Art.

As an “itinerant curator,” he traveled the South gathering material as the Archives’ field representative. He later worked as director or a curator of art museums in Laurel, Miss.; New Orleans; and Augusta, Ga.

Pennington gathered much of the material for this book during those years. Perhaps his most significant find was West’s personal papers, which were in the possession of a descendant Pennington tracked down through genealogical research. The papers included West’s hand-written account of painting the last portrait of the English romantic poet Lord Byron in 1822.

Pennington moved to Europe and worked in Amsterdam for nearly a decade. Then, in 2005, he returned to his native Bourbon County, where he lives in a farm cottage he restored.

“Suddenly, I’m 60 years old and want to get this stuff in print,” said Pennington, who published the book, Kentucky: The Master Painters, in 2008.

“My goal is to heighten our awareness of Kentucky’s great cultural heritage,” he said. “I think it’s so important to understand that our antebellum history was so much more dynamic and important than people may understand today.”

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