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.”

Click on each thumbnail to see entire photo: