Wallace Nutting (1861-1941)
Wallace Nutting was born in Rockbottom, Massachusetts, in 1861. He was ordained a Congregational Minister in 1887 and while he appeared to excel in this profession, he continually declined calls from one church or another all over the country. He finally settled in 1894 in Providence, Rhode Island, as minister of the Union Church. He resigned from Union Church after a nervous breakdown in 1904 and began to take photographs in earnest, moving around and eventually settling in Southport, Connecticut, in 1905.
For the remainder of his life he was variously an author who wrote on the windsor chairs, clocks, and furniture of early America, a lecturer; a manufacturer of modern versions of early American furniture, and foremost a photographer who took and cataloged more than ten thousand photographs, including a series of views of historic interiors and exteriors, which proved commercially successful.
Nutting began collecting period furniture from a love of the workmanship and form, and to use as props, background, and atmosphere for his interior photographs. Good antique furniture was hard to come by so it seems, and he recognized the opportunity to make and sell reproductions of hard-to-find original pieces. His own personal collection, which now resides in the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford, Connecticut, became the inspiration for many of his reproductions. He marked the furniture with a paper label at first but soon began "branding" with block letters to thwart dealers who were removing the labels, mildly distressing the new furniture and selling the well-made reproductions as antiques.
His furniture factory made Windsor chairs and furniture in the Chippendale and Hepplewhite styles, and furniture from what he called the “Pilgrim Century” (1620-1700) for at least 20 years. Because he insisted on perfection in his furniture, he spent heavily for skilled craftsmen and in the manufacturing process and consequently his furniture enterprise never made money. He was fortunately able to cover his ongoing furniture business losses with the handsome profits from his book publishing and picture business.
Although Nutting described his furniture as “reproductions,” they are better described as “in the style of” as they better reflect the Colonial Revival aesthetic rather than being historically accurate.
When one hears reference to McKenney and Hall, it is easy to assume, as it often the case with lithography, that they were the publishers or printers, but in reality, Thomas Loraine McKenney (1785 to 1857) and James Hall (1793 to 1868) played a much larger role in the portraits which would form the basis of the folio History of the Indian Tribes of North America, published in Philadelphia between 1837-1844.
McKenney, initially Superintendent of Indian Trade and later heading up the Office of Indian Affairs, working as he did under Presidents Madison, Monroe, Adams, and Jackson, took a respectful and yet fatalistic view, it seems, of the American Indian peoples, as he seemed to feel it was necessary to preserve their tribal cultures, believing they were destined to be obliterated. Thus, as his work brought him into contact with the various tribal leaders who visited Washington over the years as members of treaty delegations, he began to commission their portraits.
Charles Bird King (1785 to 1862) did the vast majority of the portraits McKenney commissioned, although a number were also done by James Otto Lewis and George Cooke, and his sensitive, vibrant portraits are all the more remarkable when one realizes that King’s own father was scalped by Indians in 1789, when King was just four years old, after the family had traveled west to Ohio.
By the 1830s, after more than a decade of portraits, McKenney felt the collection, displayed in the War Office, needed a broader audience, but to complete such a project would require more effort and different skills than those he had to offer. As a result, he commissioned lithographs of the paintings and recruited James Hall, a frontier Renaissance man who worked as a lawyer, a judge, a newspaper editor and author, among other things, to pull together biographical sketches and appropriate text to accompany what McKenney envisioned as a three-volume set.
As was common in the era because of the associated costs, such sets were usually sold in advance on a subscription basis (this set was sold at $120), and while Hall powered through the work of sorting out very vague notes with murky references to individuals, they managed to sell enough subscriptions to begin. Timing was bad, however, and the Panic of 1837 dealt the project a near-mortal blow as many subscribers were left without the means to pay. Things became grim enough that McKenney actually abandoned the project he had begun, but Hall, who had by this time invested close to a decade in the work, persevered, recruited another publisher, and pushed on.
The final volume, by which time there were 1,250 subscribers, was not finished until 1844. In 1858, the original portraits were moved to The Castle, the Smithsonian’s first building, and they remained there until the winter of 1865, when they were to be relocated. The men charged with the work brought in a woodstove which they vented into a ventilation shaft they believed to be a flue. After several weeks, a fire started and despite fireproofing efforts in the building, the damage was extensive and the Castle’s roof collapsed. Only five of the original 300 portraits survived. (The fire also destroyed approximately 200 other paintings of Native Americans by John Mix Stanley and a great deal of important correspondence and paperwork.) It is only because of the foresight, awareness and persistence of Thomas McKenney and James Hall that these valuable images, with their detailed, colorful and accurate renderings of American Indian tribal dress and customs, survive for us today.
Ephraim Cutler (1767-1853) was an early Ohio politician and judge. He was the son of Manasseh Cutler (1742-1823), who was one of the founders of the Ohio Company of Associates, the land company responsible for establishing Marietta in 1788. He served in the territorial legislature and was a delegate at the Ohio Constitutional Convention. He was anti-slavery, pro-education, and the first librarian of the famed Coonskin Library.
Cutler was also, like his father, greatly interested in plants and gardening. Manasseh Cutler was well-known in his day for his study of plants, and while his son was, perhaps, not as well known for his botanical interests, this “portrait” of his home, painted by Marietta artist Sala Bosworth (1805-1890) about 1840, clearly shows his interest was strong.
Numerous “portraits” of early American homes exist, but most are from the expected perspective of the front, showing off the home’s grandeur. Here, however, Cutler’s home is shown from the side, a view which not only allows you to see the Ohio River, but more importantly, places his lush and orderly garden in the foreground. Such prominent placement of the garden would have been Cutler’s idea, and suggests that it was his plants, and not his pioneering politics, that he wanted people to remember.
It is fortunate that this portrait survives because Cutler’s beautiful home does not. It was located in Constitution, a crossroads in western Washington County, along State Route 7. The home’s site today is an industrial river terminal.
We take the availability of art all around us for granted. That’s part of post-modernism, the fact that there’s no real original now, but just a stream of copies. There are sites all over the Internet offering inexpensive poster copies of great works of art, but until roughly the mid-19th century, artwork in homes was limited, both in quantity and quality. Wealth made it possible to commission portraits and landscapes from a variety of artists, from itinerants with varying levels of talent and training to professional, established painters, but the average home had limited options for decoration.
Until Nathaniel Currier and James Merritt Ives came along. Technically, they didn’t actually come along at the same time. Currier started doing lithographs in 1834, set up his own shop in 1836, and worked under his name alone until 1857, when Currier invited Ives, his bookkeeper/accountant (and husband of his brother’s sister-in-law – nepotism never goes out of fashion), to join him as a partner, after he recognized not only Ives’ business abilities, but his artistic sensibilities and awareness of what had mass appeal. And the presses began to roll even more quickly….
The firm, which advertised “cheap and popular prints,” back when “cheap” was a good thing, produced at least 7,500 lithograph images (and hundreds of thousands of copies of those) over the full 72 years of Currier operations, lithographic images that captured every single aspect of American life – from politics, travel, disasters, and sports to the bucolic and pastoral scenes of the American countryside and home life (I’m partial to the “Homestead” series – fall is pictured above) for five cents to three dollars, depending on size and subject matter. Currier and Ives were not artists, but rather commissioned or bought the work of artists that they then had converted to prints and (depending on the image) hand-colored. (The firm employed some of the greatest artists of the era, including names like George Inness, Eastman Johnson and Thomas Nast.) While Currier & Ives images are often dismissed out of hand for their sentimental view of American life, they actually tell the tale of America’s democratic nature, of the individual, and leave an incredible record of the images we found most appealing and enduring of ourselves. They are, in a sense, the illustrations for the story Americans, both today and in the past, told themselves about themselves, the depictions of our own mythology in progress.
Thanks to Frederic Conningham, a man who must have had the soul of a librarian, Currier & Ives prints are very well organized for today’s collector. Conningham assigned each print a number, tracked the various sizes in which the image was produced, and generally laid an organized foundation for the future study and appreciation of the images, but even today, new discoveries of obscure images turn up. Value is based primarily on size, subject matter, rarity, and, as with all things paper and mass-produced, also heavily dependent upon condition. Definitely worth taking note the next time you see one, if for no other reason than the fact that they sort of are America’s self-portrait!
MARY TODD LINCOLN QUILT
Elizabeth Keckley (1818-1907) was a former enslaved woman who became a talented dressmaker in Washington, DC. She cultivated a clientele comprised of the wives of high-profile politicians, among them President Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln. The two women became close friends, and according to tradition, Keckley retained scraps of fabric from the cloak Mrs. Lincoln wore to Ford’s Theater the night the president was assassinated. In 1892, Keckley took a position teaching sewing and domestic arts at Wilberforce University near Dayton.
While at Wilberforce, Keckley apparently met Sarah Cordelia Bierce Scarborough (1851-1933), another professor at Wilberforce and the wife of William Sanders Scarborough (who served as Wilberforce president from 1908-1920). According to family tradition, Sarah acquired some of the Mary Todd Lincoln fabric scraps from Keckley and incorporated them into this quilt top, which then descended in her family until donated to the Western Reserve Historical Society.
Elizabeth Keckley authored a memoir in 1868 titled Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House.