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Journal of early southern decorative arts [serial] (Volume 23, 1 (1997)) online

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Henry Parrott Bacot, Louisiana State University Museum of Art, Baton Rouge

John A. Burrison, Georgia State University, Atlanta

Colleen Callahan, Valentine Museimi, Richmond, Virginia

Barbara Carson, College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Virginia

Bernard D. Cotton, Buckinghamshire College, United Kingdom

Donald L. Fennimore, Jr., Winterthur Museum, Winterthur, Delaware

Leland Ferguson, University of South Carolina, Columbia

Edward G. Hill, M.D., Winston-Salem, North Carolina

Ronald L. Hurst, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Willamsburg, Virginia

Theodore Landsmark, Mayor's Office, City of Boston, Massachusetts

Carl R. Lounsbury, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Willamsburg, Virginia

Susan H. Myers, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C

J. Garrison Stradling, Neiv York, New York

Carolyn ]. Weekley, Abby AUrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center Colonial Williamsburg Foundation,

Willa msb u rg. Virgin ia

GENERAL EDITOR: Bradford L. Rauschenberg

MANAGING EDITOR: Cornelia B. Wright


Members of MESDA receive i\\e Journal of Early Southern Decorative Arts, published in summer and win-
ter, and the MESDA newsletter, the Luminary, published in spring and fall. Other privileges include notifi-
cation of the classes, programs, and lectures offered by the Museum; participation in Members' Weekend,
with a symposium on collecting and decorative arts research; a iO"i. discount on purchases hom the MESDA
Bookstore and Old Salem stores; and free admission to general tours of MESDA and Old Salem.

Membership categories begin at $30.00. Library subscriptions are $2S.oo (overseas members please add
$10.00 for postage). For further information about joining Members of MESDA and benefits of membership,
please write the Coordinator of Membership Services, MESDA, RO. Box 10310, Winston-Salem, NC 27108.

Cover illustration: Cephas Thompson, William Fitzhugh, Alexandria, Virginia, 1807-8. Oil on canvas, hoa 27". woa 21 '4',
The Washington/Custis/Lee Collection, Washington and Lee University, Lexington, Virginia .





The Journal of Early Southern Decorative Arts is published nvice

a year by the Museum o[ Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA).

It presents research on decorative arts made in the South prior to 1820,

with an emphasis on object studies in a material culture context.

Potential contributors are encouraged to contact the Managing Editor
For guidelines concerning sub|ect matter and manuscript preparation.

All correspondence concerning {he Journal should be sent to the

Managing Editor, Journal of Early Soittherti Decorative Arts. MESDA,

P.O. Box 10310, Winston-Salem, NC 27108. Correspondence concerning

membership in MESDA, including renewals and address changes,

should be directed to the Coordinator ot Membership Ser\'ices,

MESDA, P.O. Box 10310, Winston-Salem, NC 2-108.

Articles trom the Journal of Early Southern Decorative Arts ire abstracted
in the Bibliography of the Histoiy of Art and America: History and Life.

The paper used for this publication meets the minimum American

National Standard tor inlormation Sciences — Permanence of Paper for

Printed Librar)' Materials, ANSI Z39. 48-1984. ^"^ and contains 20%

post-consumer fiber.

Some back issues ot ihe Journal ire available.

ISSN oogS-9266

Copyright © 1997 by Old Salem, Inc.

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Printed in the Lhiited States ot ,\mcrica



"A Most Favorable and Striking Resemblance": The Virginia
Portraits of Cephas Thompson

Appendix I. Cephas Thompson's Memorandum of Portraits / 43
Appendix II. Catalogue ot Thompson's Virginia Sitters / si

Book Reviews


Donald M. Herr, M.D., Pewter i>i Pennsylvania Churches 102


Nancy Goyne Evans, American Windsor Chairs 105

I. Cephas Thompson, Self-Portrait. Middleton, Massachusetts, c. 1825. Oil
on canvas, hoa 27", woa 22'-i". Courtesy of the Bosto)i Atheiiaeum, gift of
Mrs. Madelenie Thompson Edmonds.

"A Most Favorable and Striking Resemblance'

The Virginia Portraits of Cephas Thompson (1775-1856)


ONE OF THE MOST prolific portrait painters of the early
nineteenth century, Cephas Thompson began his career as
a professional artist in 1800. Although little is known and
less has been written about Thompson, his career was important
both for the history of American art and for the documentary record
of the young republic that he created in his portraiture. A native of
Middleboro, Massachusetts, he worked as an itinerant artist, with
much of his time spent in the southern states on the eastern
seaboard, generally in the winter months. He kept a Memorandum
of Portraits (Appendix I), now in the Boston Athenaeum, in which
he recorded 541 portraits made from 1806 to 1822. This slender,
leather-bound volume is the chief source for tracing the artist's
chronology throughout his itinerant years.'

Of the portraits listed in the Memorandum, 333 were painted in
Virginia. The period when Thompson was active as an itinerant
painter encompassed the formative years of the American Republic,
a time of significant political, social and economic change. During
this time, Virginia assumed an unparalleled leadership role in the
affairs oi the United States. The wealthiest and most populous state
at the outset ot the nineteenth century, the commonwealth held
sway over the rest of the country both politically and intellectually.
This was truly the golden age of Virginia: a time of ascendancy un-

matched in American history for both the extent and depth of the
leadership provided. The state's achievement was determined by the
intellect and character of many oi its citizens. Four Virginians were
president for a total of thirty-two years; another was Chief Justice for
thirty of those years. Virginians were Cabinet members, Congress-
men, ambassadors, state legislators, judges, military officers and en-
trepreneurs. Many embodied the best qualities of the Enlighten-
ment, with broad interests in the arts as well as the sciences. Cephas
Thompson recorded the likenesses ot many of these eminent Vir-
ginians, the men and women who were prominent in defining the
events of their time.

His Virginia sitters (Appendix II) are representative ol a rising self-
confident class of Americans in the early republic: they included the
Chief Justice of the United States, cabinet members, congressmen,
state legislators and judges as well as a host of prominent landowners
and merchants. Their patronage reflects a high public estimation of
Thompsons merits as a painter.

Despite the volume of his work and the prominence oi his sitters,
Thompsons substantial contribution to American art has gone
largely unrecognized by scholars. One reason for this apparent lack
of interest is that, aside from his Memorandum of Portraits,
Thompson left virtually no contemporary records related to his
painting. The only nineteenth-century account ot his work is a
rather disparaging reference made by art historian, William Dunlap:

A person of this name painted poor portraits in Norfolk, but managed to
procure employment and make money enough to buy a farm in his native
village "down east" and retire, independent of all but mother earth, and
the rain and sunshine which fertilize her bosom and ripen her products."

Other reasons why the artist may have escaped notice may in-
clude art historians' concern with aesthetic questions rather than the
relationship between the artist and patron, as well as his supposed
lack of formal training and his position below that of "academic"


painter. Cephas Thompson, then, is an important and unjustly ne-
glected figure in early American art. Occupying the position that he
did, he is especially important as an indicator of popular taste in the
early Republic. His lack of recognition from scholars presents a
unique opportunity for primary research. It is hoped that the follow-
ing biography, transcription, and catalogue oi his sitters will offer a
solid core of information about the artist and his works. In so doing,
a starting point will have been established that will allow others to
explore the life and works of the artist further still.


In the decades that followed the Revolution, artists such as
Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828), Washington Allston {1779-1843), and
John Vanderlyn (1775-1852) dominated American art. They chose to
study painting in Europe; following the lead of Benjamin West,
president of the Royal Academy in London, they absorbed the ideals
of the Grand Manner by studying the masterworks of classical
Greece and Rome and of the Renaissance and Baroque periods. A
number of them absorbed the European regard for "history paint-
ing," dealing with religious, allegorical, mythological as well as
strictly historical subjects, as a higher form than portraiture.' How-
ever, when they returned to America, they found that the pragmatic,
materialistic landowners, merchants and artisans of the new Repub-
lic chose to patronize portraiture, an art that reflected and expressed
their own values and its own way of life.' Since its origins in the sev-
enteenth century, portraiture had been the backbone of American
painting. Indeed the country's most illustrious colonial artists, John
Smibert (1688-1751), Robert Feke (act. 1741-1750), and John Single-
ton Copley (1738-1815) painted little other than portraits. By the
nineteenth century, portraits had a social meaning as proof of their
owner's wealth and its accompanying prestige. They also had a do-
mestic purpose in the nature and function of the family. Among
landed families during the first half of the nineteenth century, conti-


nuity was ensured by gathering to the household more members and
more wealth. Thus, a portrait was a symbol ot familial longevity and
stability and conferred honor to the people it depicted.'

The prevailing style of portraiture began to change at the outset
oi the nineteenth century. The old colonial style, characterized by
hill-length compositions, sumptuous costumes, and a visual cata-
logue oi the sitter's prized possessions, began to give way to simpli-
fied arrangements that emphasized the subject's character. This revo-
lution in painting began with Gilbert Stuart's return from Great
Britain in 1793. The simplicity and directness ot his portraits gained
tremendous popularity and set new standards oi artistic style. The
"plain style " of Anglo-American portraiture particularly appealed to
a republican people wary of luxury or material attainments and ea-
ger to assert the primacy of individual character as the foundation of
a democratic societ)'.

The European training these artists received contributed to a
more positive artistic climate in the United States. At the beginning
of the nineteenth century, numerous culnual institutions devoted to
the promotion and elevation of taste were also being formed. The
most notable among them were the American Academy of Fine Arts,
founded in 1802 in New York, and the Pennsylvania Academy of
Fine Arts, established in 1805 in Philadelphia." In these cities, as well
as in Boston, Baltimore, and Charleston, a growing awareness of the
fine arts gave a sense of encouragement to young artists. With the
growth of the seaboard economy and with the opportunities for pa-
tronage which came with this growth, the career of the itinerant, un-
trained, artist grew increasingly marginal. While artists like Thomp-
son pursued painting careers, they did so below the elite level of the
academically trained.

This then, was the artistic climate in America when Cephas
Thompson embarked upon his itinerant career. As a young man of
twent)'-five, he left his native Massachusetts and sought a market for
his talents in the coastal cities of the South. Newspaper advertise-
ments of the time as well as his own Memorandum of Portraits place


the artist in Baltimore, Maryland (1804); Charleston, South Caroli-
na (1800, 1804, 1819, and 1822); Alexandria (1807-1809), Richmond
(1809-1810), and Norfolk, Virginia (1810-1812); and Savannah, Geor-
gia (1818). Closer to home, he also worked in Bristol, Rhode Island
(1805-7, 1816, and 1822). The amount of traveling he did reflected
the simple fact that the portraitist had to seek out patrons.

Thompson received little or no formal training and did not ap-
prentice with an established American artist. Rather, recognizing his
talent in the arts, he learned by doing and through the lessons that
he obtained by viewing the works of Copley, Stuart, and others dur-
ing his occasional trips to Boston. Thompsons lack of training, on
one hand, indicates the underdeveloped condition of American art
institutions available to support and nurture artistic talent in the late
eighteenth century. But his decision to pursue the career of por-
traitist is significant for its particularly American self-confidence that
success derived from an individuals talent and energy.


Cephas Thompson was born on i July 1775 in Middleboro, Mass-
achusetts, to William Thomson (1740-1816), a prosperous farmer,
and Deborah (Sturtevant) Thomson (1740-1842)." His ancestor,
John Thomson (1616-1676), was a member of one of the earliest em-
barkations to the New World, arriving in Plymouth as a young boy
in 1622. By the end of the seventeenth century the Thomson family
had established sizable farms in southeastern Massachusetts, settling
the towns of Middleboro, Bridgewater, and Halifax. **

By the eighteenth century, the village Middleboro was a thriving
community. The 1781 census lists 581 houses, 18 "Distill" houses, 608
oxen, 1,521 cows, 338 horses, 584 coaches and chaises etc, and 2,144
barrels of cider for that year.' The Thomson family thrived as well.
Cephas's father William, who had been a militia captain during the
Revolution and served at the battle of Bunker Hill, acquired several


thousand acres in what was then the district of Maine in addition to
the substantial holdings in Massachusetts. The Thomson's house, on
River Street, was constructed of solid oak boards and timber.'"

Cephas was the third of eleven children." They were educated in
one of four schools that were appointed to be kept in different parts
of the town. Prior to the nineteenth century, it appears there were
no schoolhouses in Middleboro, but it was the teachers' habit to
gather the children in different neighborhoods at some dwelling
house and instruct them during a tew weeks of the year. "Schools "
were held in the summer and winter months, with the summer
schools usually taught by women and the winter schools taught by

Three of Cephas Thompson's five brothers followed the estab-
lished family pattern of land ownership by establishing homesteads
in the district of Maine. Cephas, however, chose to pursue the high-
ly unlikely career of a professional artist; the Thompson family ge-
nealog)' states, "He fitted for college, but instead of entering took up
portrait painting."" It may be surmised that the decision was met
with at least a degree of disappointment.

Cephas's family background and early experience provide no evi-
dence to suggest a motive for his artistic career; however, a strong
native talent must have made itself known. According to the
Thompson family, at a young age Cephas was able to obtain realistic
likenesses of his schoolmates. A rural farming community, Middle-
boro offered no museums or opportunities for art training. It had no
established artists in the post-Revolutionary period; the only other
portraitist known to have worked in the area was Rufus Hathaway
(1770-1822). Five years older than Thompson, Hathaway spent most
of his life in Duxbury, Massachusetts. Hathaway's style, based upon
colonial traditions, was uniquely his own; by 1800 he had all but
abandoned his career." The styles of the two artists were completely
divergent and contact between the two was highly unlikely.

Without formal instruction or access to other works of art,
Thompson may have consulted books on artistic theory or used
readily available prints of European works of art. The most probable


scenario is that the young artist traveled approximately forty miles to
Boston in search of artistic instruction. Boston had an active artistic
community with painters such as John Johnston (1753-1818),
William Lovett (1773-1801), and William M. S. Doyle (1769-1828)
in residence. Although Boston's preeminent artist John Singleton
Copley (1738-1815) had left for Europe in 1774, his portraits could be
found in many of Bostons prestigious homes. Unfortunately, no
records exist of Thompsons living or working in Boston. However,
the fact that, at the age of twenty-five, he had the self-confidence to
travel to Charleston in 1800 in search of portrait commissions, to-
gether with the fact that he advertised himself as a "portrait painter
from Boston," suggests that he had already had some experience or
success in Boston or perhaps in his home town of Middleboro.

It is difficult to say why Thompson would begin his itinerant ca-
reer so far from home — perhaps from a youthful desire to prove
himself or perhaps the recommendation of other itinerants or fami-
ly business connections; perhaps the wealthy southern seaport of
Charleston offered greater opportunity for commissions from fami-
lies newly risen to prominence. In any case, Charleston, known for
the worldliness and cosmopolitanism of its leading citizens, fit
Thompsons needs. Surely this combination of wealth and pride em-
bodied by Charlestonians would ensure the success of a skilled por-
traitist. Ambitious and perhaps over-confident, Thompson placed
the following advertisement in a local newspaper on 2 December


RESPECTFULLY informs the public that he has lately arrived in this city
and has commenced his business at No. 5. Tradd-Street.

He flatters himself from his experience, that those Ladies and Gentle-
men who favour him with employment will receive the most favorable
and striking resemblance.'^

Despite his expectations, Thompson's Charleston trip does not
appear to have been successful. Examples of portraits from the city

"a most favorable and striking resemblance"

have not been found; it is possible the venture was a failure and the
artist was forced to return to his family in Middleboro. He would
not return to Charleston until 1804.

By 1802 Thompson had married Olive Leonard (1780-1819) the
daughter of Daniel and Mary (Hall) Leonard of Bridgewater, Massa-
chusetts." The couple made their home in Middleboro, and the fol-
lowing year. Marietta Tintoretto (1803—?), the first of their seven
children, was born.' His daughter's middle name indicates that he
had not given up his artistic ambitions.

In 1804 the artist set out for Baltimore, then the third largest port
in the United States. When Thompson arrived in 1804, the city had
a strong artistic tradition and several families owned portraits by
John Wollaston (act. 1736-1767), Gustavus and John Hesselius
(1682-1755 and 1728-1778), Charles Willson Peak (1741-1827)."* By
April 1804 Thompson, inserted an advertisement in Tlie Telegraph
ivid Daily Adi'ertiser innouncmo^ his imminent departure:


At No. 26 corner of Calvert and Bank Streets:

RESPECTFULLY informs the ladies and gentlemen of this cit)', that he
continues likewise to cut profile likenesses with his new invented ma-
chine, which is esteemed the most accurate of any now in use.

He thanks the public for the encouragement he has received since he
arrived here, and as he will very soon remove from this place, he most
humbly begs the attention of those who wish to employ him."

From his advertisement it is evident that Thompson enjoyed a
certain amount of success, although portraits from this period are

It is interesting to note that for the duration of his career in the
South, Cephas Thompson rarely painted during the summer
months. His southern patrons were bound to the land, and most
continued to adhere to an agrarian way of life. Although thev pur-
sued political and other professional careers, many had working
plantations. In agriculturally oriented areas, working patterns were


heavily oriented by the seasons; planting in spring was followed by
cultivation in summer and by harvesting in autumn. Leisure periods
were ohen those extensive blocks of time when little else could be at-
tempted, and thus from December through February there was an
idle period that gained prominence throughout the year as the "gay

In December 1804, Thompson returned to Charleston and imme-
diately informed the public of his arrival. Somewhat more restrained
in his self-promotion, he offered his prospective patrons a variety of

HAS commenced PORTRAIT PAINTING at Mrs. Cochran's long room
King Street No. 243, where he Paints likenesses in large, demi and small
sizes. He also cuts PROFILES, with his machine which is on a new princi-
ple, and more accurate than any in use. He will likewise paint Profiles,
and execute them in gold.-'

This time Thompson was more successful in obtaining patronage.
One of his most notable works of this period was a mourning por-
trait painted in commemoration of the death of Mrs. Rachel DuPree
Miles of Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, (fig. 2). The artist painted
this somber portrait of Mrs. Miles' survivors, her husband Captain
James Miles, their son James Saunders, and daughter Elizabeth
McPherson. The tiled, sparsely furnished interior features an urn
and open window, symbolic references to the deceased. The subjects'
saddened expression, the two funeral hats for Mr. Miles and his son,
the black mourning clothes, and Elizabeth's black ribbons and jewel-
ry complete the mourning scene. - Stylistically this is an intriguing
portrait, executed by a young artist cognizant of artistic conventions
and themes. However, his technical naivete is also readily apparent.
He creates a planar format, albeit unintentionally — the converging
lines resulting in a rising two-dimensional space. In fact, the Miles
family seems to be in danger of falling off the canvas entirely. The
light within the portrait is somewhat ambiguous and seems to radi-
ate from a variety of sources. The subjects themselves are arranged in

"a most favorable and striking resemblance"

2. Cephas Thompson, Jauies Allies and Family, Charlescon, South Carolina,
1805. Oil on canvas, hoa 40%", woa 4o44". Private collection. Signed lower
left: "C. Thompson pinx iSo<,." MRF-8-2}.

Stock poses and their likenesses are linear and devoid of lifelike mod-
eling. It is a quaint and compelling conversation piece, but its naive
technique and composition in no way foreshadow the sophisticated
portraits which Thompson was to produce just two years later.

Both the Baltimore and the Charleston notices mention Thomp-
son's "machine" for cutting profiles. On 5 February 1806, he patent-
ed his "Delineating Machine," a mechanism designed to enable him



to produce likenesses within minutes, undoubtedly the same device.
The large, unwieldy instrument consisted of a pencil, a plate of
glass, universal joint and a drawing board (fig. 3). As developed, the
machine was to be used for copying charts, landscapes and portraits.
According to Thompson his machine, based upon the eye, would
serve to copy "exactly from nature and all at such size as the pleasure
of the artist may require."-'

Thompson was not the only artist to attempt this combination of

3. Cephas Ihompson, Delineating Machine, 5 February 1806. Ink on paper.
Reconstructed patent drawing. Records of the Patent and Trademark Office,
record g)oup 241m file d^jx. National Archives and Records Administration,

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Online LibraryMuseum of Early Southern Decorative ArtsJournal of early southern decorative arts [serial] (Volume 23, 1 (1997)) → online text (page 1 of 11)