“Blissfully Embedded”

“Blissfully embedded in the 19th century,” that’s how I described my life to a friend recently.  This summer I’ve been engaged in long-delayed, long distance research on various members of the Wade family and I find myself toggling back and forth between the generations.  Four days in Ithaca, N.Y and environs were spent in search of evidences of Jeptha H. Wade (1811-1890) as a portrait painter in that region.  I spent three days in New York City following Jeptha Homer Wade II (1857-1926) as a young man doing preliminary research for a longer trip later this summer to wrap my mind around what it meant to be a wealthy young Clevelander with a pied-à-terre in NYC during the Gilded Age.  In between trips the focus has been primarily on Randall Wade (1835-1867) as we finalize the front matter for the facsimile publication of all 900+ pages of MS. 3934, The Randall Wade Travel  Journals 1870-1871).

Last week I spent a few days in Tulsa, Oklahoma at the Gilcrease Museum and Helmerich Center for American Art at the University of Tulsa (https://gilcrease.org/).  Though this trip had nothing to do with the Wade Project, in a hurried tour of the galleries after a day of meetings I ran across this portrait of Dr. Thomas Nicholas Cockerill painted by the primarily self-taught George Caleb Bingham (1811-1879) in 1839 when Bingham was in his late twenties.  (Apologies for the black and white photograph, it was the only one I could find)


 Dr. Thomas Nicholas Cockerill, 1839

George Caleb Bingham (1811-1879)

Oil on canvas 29 x 24 inches, Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, Oklahoma


I’m interested in this because, of course, Jeptha H. Wade (1811-1890) is pursuing his own career as a portrait painter at right about the same time.


Nathaniel Olds, 1837

Jeptha H. Wade (American, 1811-1890)

Oil on canvas, 30 1/16 x 24 1/16 inches, Cleveland Museum of Art


By  the late 1830s Bingham was making a name for himself in St. Louis. Wade’s brief career as a portrait painter seems to have lasted less than a decade (1835-1845).  During this period Bingham was pretty much settled in Arrow Rock, Saline County Missouri–a community on a direct line between Kansas City and St. Louis.  Wade was an itinerant portrait painter in the true sense of the word, always on the road traveling to small towns in New York State (e.g. Trumansburg, Romulus, Seneca Falls, and Palmyra) and eventually, in Adrian, Michigan were he moved with his second wife, and young son, Randall in 1840.

Bingham went on to study in Europe and is now recognized as one of the finest American painters of the 19th century; Wade gave up portrait painting for a life on the road first building telegraph lines, and then managing them, before topping off his telegraph career as the President of Western Union.

In his 1889 handwritten autobiography for his grandson, Jeptha writes about his career as a painter.

As an artist, I am sorry to say, I reached no eminence to be proud of – less perhaps than any other branch of business I have undertaken, nor is it very much to be wondered at, in view of all the circumstances. My health was never suited to so sedentary a life, and poor as it was, I was obliged to have a good deal of fresh air and outdoor exercise, and this took time. Good paints brushes etc. were hard, and sometimes impossible to get in the country and I was sometimes obliged to make, and always to grind prepare all the paints myself, and was without access to good works of art from which to learn, or I might say any works of art = Photographs were not then in existence = had I lived in a large city, with access to plenty of good paintings, and a chance to buy good paints well-prepared + put up ready for use at all times, as is the case now, I of course could have done better, and as I look back upon it, my wonder is, that I done as well and got as comfortable a living out of it as I did. My best productions, some of which I might be proud of, were burned, with all my books, implements, sketches etc. pertaining to the business, and thus ended that chapter in my history.


Sally Avery Olds

Sally Avery Olds, 1837

Jeptha H. Wade (American, 1811-1890)

Oil on canvas, 30 1/16 x 24 1/16 inches, Cleveland Museum of Art

Admittedly, Wade’s paintings can be uneven quality (although not anymore uneven than Caleb Bingham’s attempts during the same period).  And while Wade’s portrait of Nathaniel Olds is romantic in a Benedict Cumberbatch/Sherlock Holmes fashion, the portrait of Olds’ wife, Sally Avery Olds, is less successful.  I’m not quite ready to close the book on Jeptha H. Wade as a portrait painter–there are still portraits and miniatures by him out there waiting to be found.

If there is a lesson for me to be found in writing this particularly blog post, it is that  the Caleb Bingham portrait reminds me to judge Jeptha in how his works stack up against those of other self-taught artists from the same time period.


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