Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 322 – Charles E. Porter, African-American Scenic Artist


Part 322: Charles E. Porter, African-American Scenic Artist

Before I was distracted by Daguerre’s chemical paintings, I was getting ready to complete my section on African-American scenic artists when another was brought to my attention. Gene Meier contacted me when I first mentioned Solomon E. White about an African-American panorama painter – C. E. Porter.

C. E. Porter

Charles E. Porter (1847-1923) worked on the cyclorama Niagara Falls for the Columbian Exposition. Meier shared information from a newspaper article, April 9, 1892 – the Freeman (Indianapolis, Indiana). It reported that C. E. Porter, an artist if Meridian, Conn., was working on the cyclorama of Niagara Falls that would be presented at the World’s Fair. Porter was also noted as the first “colored man” admitted to the Art Academy of New York and had studied two years in Paris. That was all he knew about C. E. Porter, so I decided to do a little digging.

First page Article in the Hartford Courant, “Charles E. Porter Paintings to be Auctioned” 9 Sept. 2012, page G1.
Second part of the article in the Hartford Courant, “Charles E. Porter Paintings to be Auctioned” 9 Sept. 2012, page G2.

Midway into my search, I encountered an article in the Hartford Courant, “Charles E. Porter Paintings to be Auctioned” (9 Sept. 2012, page G1-G2). It was an ideal story for “Antiques Roadshow”; a woman is urged by her mother to purchase some paintings at an estate sale by an unknown artist who turns out to be remarkable. Thirty years later, the paintings are positively identified as the work of C. E. Porter. Luckily for me, his life was briefly summarized to generate interest in the upcoming auction. Someone had really done their research, and the story helped me locate additional information. This article also reported that Porter was one of the first African-American artists to exhibit at the National Academy of Design.

Charles E. Porter, “Landscape with Grain Stacks.”

Here is what I discovered about C. E. Porter:

Porter was born in Hartford, Connecticut, and raised in the Rockville section of Vernon. The family was well connected to the New England abolitionist community, but exceedingly poor. Before reaching adulthood, he lost eight siblings due to childhood illnesses and war. Eight, I cannot imagine. Porter’s artistic talent was recognized by the local community at a young age, and he soon established a studio in Hartford. Porter gained the respect and admiration of many other, and much more well known, artists who lent their support over the years. One of his sponsors was Frederic Edwin Church. I was intrigued as Church has always been one of my personal favorite landscape artists. Then a second famous personality popped up in the story!

Mark Twain wrote a letter of recommendation for Porter to continue his studies at the Académie Julian in Paris. Wow. After studying abroad, Porter returned to the Hartford area where he established his residence at 23 Spruce St in Rockville. Near the top of Fox Hill, he had a studio at the summit.

As many artists, his fortunes slipped later in life and he ended up selling his paintings door-to-door in the town of Vernon. As many Vernon residents were hesitant to buy art from a minority, his friend Gustave A. Hoffman, a Bavarian artist, helped Porter sell his work. Hoffman (1869-1945) was a portrait painter, etcher, and lecturer. Born in Cottbus, Brandenburg, Germany, he studied at the Royal Academy in Munich before moving to America.

Landscape by Gustave Hoffman, nd

Sadly, Porter’s artwork was not always purchased, and on some occasions, he was forced to barter his artwork for food or clothes. Some historians have purported that when the community tired of trading goods for paintings, Porter was reduced to menial labor and had to cease painting for periods of time. Hildegard Cummings in “Charles Ethan Porter: African American Master of Still Life” (2007 exhibition at the New Britain Museum of American Art) wrote that “[Porter] was referred to as respectfully as Professor Porter and a disparagingly as Charles the Nigger.”

His tail continues as so many artists who never see fame in their lifetime. He sadly and slowly sank into obscurity until his death in 1923. Gradually losing his faculties, Porter continued to paint throughout his final years. I immediately got that mixed feeling of anger and helplessness. It never fails; extremely talented artists die penniless, only to have patrons crawl out of the woodwork and sell their art for exorbitant prices when they no longer need any care or financial support. Porter’s paintings now sell for the thousands and are included in collections at the Whitney in New York and the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. In Connecticut, his work is part of the collections at the Wadsworth Museum of Art in Hartford, Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Lyman Allyn in New London, Connecticut Historical Society and the New Britain Museum of American Art.

Well, there is more to the story that came to light as I scanned newspaper databases. The Hartford Courant reported, “D. W. Tryon, the artist, has been sketching in the neighborhood of Rocky Hill for a couple of weeks, and C. E. Porter has been working with him.” (1 Aug 1881, page 2).

Article in the Hartford Courant about D. W. Tryon and C. E. Porter (1 Aug 1881, page 2).
D. W. Tryon.

This was Dwight W. Tryon (1849-1925) who was born in Hartford and raised on his grandparent’s farm in East Hartford. Tryon first sold his art in 1870, exhibiting at the National Academy of Design by 1873. Quick rise to fame, but he was also a white male. In 1876, Tryon auctioned all of his paintings to partially fund a trip to France with his wife where he enrolled at the atelier of Jacquesson de la Chevreuse and took classes at the École des Beaux-Arts. In addition to painting, Tryon was an art instructor at Smith College from 1886-1923. His personal papers are currently held at the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C. Charles Land Freer, founder of the Freer Art Gallery. Freer was a primary patron of Tryon.

Dwight W. Tryon, “Cernay da Ville.”
D. W. Tryon, “Haymaking.”

In 1881 Porter prepared for his trip abroad and also auctioned off all of his studio collection (Hartford Courant, 25 April 1881, page 2). The article titled “Porter’s Paintings” reported, “The pictures, nearly one hundred in number, were painted with the strictest regard to artistic worth, from time to time during the past two or three years, and it is to satisfy a desire to acquire a finishing touch to his art education in Europe that Mr. Porter has decided to put them on sale at auction. The collection is quite varied in subjects and incudes some of his best efforts at fruit, flower, game, fish, interior and landscape painting. All the pictures have been elegantly framed by D. Vorce & Co. The sale will be held at the large studio in the Chesney building…”

Upon his return two years later, there was an art exhibition in Hartford of watercolors and oil paintings. The exhibition included not only Porter but also some very successful artists from the region (Hartford Courant, 16 Nov. 1883, page 2). The hope of this exhibit was to revive the Connecticut School of Design. I quickly scanned the names and found both Charles E. Porter and Dwight W. Tryon. Then I encountered a surprise – Mrs. Porter. It appears as though his wife was an artist too. I was unsuccessful with tracking down any of Mrs. C. E. Porter’s story or artwork. I finally managed to locate her married name in 1903 beyond a simple “Mrs.”

On January 13, 1903, the Pittsburgh Press posted the legal notification of the divorce between Charles E. Porter and Sallie G. Porter (page 15). I had to wonder if that was the beginning to his end.

To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 321: M.M. Maffey and the Spectacle du Petit Lazari

Part 321: M.M. Maffey and the Spectacle du Petit Lazari
I just had to dig a bit deeper about the first show with Daguerre’s paintings as I was really curious about M. M. Maffey. Why had Daguerre selected Maffey to market his dioramas in America? What skills did he bring to the table? How was Maffey an asset? After a bit of digging through French publications from the 1820s, I believe that it was his puppetry skills – the movement that occurred behind the translucent sections of the paintings, as they were backlit. They incorporated a type of shadow puppetry. I believe that the backlit figures were painted paper puppets where you could see the detail clearly in translucent sections. I had encountered similar transparencies used by Volland & Toomey for their Scottish Rite scenes. For example, Jesus was painted on paper and lightly glued to the back of a translucent sky section.
View of backside of Scottish Rite drop in Quincy, Illinois, with the front light bleeding through to the backside.
It’s just that some of the figures moved. In short, Maffey assisted backstage during the show, while Lonati worked the front lights. Plus, Lonati, would be in the house during the performance. Maffey was the perfect person to have on board and backstage.
You see, there was an “M. M. Maffey” associated with Spectacle du Petit Lazari in Paris on boulevard du Temple during the 1820s. In 1823, Journal De Paris et des Départmens Politique, Commercial et Littéraire published numerous shows at Spectacle du Petit Lazari de M. M. Maffey, every day from six to nine (Tous les jours, depuis six heures jusqu’a neuf).
Mention of M. M. Maffey and his connection with Theater de Petit Lazuri during the 1820s.
The following information was published in Journal De Paris et des Départmens Politique, Commercial et Littéraire – (three issues: 8 septembre, 13 septembre, et 24 octobre 1823):
1. Werewolf (Loup garou)
2. A Point of View of Naples (un point de Vue de Naples)
3. Harlequin King in the Moon (Arlequin roi dans la Lune)
4. A Point of View of Mexico (un point de vue de Mexico)
5. Pulcinella Vampire, or the Sybille de Balzora, parody (Polichiuelle Vampire, ou la Sybille de Balzora, parodie)
As I continued my search for Maffy, I stumbled across a wonderful book – John McCormick’s “Popular Theatres of Nineteenth-century France” (1993, page 42-43). Here is the paragraph in its entirety as it gives a little more context. McCormick wrote, “There is an interesting document of 1837 in the Archives Nationales from the Brothers Maffey, requesting permission to open ‘Gymnase maritime et pittoresque’ (presumably some form of panorama specializing in sea-scapes – the term Gymnase implies a vaguely educative function. In it Maffey mentions traveling in France and abroad, and then returning to Paris in 1820 and setting up in a little theatre on the boulevard du Temple, which they called the Petit Lazari. The document says: “the genre which we have been exploiting from father to son for fifty years is simply a fantoccini show [i.e.string marionettes] and mechanical views after the fashion of Citizen Pierre [proprietor of a famous ‘spectacle mécanique’ on the boulevard. They also described themselves, currently, as “artistes mécaniciens’, a common term to cover many sorts of showmen, including puppeteers. Other references to the Maffeys are few.”
McCormick writes that Maffey claimed to have a license in 1822 for their performances at the Petit Lazari, and by 1824, the performances at their Spectacle du Petit Lazari moved beyond puppet shows and into Acrobates and Funambules. So, the 1823 shows were likely titles for puppet shows. After a brief closure, McCormick noted that in 1825, the venue reopened as a puppet theatre and then disappeared from the “Almanach des Spectacles” until 1830 when it established a troupe of live actors playing parodies, farces and melodramas.
So Maffey, as a puppeteer, would have been a great asset to both the manufacture and tour of “Daguerre’s Dioramas” as they were backlit to reveal the second scene with movement. Maffey’s presence behind the scene would suggest the movement with opaque figures, or flat puppets. We know that applying a translucent section of a backdrop will reveal either painted images, or pasted prints/paintings. Backlighting the scene reveals the hidden subject on the backside. The same principle would be applied to flat printed, or painted, puppet that moved across a translucent section. This would explain the movement of high priests in the Temple of Solomon, or floating gondolas in the Venice compositions previously mentioned.
I thought back to my MA thesis that explored the Japanese Influence on French Symbolist Theatre. Twenty-five years ago, I was examining the work of the Nabis toward the end of the twentieth century, the Chat Noir Theatre, and some theatrical productions of shadow puppetry that appeared incredibly innovative for the time. However, the idea of shadow puppets in the nineteenth century was nothing new.
To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 320 – King Solomon’s Temple

Part 320: King Solomon’s Temple
First generation of Scottish Rite scenery for Cincinnati by E. T. Harvey in 1882. He painted the scenes at Heuck’s Opera House.
In New Orleans during 1842, there was an advertisement for Daguerre’s “Chemical Pictures…representing the wonderful effects of Day and Night – (Oil Painting) – and which, by modifying the light upon the picture, exhibits two entirely distinct representations upon the same canvas” (The Times-Picayune, 20 Dec. 1842, page 3). By this time there were four scenes touring with the exhibitions:
1. The Sicilian Vespers, or Palermo in 1292! – A Graphic Episode
2. The “charming” Valley of Goldau, in Switzerland
3. The “admired and unrivalled” Interior of the Church St. Etienne du Mont, at Paris representing a Midnight Mass
4. The “magnificent view” of the City of Venice on a Festival Night.
A few things are happening at the same time as M.M. Maffey & Lonati’s show of chemical paintings reaches New Orleans. First and foremost – their show is imitated and there are now two sets of exhibitions with competing proprietors. In the same 1842 New Orleans newspaper, there was another advertisement for a similar exhibition just below Daguerre’s Chemical Pictures. The competition advertised, “the beautiful and magnificent paintings copied from those of the celebrated Daguerre, whose illustrative, wonderful and magic powers have been subject of great admiration through all Europe.” There were extremely detailed descriptions of transformation scenes in the Times-Picayune (20 Dec. 1842, page 3) depicting:
1. The Inauguration of Solomon’s Temple
2. The Falling Down in the Valley of Goldau (Switzerland)
3. The Interior of St. Stephen’s Church
By 1843, the competitors added a fourth painting – “The Interior of the Monastery of Mount Serrat, in Catalonia” (The Times-Picayune 15 Jan 1843, page 3).
Scottish Rite backdrop depicting the interior of King Solomon’s Temple – the Holy of Holies, ca. 1902. By Toomey and Volland Studio.
Golden gates leading to sacred artifacts in the Holy or Holies, or Sanctum Sanctorum, in King Solomon’s Temple. Toomey & Volland backdrop for the Quincy Scottish Rite from the early twentieth century.
Scenic design by Don Carlos DuBois (Great Western Stage Equipment Co. employee) for the Scottish Rite.
I kept returning to the inauguration of Solomon’s Temple – what an appropriate introduction for New Orleans considering its Masonic lineage. It is important to remember that the construction of King Solomon’s Temple and the assassination of its chief architect Hiram, play a prominent role in the degree work in Freemasonry. This historical tale was reenacted and expanded with additional events surrounding King Solomon’s Temple on nineteenth-century Masonic stages.
Holy of Holies design for the Scottish Rite in Joplin, Missouri (1902) by Toomey & Volland. This backdrop is now part of the Deadwood Scottish Rite collection.
Keep in mind that membership in Freemasonry and other organizations perceived as “secret societies” greatly diminished after a period of anti-Masonic sentiment, commencing in the 1820s. The decline of membership and change in societal attitudes is often attributed to an event called the Morgan Affair. To very briefly explain this event, Morgan is abducted after planning to publish Masonic secrets. His disappearance and presumed death were attributed to the Freemasons. Not all areas of the country suffer a devastating membership loss. Some regions only were subject to a minor decline in membership. There are some Masonic lodges that remained open during this period as others are forced to close their doors. Eventually, the Fraternity began to resurge by the end of the 1840s.
The Times-Picayune (New Orleans) advertised the Inauguration of the King Solomon scene as one of four “Grand Diorama!” (December 29, 1842, page 3).
The Times-Picayune (New Orleans) advertised the King Solomon scene as one of four “Grand Diorama!” (December 29, 1842, page 3). “An Exhibition as yet never known in this city – This day, will be exhibited the beautiful and magnificent paintings, copied from those of the celebrated Daguerre, whose illusive, wonderful and magic powers have been subject to great admiration through all Europe.” The first painting in the set described in the advertisement was “The Inauguration of Solomon’s Temple.” Here is the description:
“This painting represents the magnificent Temple of Solomon, son of David, which he caused to be erected in Jerusalem. Seen in the daytime, it exhibits to the spectacular the richness and elegance of its exterior architecture.
The same Painting soon after passes through all the modifications of light: then night comes on, (effects obtained by the decomposition of light, a new process of painting invented by Daguerre,) the Temple appears illuminated interiorly by degrees, reflecting a bright light exteriorly, which discovers a great multitude of people flocking to adore the Ark of the Covenant, which the High Priest has deposited in the Tabernacle.”
From December 1842 until March of 1843, there were twenty-seven advertisements for King Solomon’s Temple. If I were a Mason and witnessed the aforementioned scenic effects at the end of a room, I might envision the possibilities during degree work. Especially if the an exterior view of King Solomon’s Temple transformed into the interior and then revealed the Ark of the Covenant, I would want to share this vision with my fellow Masons. This was a group, after all, that was already familiar with lighting effects that revealed hidden symbols and objects painted on fabric and backlit, as described for the Rite of Perfection (the basis of the Scottish Rite that originated in France).
To be continued…
Another interior view of King Solomon’s Temple for the 6th and 9th degrees of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite. This is scenery from Sosman & Landis studios for McAlester, Oklahoma. This used scenery collection was purchased by the Santa Fe Scottish Rite in 1908 to practice with while their new building was undergoing construction.

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 319 – M.M. Maffey & Lonati’s Show


Part 319: M.M. Maffey & Lonati’s Show

Robert Winter Jr. advertised that “Daguerre’s Grand Chemical Secret” was discovered and imitated in his own show of “Chemical Paintings” during 1843. In Cincinnati, Winter claimed that his exhibition not only imitated Daguerre’s originals, but also surpassed them. His backdrops were substantially bigger than their French counterparts, measuring 200 feet square each. I could envision a backdrop measuring approximately 10’-12’ in height by 16’-20’ in width– a good size for the end of a Concert Hall.

Winter’s advertisement also responded to M. M. Maffey’s proclamation that no one in American could imitate his exhibition of Daguerre’s magical paintings. Well, that certainly was drawing a line in the sand and challenging many American artist’s abilities. In general, I was curious about Maffey and Lonati’s management of Daguerre’s paintings, the tour of the show, and any technical information that might be gleamed from newspaper advertisements between 1840 and 1843. So I started to look for additional findings in newspapers and journals from the period.

Maffey and Lonati’s exhibition of Daguerre’s paintings first appeared in New York during 1840. It stayed in the city from October through December. From New York it went to Philadelphia where the proprietors explained that their compositions were true “dioramas.” On January 22, 1841, an advertisement appeared in the National Gazette for the exhibition of “Daguerre’s Dioramas from Paris” (page 3). The newspaper reported, “Among the many Exhibitions which have been seen in the United States up to the present time, several have taken the name Dioramas without being entitled to it. M. M. Maffey and Lonati respectfully inform the Ladies and Gentlemen of this city, that they have just arrived from Paris and New York with a Real Diorama, in every sense of the word, painted by Mons. Daguerre.” Their show included two tableaux depicting “the magnificent view of Venice, or a Festival Night,” and “the admired and unrivalled interior of the Church St. Etienne du Mont, at Paris, representing Midnight Mass!!” The exhibition was open from 11-2 and 5-9 daily. So this meant that they had multiple showings daily. It was obvioulsy a reversible effect with light that could be shown multiple times over the course of a day in specified time slots.

A possible validation of this appeared in the “Boston Weekly Magazine” further describing Maffey and Lonati’s exhibition (Vol. III, 1840-1841, page 263). An article reported “The reflection and refraction of light producing the most surprising effects in the picture, totally changing the scene.” Here is how I interpret this statement: The “reflection of light” on the surface means that front light is used on the painted scene – front light and there may also be some metallic areas or sections with “Dutch Metal” applied, such as in the water to create glistening areas of the Venice canals. The painted surface also reflects the light to make the canvas appear opaque – showing the first scene in daylight.

A scene that is partially backlit, allowing the translucent sky and lake to “glow” and create a picturesque realism on stage.

The “refraction of light” mentioned in the article means changing the direction of the light to illuminate the backside of the backdrop – showing the same scene at night. The gradual lowering of the front light and raising of the backlight would provide a smooth and picturesque transition for the audience. Bounce light would be used to illuminate broad areas on the backside of the drop – such as sunsets and seascapes.  This means projecting light away from the drop and allowing the light to bounce back to the translucent area.

Concentrated light in light boxes for the backdrop reveals smaller sections of a translucency, such as the words pictured below or illuminated windows. This would also allow any transparent sections of a drop to become illuminated, thus altering the appearance of the painted composition on the front.

Backlit section of a drop where a light box placed on the backside of a scene will illuminate a specific portion to reveal hidden words, objects and figures.
Backside of the translucent section, with back-painting to define the shapes and concentrate the light for the translucency.
Same section that is under front light. From the audience it appears uniform to the rest of the backdrop.

By the spring of 1841, a third painting was added to the show – Constantinople. However, this backdrop did not depict any transformation, only the two original pieces went from day to night. The Boston Post reported that only two scenes were “painted in that peculiar manner which causes them to change light.” The article continued, “The Church is first seen at mid-day, empty, the light gradually fades to twilight, and the moonlight is seen shining through the windows, and is reflected from the pillars on the opposite side. Presently the candles around the altar are lighted up, and then the seats (before vacant) seem filled with worshippers – the mass proceeds and ends – the lights are extinguished – day is seen to dawn – the moonlight disappears before the light of the sun, and the canvass which seemed crowded with objects, again becomes vacant” (13 May 1841, page 2). I believe that the people are a scenic effect that is similar to shadow puppets (more on that in tomorrow’s post).

As a scenic artist, it is hard not to read that description and envision a painted composition of an empty church – lit from the front. The front light goes down and the lights behind the backdrop go up, illuminating the backside of the drop and revealing a combination of translucent sections and opaque painting of another scene.   The scene for Venice also transitions from day to night, revealing gondolas and gay revelers at a hotel reception – all heading to a festival banquet at a hotel. Whenever, I have taken visitors into a historic auditorium and successfully backlit translucent drops that transform daylight scenes to color sunsets there is always that small gasp, followed by “Oh!” This transition never grows old, as even seasoned stagehands will stop to admire the stage effect; it is magical.

In Baltimore, Daguerre’s painted compositions started to add a new descriptor – “Magical Pictures.” Pretty smart as “magical pictures” are far more exciting and promise a surprise – the movement! The Baltimore Sun reported Daguerre’s Diorama’s represented “the wonderful effects of day and night” and were once again advertised to be “the only Original Dioramas ever presented to the American Public” (Baltimore Sun, 30 September 1841, page 3).

Notice the use of “Magical Pictures” for Daguerre’s dioramas. This is before the same show is advertised as “Chemical Paintings.” From the Madisonian (Washington, D.C.) 28 April 1842, page 2).

But wait, there’s more. After Baltimore, the show travels to Charleston and then Washington, D.C. By D.C. the “the charming Valley of Goldau (in Switzerland) and the crumbling of a mountain, a historical occurrence” replaced the static Constantinople scene. The crumbling mountain makes me think of the double-painted Scottish Rite drop where a temple crumbles. As the front panel is lowered to the floor, the back of it is revealed as temple ruins. What a thrilling and splendid effect! Then, a fourth scene is added – “the Remains of Napoleon in the Church des Invalides, Paris, on the 15th December 1840” (The Daily Madisonian, 18 April 1842, page 2).

Double-painted panels on a backdrop. This is before the volcano explodes and the buildings crumble.
Double-painted panels on a backdrop. This is after the volcano explodes and the buildings crumble.
Double painted panel attached to the front of a drop, before it is lowered.
Same panel being partially lowered to reveal that a scene is painted behind it.

The show undergoes further “rebranding,” and it is advertised under a new heading by the end of 1842 – “Chemical Pictures.” This is also when the first competition appeared for the French proprietors!  A second show appeared in New Orleans at the same time.

New branding of the M.M. Maffey and Lonati exhibition of Daguerre’s dioramas that were also called “magical paintings.” Here is a later ad for the same exhibition, but with the new title of “Chemical Pictures.” From The Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana) 29 Dec. 1842, page 3).

To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 318 – Descriptions Four Chemical Paintings in Cincinnati – 1843

Part 318: Descriptions Four Chemical Paintings in Cincinnati – 1843

Robert Winter Jr. was the proprietor of four “Chemical Paintings” that toured the country. Each of the four drops measured 200 square feet in size and depicted a transition from day to night. They were noted to be the American equivalent to original compositions painted by Daguerre and managed by M. M. Maffey and Lonati. Daguerre’s paintings were much smaller. And were initially advertised as “Daguerre’s Dioramas from Paris… tableaux being represented with modification of light, will produce the wonderful and magical effect of day to night” (Evening Post, New York, 29 Oct. 1840, page 3). Daguerre’s composition’s included the “interior of the Church St. Etienne du Mont, at Paris” and “the magnificent View of Venice, or a festival night of the Carnival.”

Almost three years later, Winter’s “chemical paintings show” appeared at a Concert Hall in Cincinnati. Articles reported that each painted backdrop “represented two distinct pictures, which form the peculiar style of execution, the varied nature and combination of the illuminating powers employed, produces changes the most astonishing, and at the same time the most natural, in the power of the artist, machinist or optician, to effect” (Cincinnati Enquirer, 14 Aug. 1843, page 3).
I am reminded the lengthy description of “A Day in the Alps” published for the Columbian Exposition of Thomas Moses’ painting. Fifty years earlier, here are the four descriptions of the compositions presented in 1843 in Cincinnati.

The following article described Winter’s compositions and was published in the Cincinnati Enquirer on 14 Aug 1843:
“Daguerre’s Grand Chemical Secret Discovered! To be exhibited at Concert Hall, over the Post Office, every evening, until further notice” (page 3).

No. 1 – View in the City of Milan
This picture represents the grand front of Milan Cathedral, which in gothic architecture, in fret work, in carving, and in statuary, surpasses all other buildings in the world. The building was commenced in 1306, and completed by order of Napoleon in 1805. It is adorned interiorly and exteriorly with four hundred statues in bas reliefs. The picture after passing thro’ all the gradations of light from day to night, will appear as though illuminated by the silvery beams of the rising moon, producing a surprising change in the sky. The several windows and lamps of the Cafes and Merchants Arcade will be lit, and discover numerous figures passing to, and entering the Cathedral, which will appear as when lit up for the celebration of Midnight Mass, displaying the gothic painted windows, and part of the interior.

No. 2 – View of the City Jerusalem and the Crucifixion
This picture is taken from the celebrated painting by Martin, represents a distant view of the far famed City; on the left will be perceived the three crosses erected on Mount Calvary; to the right, the gates of entrance through the walls to the City, which together with the Mount & the adjacent country, will appear buried in repose, no figures whatever at this time being seen. A gradual change will take place over the whole face of the picture, displaying the gorgeous tints of an Eastern sunset, until the sky assumes an awful and terrific aspect, occasionally illuminated by vivid flashes of lightning. The Heavens will now appear to burst with a lurid light, gradually displaying the figures on the crosses, and the various groups composing the subject of the crucifixion. After a while, all will seem to recede and die away, giving place to the beautifully calm and quiet appearance of the break of day, until the picture assumes the same image of coloring it had when first disclosed.

Details of a painted scene for the Scottish Rite in the late-nineteenth century. Currently the drop is at the Salina Scottish Rite Theatre in Kansas.
Details of a painted scene for the Scottish Rite in the late-nineteenth century. Currently the drop is at the Salina Scottish Rite Theatre in Kansas.
Details of a painted scene for the Scottish Rite in the late-nineteenth century. Currently the drop is at the Salina Scottish Rite Theatre in Kansas. This is one of dozens of theatre scenes depicting the crucifixion still in existence across the country.
Looking through the cut drop at a crucifixion backdrop in Grand Forks, North Dakota at the Masonic Center.

No. 3 – Interior of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
This is a view of the large rotunda, in the center of whose floor stands the Holy Sepulchre, surrounded by several large columns that supports the gallery, and ornamented by an immense number of silver lamps and candlesticks, presents Rome, and the courts and religious orders of Europe. The Church is illuminated by day from the light which falls from the lofty dome on the Holy Sepulchre, which is oblong form, and composed of stone which has the appearance of fine white marble. Darkness will gradually spread over the building, when the large wax candles and numerous lamps, will appear as though burning, and casting their mellow light on the groups of pilgrims beneath, at their devotions, and display the grand procession of the three orders around the Sepulchre. During the Easter ceremonies, on the right the Greek and Romish dignitaries, surrounded by their chief ecclesiastics; on the left, the Armenians, who being the most wealthy, wear on this occasion their most costly robes. Over the entrance to the Holy Sepulchre are suspended two pictures, presents from the Greek and Roman Churches, one representing the ascension our Saviour, the other, His appearance to Mary in the Garden.

No. 4 – The Feast of Belshazzar
This picture, copied form one by Martin, on a much larger scale that ever before attempted, discloses to the admiration of the beholder, the immense Court of the Palace of Babylon, once the pride and wonder of the world – adorned with a countless number of colored marble Pillars, and an infinite variety of Sepulchres. In the distance stands the Tower of Babel; also the Temple of Belus, built by Queen Semiramia in honor of King Belus, who was afterwards worshipped as a God.- In the foreground at the foot of the table, already prepared for the Banquet, on which is displayed the Holy vessels which Nebuchadnezer brought out of the spoils of the Temple. The shades of evening will gradually close upon this splendid specimen of ancient grandeur, until sufficiently dark, for the numerous fires and incense burners to cast light enough to display the figures of Belshazzar and all his Court, on the Dais, or Platform, at the Banquet, with immense Multitude, amounting to over one thousand figures, engaged in the worship of the various Deities and graven images. The magical appearance of the handwriting on the wall, coupled with the consternation of the idolatrous King and household, at the interpretation by Daniel the Prophet, forms at this moment a picture which can hardly be imagined, much less described, it being actually necessary to witness it, in order t form a just conception of the grand and soulstirring effect it has, when thus presented to the eye of the wrapt and admiring beholder.

The doors will be open at 7 ½ o’clock, and the exhibition will commence at 8 precisely. Single Tickets 50 cents. Tickets to admit a lady and a Gentleman 75 cents; do to admit two ladies and one Gentleman $1 – to be obtained at the principal Hotels and Music stores in the city. Aug 10.”
The show was still touring under R. Winter’s management in 1846 when it was in Richmond, Virginia (Richmond Enquirer 10 March 1846, page 2).

To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 317 – The Cincinnati Venue for the Chemical Paintings in 1843


Part 317: The Cincinnati Venue for the Chemical Paintings in 1843

Here is a description of the venue where Duncanson and Coate’s chemical paintings premiered in 1843. A Cincinnati Enquirer article describes in great detail the transformation for each visual spectacle: the Milan Cathedral, Jerusalem and the Crucifixion, the Interior of the Holy Sepulchre and Belshazzar’s Feast in 1843. This was the collaborative effort between African-Americans artist Robert S. Duncanson and the photographer Coates to create a unique form of visual spectacle. There are four descriptions will be posted tomorrow after examining the venue where the production was first presented in Cincinnati.

While researching the Cincinnati venue, however, I was surprised when I realized that the first performance actually took place in the same room where the Cincinnati Masons met. The advertised Concert Hall above the Cincinnati Post Office is also considered one of the first Masonic meeting spaces in the city.

White corner building (on right) was the first Masonic Hall (also used as a concert hall) above the post office in Cincinnati on Third Street. The second Masonic building (tan facade on right) building is depicted past the bank (building with the columns). This would be the same location as the third Masonic building too. Image from http://www.mormoninterpreter.com/where-in-cincinnati-was-the-third-edition-of-the-book-of-mormon-printed/

The two-story brick building was erected on the corner of Third Street and Bank Alley (now the corner of Third Street and Walnut).One of the men responsible for the construction of the building was Postmaster Elam Langdon. The Post Office was situated on the first floor of the building and the Masons used the second floor hall for their lodge room. The road called Bank Alley was also known to local citizens as either Post Office Alley or Masonic Alley. Interestingly, that same second-floor space was also advertised as a Concert Hall for musical performances during 1843. Newspaper advertisements for concerts, such as that by Max Bohrer, noted the 1843 venue as “the Concert Hall, over the Post Office” (Cincinnati Enquirer, 13 June 1843, page 3).

This is the same concert hall above the post office where the chemical paints were displayed in 1843. The Cincinnati Enquirer, 13 June 1843, page 3

“Masonic Review” describes the history of early Masonry in Cincinnati and the cooperation of the various Masonic bodies to construct a Masonic Hall in the city. The first committee was composed of David Brown, William Burker and Postmaster Elam Langdon, “men of executive ability” (Masonic Review and the Masonic Journal, 1892, Vol. 76, page 15). “Subscriptions and dues were paid in bricks, lumber, labor &c., and in March, 1824, the first Masonic hall built in this city was completed at a cost of $2,437.72. The hall was a frame building, and was erected on the Town Lot, now the northeast corner of Third and Walnut…It was not until 1843 that an active interest was taken to build a second building, and in 1845 plans were submitted for a new building and approved.” The Hall was enlarged during 1834 as membership dramatically increased. This was the transitional step between the first and second buildings in Cincinnati. The second building was located just down the block on Third Street from the original corner building.

The third building was located on the same spot as the second building, just down the street from the original Masonic Hall. Image from: http://www.mormoninterpreter.com/where-in-cincinnati-was-the-third-edition-of-the-book-of-mormon-printed/

The following article was in the Cincinnati Enquirer on 14 Aug 1843 and describes the premiere of the Chemical Paintings (page 3):

“Daguerre’s Grand Chemical Secret Discovered! To be exhibited at Concert Hall, over the Post Office, every evening, until further notice.”

“Robert Winter, Jr. respectfully informs his friends and the citizens of Cincinnati generally, that stimulated by the assertion of Mons. Maffy, the proprietor of Daguerre’s celebrated chemical paintings, that it was impossible for any one in this country to imitate them, he has succeeded in producing the undermentioned pictures, which he confidently places before the public for them to decide relative to the merits of his productions, and whether he has not completely nullified Mons. Maffy’s assertion, by imitating or surpassing those painted by Daguerre himself, and which have so justly gained the admiration of the patrons of the Fine Arts wherever they have been exhibited.”

Here is the “Maffy” who Winter is referring to:

The first set “chemical paintings” credited to Daguerre and managed by Mons. Maffy.Article from Commercial Advertiser and Journal (Buffalo, NY) 30 June 1842, page 2.

“Each painting covers a surface of nearly two hundred square feet of canvas, and represents two distinct pictures, which form the peculiar style of execution, the varied nature and combination of the illuminating powers employed, produces changes the most astonishing, and at the same time the most natural, in the power of the artist, machinist or optician, to effect.

Appropriate music, selected and arranged expressly for the occasion, will accompany each change; and the proprietor confidently anticipates the exhibition will form one of the most attractive, moral and pleasing entertainments, ever offered to a Cincinnati audience.”

From the National Gazette (Philadelphia) 25 Jan. 1841, page 3. Note that the venue was in New York’s Masonic Hall.

To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 316 – A Duncanson and Coates’ – Chemical Paintings


Part 316: A Duncanson and Coates’ – Chemical Paintings

Robert S. Duncanson (1821-1872)

While researching the life and times of Robert S. Duncanson, I repeatedly stumbled across the mention of his collaboration with an African-American photographer named “Coates.” They created a form of visual spectacle called “chemical paintings.”

Contemporary authors repeatedly cite the same article from March 19, 1844, advertising “Chemical Paintings…four splendid views after the singular style of Daguerre.” I located other newspaper advertisements for the same show that predate this one, however, none credit either Duncanson or Coates. Chemical paintings originate in Cincinnati during 1843 which coincides with Duncanson’s participation in the project. Some scholars purport that Duncanson was the artistic mind behind the images while Coates took care of the technical side.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 11 Feb 1844, page 2.

Did “chemical paintings” refer to the paint or the process? In 1993, Joseph D. Ketner suggested that the compositions were created on light-sensitive surfaces and were allowed to develop under the auditorium lights with dramatic contrasts of lights and darks (“The Emergence of the African-American Artist: Robert S. Duncanson, 1871-1872”). They would have to be a reversible effect if they used the same canvases repeatedly. I discovered that they did use canvas, Ketner described, “With each of the images, the darkened auditorium was gradually illuminated, causing lighting effects in the pictures that thrilled the crowds.” So, front light on the composition caused the change? Ketner was much more fascinated with the collaborative aspect than the process, suggesting that was one of the earliest collaborations between a painter and a photographer in the United States.

I was intrigued with the actual process and theatrical venues for the presentation more than their collaborative effort. What Ketner, and all of the other authors failed to cite, was that the production actually opened in 1843 before touring under the proprietor’s name – Robert Winter Jr. “Chemical Paintings” opened during August of 1843 at the Concert Hall in Cincinnati and then went on tour for three years. The last advertisement that I found was when the show was in Richmond, Virginia.

The Cincinnati Enquirer, 4 Sept. 1843, page 3

The four scenes exhibited at the Concert Hall were listed as “the Milan Cathedral,” “City of Jerusalem and Crucifixion,” “Interior of the Holy Church of the Sepulchre,” and “Belshazzar’s Feast.” Newspaper advertisements promised, “Each painting possesses the peculiar properties of portraying two distinct Pictures on the same canvas” (The Cincinnati Enquirer, 4 Sept. 1843, page 3). I thought of the electric scenic theatres during the 1890s – FIFTY years later. Any scene lit by colored lights could alter the composition from day to night, especially if portions were backlit. Could it be that simple? I though of the colored panels on the back of a drop from 1867 to create a brilliant sunset.

Colored panels sewn to the back of a drop to create a brilliant sunset effect. The 1867 drop is one of many in storage at the Royal Swedish Workshop space.
Detail of colored panels sewn and glued to back of drop.
Front of the scene.
Front of he scene with tree
Side view of 1867 scenic pieces.

While on tour, three of the paintings were damaged during a fire and we learn a little more about their composition; portions of it were linen (Public Ledger 1 Dec. 1843, page 2). Obviously, the surfaces that were “light-sensitive” had to reverse for another performance the next day. Only one set of paintings toured. There was also no apparent competition, so they had the market on the secret.  These were also not one-time-use, or disposable paintings on photographic paper as suggested by Ketner. I highly doubted that with the amount of detail described for the “reveal” in each scene that anything could be painted with fresh paint, or applied to the surface before another show. Maybe the “chemical picture” referred to the new and brilliant chemical-colors used to paint the linen backing – dyes. So what about Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre’s process, other than it was introduced worldwide in 1839? Ten years earlier this French artist and chemist came into contact with Nicéphore Niépce when obtaining a camera obscura for his work on theatrical scene painting from the optican Chevalier. Niépce had already managed to make a record of an image from a camera obscura using a process he invented – heliography.

I thought of something that Gene Meier mentioned a month ago – many of the early Chicago and Milwaukee scene painters were also chemists. Daguerreotypes use a silver-plated copper plate that is first buffed and polished. Then the plate is sensitized to light with iodine and bromine in specialized, light-proof boxes. A light-proof holder exposures the plate to capture the image. Then the plate is developed (“brought out”) over hot mercury, fixed by immersion in a solution of sodium thiosulfate and then washed with distilled water. The final step was to tone or gild the plate with gold chloride. I was stumped and could not see how this could be anything other than the utilization of Daguerre’s “light-proof boxes” on the back of a dyed section of linen. The images created by Daguerre seemed to be permanent and not reversible.

But I was thinking of how this spoke to the public’s insatiable appetite for visual spectacle and curious about the compositions and touring productions venues. One of their shows opened at the City Hotel in Brooklyn on December 20, 1843. A later article (Brooklyn Daily Eagle 11 Feb, 1844, page 2) described the Chemical Paintings for the Milan Cathedral scene: “The first appearance of the picture – which represents a day scene – does not impress the beholder with anything like an adequate idea of the subject; but presently the gorgeous hues of an Italian sunset fall upon it, and the turrets, spires and statuary of the Cathedral, as well as neighboring café and exchange, are bathed in a ruddy glare of light. To this twilight succeeds, when the picture assumes a beautifully calm and soft aspect. Finally, the shades of night fall upon it, and the moon darts her beams upon the tall pinnacles – which appear to stand out in bold relief, while the sky gradually becomes enlightened. At this point of the exhibition, the spectator involuntarily breaks forth in applause. But its grandeur and artistical skill are not fully apparent until the illumination takes place. Then you see persons clustering about the café and exchange, or going to the midnight mass, while the solemn notes of the bell and organ seem to invest the multitude with life and motion. It is really a very splendid thing” (15 February 1844, page 2). Ads promised “A glance at the “Cathedral of Milan,” when illuminated for the midnight mass, is alone worth the price of admission” (Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 20 February 1844, page 2).

To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 315 – Robert S. Duncanson (1821-1872), African-American Landscape Artist

Part 315: Robert S. Duncanson (1821-1872), African-American Landscape Artist

There was something that I kept wondering while researching Solomon E. White; why did he keep returning to Cincinnati? What kept drawing him back to the city? Was it family, a supportive network of friends, a diverse community, or a vibrant artistic scene? I started to look at the demographics. First of all, Cincinnati was considered a “southern town on free soil.” It was a hub for many freed and escaped slaves. Between 1840 and 1850 the population expanded from 43,000 to 115,000, and the city hosted one of the largest African-American communities in the country. Cincinnati also had a strong arts community and was often referred to as “the Athens of the West.” Its African-American population encountered better opportunities to advance than in many other parts of antebellum America.

As I explored hundreds of online images, I became extremely enamored with the work of one landscape artist – Robert Seldon Duncanson (1821- 1872).

Robert S. Duncanson (1821-1872)

He was not only inspired by Thomas Cole and the Hudson River School, but also had a Cincinnati connection. Born to an African-American mother and a Scottish-Canadian father in Fayette (Seneca County) of New York, he moved with his mother to Mt. Healthy, Ohio, in 1841. They lived there with the Reuben Graham family, who were descendants of Virginia slaves. This particular community near Cincinnati had a substantial “free-black” population.

Robert S. Duncanson. “Pompeii,” 1855.
Robert S. Duncanson. “Vesuvius and Pompeii,” 1870

By 1842, Duncanson was exhibiting his art in Cincinnati. Typical artistic commissions for Duncanson included landscapes, portraiture and murals. The following year, he partnered with an African-American photographer to create a new form of visual spectacle called “chemical paintings.” They were large-scale compositions that depicted a metamorphosis on stage, transitioning many scenes from morning until evening with a Daguerreotype form of magic.

Murals by Robert S. Duncanson for the Belmont hall and reception room, now the Taft Museum.

In Cincinnati, Nicholas Longworth (abolitionist and political leader) also hired Duncanson to paint a series of murals in the Belmont hall and reception room from 1848 to 1851. There were eight murals that measured approximately 9 feet by 7 feet in size.

Detail of one of Robert S. Duncanson’s murals in the Taft Museum.
Detail of a Robert S. Duncanson mural commissioned by Nicholas Longworth for Belmont, now the Taft Museum.

The Longworth Mansion is now known as now the Taft Museum. His murals are still there.By 1849, Duncanson maitained an art studio in Detroit. Two years later, a Cincinnati patron funded a sketching trip for him to travel to New Hampshire and Vermont. During this period, Duncanson traveled widely throughout the region. The Anti-Slavery league funded a trip for his artistic study in Edinburgh, Scotland during 1853. On this trip he continued onto England, France, Germany and Italy.

The Smithsonian American Art Museum posted his words online from a letter to Junius R. Sloan on 22 Jan. 1854: “”English landscapes were better than any in Europe, and the English are great in water color while the French are better historical painters than the English. I am disgusted with our Artists in Europe. They are mean Copiests. My trip to Europe has to some extent enabled me to judge of my own talent. Of all the landscapes I saw in Europe (and I saw thousands) I do not feel discouraged” (Platt R. Spencer Collection, Newberry Library, Chicago, Ill.). During the 1850s, Duncanson went on sketching tours with Whittredge and William Sonntag. He would later travel with Sonntag to England, France and Italy. When he returned, he worked in J. P. Ball’s studio, retouching portraits, coloring prints, and exhibiting his paintings.

Robert S. Duncanson. “Minneopa Falls, Minnesota,” 1860s.
Robert S. Duncanson. “The Caves,” 1869.

In the 1860s, Duncanson ventured north from Minnesota to Vermont and into Canada to Montreal, before leaving for Scotland again. Prior to his departure, he saw Frederic Edwin Church’s “Heart of Andes” (1859) on its national tour at Pike’s Opera House in Cincinnati. It greatly inspired him and he began his painting “The Land of Lotus Eaters.”

Thomas Cole, “The Heart of the Andes,” 1859.
Robert S. Duncanson, “The Lotus Eaters.”

From 1864 to 1866, his name is not listed in either Detroit or Cincinnati directories. By 1867, he returned to the United States, making one last trip to Scotland from 1870-1872. Upon his return, he exhibited his Scottish paintings and successfully sold many for handsome prices.

Unfortunately that same year, Duncanson also suffered from a seizure while arranging an exhibition of his work in Detroit. After being hospitalized for three month at the Michigan State Retreat, he died. He was only 51 years old.
One can only imagine the mental and emotional stress it took to encounter the problems facing a biracial artist in pre- and post-Civil War America on a daily basis. People of color experienced a period of increased discrimination throughout the country as there was a backlash from many; those seeking to place blame on others for so many issues. This candle of hate has yet to be snuffed out.

As I continue to witness the rise of the white supremacy movement and a continued racial inequality almost 150 years later, I cannot help but feel sorrow. I also feel inadequate when I consider the lack of obstacles that I face on a daily basis compared to people of color. Would I have the strength to survive as an African American artist in the nineteenth century? I have never had to struggle any insurmountable obstacles and honestly don’t know.

Looking at Duncanson’s work, however, helps me understand why Solomon E. White continued to return to Cincinnati and work as both a fresco and scenic artist. It was a community that provided a place for Duncanson’s art. I am sure that the display of Duncanson’s artwork provided hope for other aspiring African-American artists during that time. These were the individuals who made progress possible. We simply can’t go back, or loose even an inch of ground. Those who paved the path for future generations deserve our continued action toward equality and nothing less.

To be continued…

Robert S. Duncanson. “Waterfall on Mont Morency,” 1864
Robert S. Duncanson. Untitled landscape, ca. 1870s.

There is a great timeline for Robert S. Duncanson posted at : http://grahamarader.blogspot.com/2012/09/arader-galleries-exhibits-significant.html

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 314 – Solomon E. White , Scenic Artist for “On the Suwanee River”

Part 314: Solomon E. White , Scenic Artist for “On the Suwanee River”

View of the Suwanee River.

By 1879, Solomon E. White was listed as living at 276 John Street in Cincinnati. He was thirty-eight years old and publicly recognized as a scenic artist for almost fifteen years. The following year, the White family returned to Grand Rapids, where they lived at 43 Curtiss Street. White would work as a scenic artist and fresco artist in the city for the next five years.

Little is known of White’s career after 1885. Unfortunately, I could not find his name in print again until a decade later. By 1895, White was again listed in the Cincinnati Business Directory section as a fresco decorator. However, he did not stop working as a scenic artist. That same year, White created the settings for “On the Suwanee River.”

The Suwanee River in Florida

The Notable Kentucky African Americans Database recorded that during a trip to Florida, White made several sketches of the region. He used his artwork as source material for the scene design and painting of “On the Suwanee River.” The touring production visited Newark, Ohio, in 1899. Julius Cahn’s Theatrical Guide also included this touring production in several issues.

Photograph by Will Dickey–Cypress trees on the bank of the Suwannee River near Live Oak, Florida. (www.willdickey.com)

The Dixon Evening Telegraph reported that this “popular play of the Sunny South” held “an indefinable charm” (Dixon, Illinois, 8 Dec. 1902, page 5). It brought “its clientele back to the theatre to see a re-enactment of this pretty story” year after year. The article continued, “Stair & Nicolai have given the play a thorough scenic environment for this, its sixth season, and the company is practically the same as it has been in the past. Stella Mayhew will again be seen as the old colored mammy, Aunt Lindy. Miss Mayhew’s portrayal of the role is a characterization of rare excellence. As an entirety ‘On the Suwanee River” is a classic in comparison with the average attraction playing the popular priced theaters.”

The Suwanee River in Florida
The Suwanee River in Florida

The managers for the production were Stair & Nicolai. This was George H. Nicolai and E. D. Stair. They also ran the Majestic Theatre in New York, with Stair as the Lessee and Manager and Nicolai as the business manager. The theatrical managing firms of Stair & Nicolai and Stair & Havlin were both located at 1493 Broadway in New York City. Nicolai was a silent partner in Stair and J. H. Havlin in their enterprise. They partnered in many ventures as Nicolai was Stair’s brother-in-law.

Stair & Havlin managed a large chain of theaters primarily situated in smaller cities and towns from the East Coast to Kansas City, offering melodrama and farce. Many of the attractions were proprietary, but the company also featured Broadway hits that toured the major theatrical centers. Stair & Nicolai also managed the productions of “The Night Before Christmas,” “Don Caesar de Bazan,” and “Romeo and Juliet” during 1901.

White would have first encountered Stair in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Stair was the lessee for the Grand Opera House. Stair and C. J. Whitney were lessees for the Power’s Theatre in Grand Rapids too. These were just two of many theatres where Stair was listed as a lessee, often with another partner. Other venues were in Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, and Louisville. Stair also managed the Kery & Mason touring company

After White’s painting of the scenery for “On the Suwanee River,” little is reported about White until his passing in 1912. He died a widower in Cincinnati. Solomon E. White was 71 years old.

To be continued…


For more information about Solomon E. White, here is the link to Notable Kentucky African Americans Database – (http://nkaa.uky.edu/nkaa/items/show/2507)

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 313 – Solomon E. White (1841-1912), Nineteenth-century African-American Scenic Artist

Part 313: Solomon E. White (1841-1912), Nineteenth-century African-American Scenic Artist

Last month, a gentleman commented on one of my posts about Thomas G. Moses (see past installment # 170). He inquired about whether Moses could have met the African–American scenic artist Solomon E. White during 1875. They were both painting in Grand Rapids during the same period; Moses was just starting out in his career, but White was well established by then.

View of Grand Rapids Michigan in 1874. The Powers Opera House is on the right, second building back. Solomon E. White worked in Grand Rapids from 1874-1876 and 1880-1885.
View of Power Opera House in 1883. Solomon E. White painted in Grand Rapids from 1874-1876 and 1880-1885.

White painted in Grand Rapids from 1874 to 1876 and again from 1880 to 1885. Moses did some decorating work in Grand Rapids for an unnamed Chicago-based scenic artist who was contracted at the Powers Opera House. Obviously, Moses was not working for White, as the artist he worked for was referred to as “Chicago-based” and White was from Cincinnati. It is highly likely, however, that Moses knew of White. Like many theatre professionals at the time, the world of scenic art was small. Unless you only created only one backdrop during the course of your career, people were familiar with each other’s work and place of employment. Nineteenth-century scenic artists, like Moses, kept tabs on their competition; you never knew whom you might be working with next. Information and connections were key and artists needed to have their own networks.

White was born in Kentucky to Jackson White, Sr. (b. 1815) and Mahaly. Little is known of his mother beyond a name. White’s father worked as a feather renovator. This was a person who cleaned feathers for reuse in pillows and bedding. The year that White was born, his family moved to Lexington, Kentucky. One of six children to the couple, all were born in Kentucky, but raised in Cincinnati and recorded as “free.” There is no confirmation on whether White or his parents were ever slaves.

In 1867, the Fort Wayne Daily Gazette credits Solomon E. White as painting the new scenery for Colerick’s Hall reporting, “Messrs. Hampton & Holt seem to understand what a good theatre is, and appear determined to make one complete in every respect. They are having the new scenery painted by Solomon E. White, for many years scenic artist at the National and Wood’s theatres, Cincinnati, whom they have engaged for the season” (23 September 1867, page 4). He was well known by 1867 at the age of twenty-six and traveling all over the country. This is a really big deal as after the Civil War there was often a backlash against people of color in both the north and the south.

By July 9, 1873, at the age of thirty-two, White married Mary Jane Martin (b. 1855). A year later, White traveled to Grand Rapids to paint the Powers Opera House and continued his scenic art career in the city, also working as a fresco artist. In 1876, he painted four large eight foot by twelve-foot panels that flanked the outer arches of the Centennial Arch at the foot of Monroe in Campau Place.

View of 1876 Centennial Arch in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The murals for the arch were created by Solomon E. White.
Photograph of 1876 Centennial Arch posted online at “Powers Behind Grand Rapids” – https://powersbehindgr.wordpress.com/powers-theatre/architects-artisans/.

There was a description of the Centennial Arch paintings posted at “Powers Behind Grand Rapids” – https://powersbehindgr.wordpress.com/powers-theatre/architects-artisans/.

Here is the description: “On the left (east) side of this (north) face of the arch, in the panel over the side arch, is “The Declaration of American Independence the Baptismal Vow of a Republic born of Eternal Right, and for whom Heroes were Sponsors.” Under this is an oil painting, 8 by 12 feet in size, of Washington crossing the Delaware; a beautiful and artistic scene. Beneath is “Their Glorious Record is the Imperishable Heritage of the Forever.” In the west panel of this face of the arch, at the top, is “On Every Sea and Every Land Known to Men the Sacred Honor of the Sires has been upheld by the Sons.” Below this is a painting, 8 by 12 feet in size, representing Columbia standing in the foreground, on a high ledge, pointing over a vast and shadowy expanse, allegorically presenting the greatness and achievements of our country. In the background of the scene is the main building of the Exposition. Nearer is the National Capitol and other public structures. Still nearer is the farmer reaping grain in a broad field with a reaper. Still nearer is a river with a steamboat, a suspension railroad bridge, a second railway track and a train of cars, and a telegraph line. All can understand what they represent. Beneath this beautiful oil painting is: “Of all Nations, and Peoples, and Tongues, she Gathers the Freemen who Bless her Centennial Birthday.”

1876 Centennial Arch with Paintings by Solomon E. Powers. This image was posted online at “Powers Behind Grand Rapids” – https://powersbehindgr.wordpress.com/powers-theatre/architects-artisans/.
Solomon E. White’s 8′-0″ x 12′-0″ murals on the 1876 Centennial Arch in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Detail of an image posted online at “Powers Behind Grand Rapids” – https://powersbehindgr.wordpress.com/powers-theatre/architects-artisans/.

… In the left or western panel is an oil painting representing Washington at Valley Forge, uniform in size with those above mentioned. Beneath this is “Their Heroic Devotion Inflamed the World and made Liberty the Watchword of Mankind.” In the other panel is an allegorical painting in watercolors, explained by the motto underneath “America supported by Justice and Strength receives Tribute, Affection and Confidence from her Children and Drives Discord and Fraud from her Domain.”

For more information on White, see the Notable Kentucky African Americans Database – (http://nkaa.uky.edu/nkaa/items/show/2507) His story will resume tomorrow.

To be continued…