Life as a Portraitist

"I have just opened here, and the prospects seem tolerably favorable in as much as there is wealth, taste, and a lack of pictures."
Junius to R.R. Spencer from Princeton, May 18, 1856

After taking two years off to help his father establish a farm on the Illinois prairie, Junius became resident portraitist in the Bureau County seat, Princeton, Illinois. By 1856 Junius' portrait production had arrived at the level of finish and workmanship modeled for him by Moses Billings. His drawing was accurate. Head forms were well-defined, with shading and coloring used to create convincing three-dimensional mass. He could offer good commercial portraits, and he got customers.

Portrait of Joel Holburd

Junius R. Sloan
Portrait of Joel Holburd, 1857?
29 3/4 x 24 3/4
Oil on canvas
Brauer Museum of Art, 53.1.65

Resident Portraitist

In May, 1856, Junius, at twenty-nine, went to Princeton, Illinois, thirty miles from Kewanee on the two-year old Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad to offer his services as Princeton's first resident portraitist.

Princeton, the seat of Bureau County with a population of 2,500, had been settled in the early 1830's, primarily by a group from the Hampshire Colony, Massachusetts. Among them were Cyrus and John Bryant and later Arthur and Austin, brothers of the famous nature poet William Cullen Bryant. The Bryants were strong abolitionists and helped bring the beardless Abraham Lincoln to speak in Princeton at an anti-slavery rally, July 4, 1856. Junius made a sketch, dated May 14, of Cyrus Bryant's house, said to have been a hiding place for escaping slaves. Princeton proved to be a lively place of young professionals.

To win customers, Junius became friends with twenty-seven year old furniture dealer James T. Stevens, who sold pictures and mirror frames with his furniture. Stevens apparently agreed to display portraits by Junius, to let customers know of Junius' services. In an illustrated letter to his family in Kewanee, Junius lightheartedly noted how that selling arrangement worked [see "Fishing for Business" letter].

 

Portrait of Sara Sloan

Junius R.Sloan,
Portrait of Sara Sloan
Oil of salted paper print
Brauer Museum of Art

Uses of Photography

Portrait painting had been very popular in the early 19th-century, but by the mid-1800Õs, photographs were starting to take precedence and the demand for painted portraits began to diminish. This meant that portrait painters such as Junius Sloan has to find new subject matter. In Sloan's case, he took up landscape painting, but continued with portraits on the side.

As a portraitist, Junius was able to use photography to his advantage. In some cases (such as the case of Emma Spencer, his sister-in-law who died at the age of 10) he took an existing black-and-white photograph and drew lines on it as a guide. He then paint a more detailed portrait in color. Junius did several posthumous portraits, possibly because the subject's loved ones did not have a formal portrait made before their death. These could serve the purpose of humanizing the memory of a loved one. Although photography took over the role of portrait painting, it could also serve as a tool to help painters.

In the portrait of his wife Sara, shown here, he actually painted over a photographic salted-paper print. Junius probably colored the portrait photograph of Sara to show potential customers what he could do. He charged five to ten dollars for these 9 x 7 inch oil-colored portrait photographs. By comparison he got $25 for a 30 x 25 inch oil portrait on canvas.

Becky Wake, Museum Studies Class 1999
and Richard H.W. Brauer

Sketchbook3e

Junius R. Sloan
Emma Sleeping from Sketchbook 3, ca. 1860
Ink on paper

Genre Drawings

In his sketchbook of 1855-56, Junius not only drew detailed face studies in preparation for painted portraits, but also informal sketches of family members as seen in casual moments of their daily lives: father Seymour catching flies and brother Henry reading. To some extent these sketches are also likenesses, but likenesses in action. Junius' purpose, apparently, was to improve his general drawing skills and to explore new expression. No known paintings are based on these genre drawings.

After his 1858 visit to New York City where he met Jerome Thompson, the popular painter of landscapes with genre figures, Junius produced more genre drawings. His production culminated in ninety-four exceptional figure studies in pen, pencil and brush in a small sketchbook dated ca. 1860-81 (Sketchbook 3).

Perhaps the finest genre drawings in this sketchbook are those of Junius' five-year-old sister-in-law, Emma Spencer, and that of the seated, bearded man reading a newspaper, probably Junius' twenty-five year old brother-in-law, Platt R. Spencer, Jr. Very likely Junius drew these in the spring or summer of 1861 when he and Sara helped Platt and Persis, now in very poor health, move from Oberlin back to their homestead in Geneva, Ohio.

The Knitting Lesson

Junius R. Sloan
The Knitting Lesson, 1866
Oil on canvas, 18 x 15 inches
Percy H. Sloan Bequest
Brauer Museum of Art, 1953.1.126

Genre Paintings

In November and December 1860 and January 1861, Junius and Sara stayed with the family of her cousin Caleb Spencer in the town of Catskill on the Hudson River twelve miles from Palenville. While he was there, Junius seems to have painted two imaginary genre scenes. These studio compositions of children in the landscape seem based on his direct observation of figures and foliage. Though uncharacteristically colorful, both have the high degree of finish found in Junius' commercial style of portraiture.

Creating scenes based on conventionally popular themes apparently did not continue to interest Junius because there is no record that he painted more like this. Instead, the few other genre paintings he produced in his lifetime seem painted out of personal experience.

In 1866 Junius spent the summer and fall painting at his parent's farm home near Kewanee, Illinois. This would be their last summer at the farm before retiring to town in 1867. Junius' two surviving prairie genre paintings, The Knitting Lesson and Cool Morning on the Prairie are two of his most noteworthy. The Knitting Lesson was probably based on precise preliminary pencil drawing and Junius' commercial portraiture finish. Cool Morning on the Prairie, on the other hand, seems based on his new, broadly painted sketches.

The few later genre paintings seem also to be painted for personal expression rather than for commercial sale.