Early Life

I must say it requires a great deal of philosophy for me to leave the easel for days to hoe corn, grub stumps, and the like. And yet it does not seem as tho’ I had spent the day unprofitably, or in vain if I have taken heed to fill the thousand spare moments in looking at nature–the book from which I study is spread out before me in all places, and is always open.

Junius to Robert from West Springfield farm, June 9, 1851

Growing Up as an Artist

Junius was a farm boy who loved to draw and to study the beauty of nature. In his childhood and youth there was little if any formal art schooling available, let alone works of art for him to see and study. Instead he was compelled to learn by doing. When he reached his majority, he traveled as an itinerant portraitist and looked for artist mentors.

VE-Junius-Sloan-1Northwest Territory Map, 1850
University of Chicago Press


In 1817, Mayhew Luce, his wife, and seven of their children, including fourteen-year old Drusilla, came from Barre, Massachusetts by covered wagon to settle in Kingsville. In 1820, Drusilla began the manufacture of straw bonnets, a house industry art and skill she had learned in Barre. The redheaded, red-bearded lacksmith-toolmaker-farmer, Seymour Sloan came to Kingsville shortly after, probably in 1821 when he had reached his majority.

On November 30, 1824, Seymour and Drusilla married in Kingsville. Junius was the second of their eight children, who were born, as was common, at about two year intervals. Almost all showed aptitudes for music making, writing verse, and/or painting. The children attributed their talents to the Luces, especially to the gentle, encouraging Drusilla. Seymour, on the other hand, stern and hardheaded, wanted his children to be practical; he wanted Junius to paint signs, not landscapes

Moses Billings
Portrait of Junius R. Sloan, ca. 1849
Oil on canvas, 16 x 24 in.
Brauer Museum of Art


On March 8, 1848, Junius wrote: “Spencer, on Friday the 10th I shall be a man, i.e. I shall be 21. God grant that I may so conduct myself that my friends need never blush to acknowledge me as such.” Junius wrote from Ashtabula at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Strong whose portraits and those of two children he was painting. The portraits took two weeks to complete and earned him $20.

Junius, a novice itinerant portraitist now in his majority, left home for almost two years, “hunting heads” to paint. Junius called it “my first rambling for any considerable distance from the paternal roof.” In his Autobiographical Fragments Junius tells of his encounters and travels by foot, stage, steamboat and canal boat until, near Middlebury Vermont, he saw the mountains for the first time. “As we drew near the mountains, the clouds lifted as a curtain and a broad panoramic view of these wondrous creations [was] revealed to me… Fatigue, and hunger and cold and wet were measurably forgotten…”

VE-Junius-Sloan-1Junius R. Sloan On Geneva Farm, 1861
Sketchbook #4, Leaf 27
Pencil on Paper
Brauer Museum of Art, 1981.14.19


Junius’ trip east as an itinerant portraitist had been a financial struggle. Now in his mid-twenties, Junius searched for ways to improve. As a self-trained artist, learning by doing was still central. In the summer Junius made the West Springfield farm his home base. There he painted and drew, as well as helped in the fields and in a household that included six younger siblings.

For Junius, nature remained his principal teacher and inspiration, an idea that was reinforced by reading the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson:

“Do you recollect that Emerson says, the difference between landscape and landscape is small, but there is a difference in the beholders. The stars at night stoop down over the brownest, homiliest community with all the spiritual magnificence which they shed as on the Campagna or on the …deserts of Egypt. A thousand things are beautiful, and I pause to look at them with delight, which formerly were passed with indifference.”

– Junius to Robert, West Springfield Farm, June 9, 1851

VE-Junius-Sloan-1-platt_spence_farmerPlatt R. Spenser, ca. 1850
Oil on canvas on masonite,
16-5/16 x 12-1/2 in.
Brauer Museum of Art


Though inspired by nature and led by self-direction and practice, Junius also needed, in his novice years especially, wise encouragement and as Junius wrote: “somewone who had traveled the road before me …to caution from error, and guide by hints in the right path.”

The creative, charismatic penman Platt R. Spencer (1800-1864) and his son Robert (Junius’ classmate at the Kingsville Academy) and daughter Sara (later Junius’ wife) who lived nearby, loved the beauties of nature. They befriended Junius and gave him their lifelong support.

Robert Duncanson (1821-72) lived in the city of Cincinnati, then known as the “Athens of the West” for its art patronage and artists. Junius became friends with Duncanson, a leading midwest literary landscape painter who was a free black. Duncanson was then enthusiastically planning a monumental five by seven foot landscape, The Garden of Eden, based on John Milton’s book Paradise Lost.

However, it was not Duncanson but rather Erie, Pennsylvania’s resident portraitist Moses Billings (1809-1884) that modeled for Junius the crisp, well-crafted style of portraiture that Junius would adopt. The characteristic Billings style can be seen in the 1851 portrait, presumably of Junius.