Matthew Harris Jouett was recognized during his lifetime as the first notable American artist to emerge from the American frontier.
Natthew Harris Jouett was recognized during his lifetime as the first notable American artist to emerge from the American frontier. Born on a farm near Harrodsburg, Kentucky, he became a favorite pupil of Gilbert Stuart, and was described as “the best portraitist west of the mountains” by John Neagle as early as 1818. Like many early nineteenth-century American artists, Jouett spent his short career traveling in search of commissions—ranging from his native Kentucky to Tennessee, Ohio, and other western territories, to southern cities such as Natchez, Mississippi, and New Orleans. He also sought work in established art centers such as New York City; Boston, Massachusetts; and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Had he lived longer than age 39, Jouett might have rivaled Thomas Sully as the most eminent portraitist of his generation.
Nineteenth-century art historian William Dunlap dates Jouett’s first visit to New Orleans to the winter of 1821–22, though Isaac M. Cline states that the artist spent winters in the city beginning in 1817. Dunlap’s narrative focuses on the friendly rivalry between Jouett and John Wesley Jarvis. As retold in a newspaper story, the “two might have been seen almost any evening in the early 20s at the Cafe del Aguilas, at the corner of Ann and Chartres Streets, playing dominoes together, or engaged, likely enough, in hot argument with regard to the merit of Stuart.” For his part, Stuart “had no sort of use for Jarvis and did not consider his early work indicative of future excellence.”
City directories indicate that Jouett’s studio was located at 19 Magazine Street in 1823, and at 49 Canal Street in 1824. An advertisement in the Louisiana Gazette places Jouett in the city in May 1825—an unusual time of year for an artist to visit, since the city’s social season ended at the onset of summer. Jouett wrote Sully on November 12, 1822, that he had “vistd [sic] Louisina last winter and spring but done little” but next year was ““hopeing [sic] for a more fruitful harvest.” On July 12, 1823, Lexington frame maker James D. McInintosh reported that Jouett “Speaks of going down the river again,” adding that he was now “Equal to any living artist in the world.” But that winter also seemed to be a disappointment. As he was leaving New Orleans via steamboat in April 1823, Jouett confessed to his friend Samuel Levy,
For years I have not known what it was to enjoy this life to the brim’s full. When at home I have been perpetually admonished by my embarrassments, of the necessity of leaving objects I will not say how dear to me. I go from home and located for months. Then come increasing restless longing for the little home where are garnered up the priceless treasures of my heart. I do not verily believe that there lives under the sun a being whose thoughts burn more upon any subject than mine do upon my wife and children—the combined result, I am sure, of their worth and my extreme weakness. [Those little divinities of my soul] buoy me up under difficulties. They bow me down under prosperity. Sometimes they are for me—sometimes against me. They unite the opposite qualities of patron saint and temptation’s devil.
Captain John Jouett, the artist’s father, was a well-known figure, celebrated for warning the Virginia legislature of approaching British troops in 1781. After the War for Independence, John Jouett moved with his wife Sallie (née Robards) to Kentucky. John established a farm, likely having been rewarded for military service with a land grant, and served as a clerk to the earliest legislative body west of the Allegany Mountains. The couple eventually had twelve children. Matthew, or Matt as family and friends called him, was the third, born April 22, 1788. Showing early talent as an artist and scholar, Matthew entered Transylvania University in Lexington in 1803 or 1804 and graduated with a degree in law in 1807. Jouett may have sought instruction from Mary and George Beck, or one among the handful of other artists in Lexington. However, his earliest extant paintings, dating to about 1811, follow the conventional planar modeling characteristic of self-taught artists.
Jouett read law with Judge George M. Bibb in Frankfurt, Kentucky, from 1807 until 1812, when he established his own law practice in Lexington. He retained a fascination for painting, and achieved some notoriety in Philadelphia when he exhibited a miniature of two ladies from Fredericksburg, Virginia. He married Margaret Henderson in 1812, enlisting the same year in the Third Mounted Regiment of Kentucky Volunteers, and later joined the U.S. Twenty-Eighth Infantry. Jouett served in the Northwest and participated in the Battle of Tippecanoe. According to fellow artist James Reid Lambdin, General William Henry Harrison called Jouett “a man of great ability, a fine and well cultivated mind, great energy and a fine judge of character and withal a good soldier.” Jouett entertained his comrades by drawing portraits on drumheads, long lost to history, but several competent miniatures and easel paintings dating from the period indicate his developing ability as a painter.
Jouett resigned his commission in 1815. Back in Lexington, he focused on portrait painting to the neglect of his law practice, prompting his father to exclaim, “I sent Matthew to college to make a gentleman of him, and he has turned out to be nothing but a sign painter!” Even though he was making $100 per week—much more than the average attorney—Jouett sought further instruction. He traveled to Philadelphia in 1816, and then on to Boston, where Stuart recognized his talent and welcomed the young artist. Jouett quickly absorbed Stuart’s sophisticated method of portraiture, keeping a diary of master’s advice.
In the commencement of all portraits, the first idea is an indistinct mass of the light and shadow; or the character of the person as seen in the heel of the evening, in the gray of the morning, or at a distance too great to discriminate features with exactness. Too much light destroys, as too little hides, the colors, and the true and perfect image of a man is to be seen only in a misty or hazy evening.
Like Stuart’s compositions, Jouett’s portraits appear to have been executed quickly and with great confidence. Passages defined with thick impasto, laid down wet on wet, contrast with areas sketched with thin skeins of paint, a delicate balance of assurance and accident. It is tempting so suspect that Stuart had concerns about the competitive threat posed by his young prodigy. Nevertheless, Stuart reportedly told General James Taylor that Jouett was “the only artist [I] ever thought worthy of giving instruction to.”
Jouett returned to Kentucky, where he practiced law for a time but soon focused on portrait painting. Closely following Stuart, Jouett developed a fluid style that conveyed immediacy and the inner life of sitters. Remarkably, Jouett could execute six bust-length portraits in a week, each based on two half-hour sittings. In 1817, he mounted an exhibition of his and “other distinguished artists of the United States” for the benefit of the Lexington hospital. In 1818, Jouett exhibited two paintings by fellow Kentucky artist Joseph Henry Bush. He also began working as an itinerant portraitist, traveling throughout the western territories.
Jouett was as productive as he as peripatetic, establishing in Kentucky, Mississippi, and Louisiana a taste for the fluid, romantic, and essentially English style of painting advocated by northern artists such as Stuart and Thomas Sully. Jouett remained tethered to a rather limited range of formats and formulaic poses, or “plodding along in the old way,” as painter Chester Harding wrote to Stuart in 1825 after a visit to Lexington. Still, Jouett’s paintings possess a vitality and immediacy of character not seen again in New Orleans until Jean-Joseph Vaudechamp arrived in 1832. His talent and industry notwithstanding, Jouett considered himself a failure. He wrote to Sully on November 22, 1822, of hoping to “bury in forgetfulness the remembrance of the day, I spent in toilsome anxiety in a distant country for support of my growing very growing family.”
Jouett died at the age of 38 on August 10, 1827, at his farm near Lexington. He is buried at Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville, Kentucky. He was at the height of his career, and left behind more than 300 portraits completed in the remarkable span of less than a dozen years.
Jouett’s portraits are contained in the collections of the Louisiana State Museum, The Historic New Orleans Collection, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum in New York City, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, and the Huntington Library in Pasadena, California.