Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Portrait of Michael Vaden

Portrait of Michael Vaden

            To be completely accurate, the image above is a photo of a photographic reproduction of a portrait of Michael Vaden, my great-great-grandfather. The first time I knew such a picture existed was in 2007, when a cousin I met on the internet sent me a black-and-white copy, tentatively identified as a portrait of Josiah Thomas Showalter. A few months later, I found a document in my father's files that correctly identified the sitter, and provided a good deal more information about the origins of the painting. Later still, I met a cousin who owned one of several reproductions made a few decades ago, and she let me photograph her copy. Ever since I have been trying to identify the artist.
            Michael Vaden (c. 1790-1881) was the father of Sarah Catherine Vaden (1842-1922), wife of Josiah Thomas Showalter (1839-1915). Michael was a colorful character, who outlived two wives. He had six children with the first, Prudence Worsham, and four with the second, Catherine Rowlett, of whom Sarah Catherine was the youngest. In his youth, he was wild and undisciplined, and addicted to hunting, especially deer. As he matured, he took up more serious callings. He practiced medicine with apparent success, although he had no university degree in the field, and he preached in the Methodist church near his home at Winterpock, Chesterfield County, Virginia.
            His portrait was commissioned by his friend and employer, Judge James Henry Cox (1810-1877), who lived on a large estate named Clover Hill in the same area. The Cox family owned and operated coal mines in Chesterfield County, employing several hundred miners, and Michael Vaden provided medical services to them. 

Portrait of James Henry Cox from an online family tree 

Much of my information about Michael Vaden and his portrait comes from a memoir by Judge Cox’s daughter, Kate Virginia (Cox) Logan (1840-1915), My Confederate Girlhood, posthumously published in 1932. Here is the key passage:

This tree had figured in a picture when the portrait painter had come to paint the family. At the same time a unique portrait was made. The sitter was a protégé, who was much beloved by all. He had been a wild young man, addicted to hunting and sports in general, being especially skilled in the deer chase. Deer abounded then in that neighborhood. As this sportive youth ripened into manhood, he put aside these things and took up more serious thoughts. He even became a Methodist minister, combining with this sacred calling a smattering of medicine, for which he had a decided talent. He was a most efficient nurse, and had a hand of silk, which could  discern each beat of the pulse. He did not fancy strenuous work, so preaching and amateur doctoring suited him exactly. Father took great delight in directing these  tendencies of Uncle Mike. He loved his folk, and to have Uncle Mike pose in all his "characters" to the portrait painter pleased him much, even if it did cost a pretty penny. He designed the sketch in this wise: the handsome old man, who looked like an apostle, was placed in a big chair and the house was glimpsed in the distance. Under the locust tree was placed a candle stand, a small round table supported on a pedestal of wood, with three legs branching from it. On the table were placed a large Bible, some pill boxes and other medical properties. Against the tree, a fine deer gun rested, while in the distance could be seen a large stag. Lying at the old man's feet was his hunting hound, Dan. This picture was charming and for its originality alone it was worth possessing. I wanted it for myself, but father gave it to Uncle Mike's daughter, and this chef-d'oeuvre was lost to the family.

Clover Hill

            That daughter was, of course, Sarah Catherine Vaden, who married Josiah Thomas Showalter. This reference came to me via a cousin from an earlier generation, who met a grandson of James Henry Cox, Judge Edwin Piper Cox (1870-1938) and corresponded with him about the portrait in 1936. The second Judge Cox copied out the passage from the book, and added this commentary:

Thus wrote my Aunt, Mrs. Logan, about sixty years after the portrait was painted from her recollection. I can not give you the exact time when this was painted but from other portraits of the family, I have seen, it was in the early fifties. There are no portraits of my father, Captain H. W. Cox, and Uncle Edwin and at this time they were off at school, my father, H. W. Cox, at the Virginia Military Institute and my Uncle Edwin at the University of Virginia. The portraits of my Uncle Willie and Uncle John were painted about this date. The father referred to was Judge James H. Cox. The place is Clover Hill House at Winterpock, Chesterfield County. Clover Hill passed by my grandfather's will in 1877 to Uncle John H. Cox who died in 1893. His widow subsequently married P. H. Fowlkes and she with her children resided there, until her death in 1917 and in 1924 the place was sold to Mr. Chalkley who lives there now. Mr. Michael Vaden had charge of the hospital at the Clover Hill coal mines which were opened and developed by my grandfather. There were several hundred employees, so Mr. Vaden had no easy work. He was looked upon with great respect and admiration by the people generally, and was a true Virginia gentleman of whom anyone might be glad to claim descent. His last home was a place called "Tin Top" on the old Sapony road in Chesterfield.

Dust jacket of My Confederate Girlhood, by Kate Virginia (Cox) Logan

            Judge Cox’s guess about the date was surely correct, if his account of the portrait session is accurate, because his father, Henry Winston Cox, was in the class of 1855 at V.M.I. Nothing in the documents I have clearly indicates when the photographic copies were made. Copies of letters from another cousin, dated 1940, show that the Showalter family was then actively pursuing contacts with the Vaden family, many of whom still lived in Chesterfield  County. Probably the war intervened and disrupted the quest. Another pair of letters from 1989 mention Judge Cox’s letter, which was transcribed at that time, and various family photos were copied and sent to the Showalter cousins. Around 1989 seems the likeliest time for the portrait to have been photographed as well.
            Equipped with the foregoing information, I wrote to the National Portrait Gallery, and quickly received a suggestion for a possible artist. He turned out not to be the right one, but in looking for facts to confirm or disprove the attribution, I came across another painting, which seemed to me very similar.

Portrait of Peter Wilson Watkins, from the Tennessee Portrait Project website 

I was struck by the parallels in composition and pose, the use of a large old tree on the right, a pink and blue sky in the upper background, and a small symbolic scene in the lower left background. It is hard to see in the miniaturized image, but there is a plowman behind a horse in the Watkins portrait.
            The painter of the Watkins portrait was James Westhall Ford (c. 1806-c. 1868). A biographical note in a 1945 catalogue titled Portraiture in the Virginia Historical Society, prepared by Alexander Wilbourne Weddell describes Ford as “a baffling and elusive fellow” (p. 149). An example of his elusiveness may be the dates of his birth and death. A recent book, A Capital Collection: Virginia’s Artistic Inheritance, by Barbara C. Batson and Tacy L. Kamerer (Richmond: The Library of Virginia, 2005) says he was born in Pennsylvania in 1806 and died in Philadelphia on 27 December 1868. A website of The Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia gives 1866 as the year of his death. An earlier work, R. Lewis Wright’s Artists in Virginia Before 1900 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1983) says “b. Philadelphia, 1805 / d. Philadelphia, 1866” (p. 56). The askart website gives his dates  as 1794 to 1866.
            I am in no position to resolve those uncertainties. Ford seems to have first become known when Thomas Jefferson invited him to Monticello to paint his sister Martha. The letter of invitation was dated 1 September 1823, and the painting was done by the end of the month. Jefferson’s recommendation led to further commissions. If Ford was born in 1806, he was no more than 17 years old at the time, an age that seems young to me, but not impossible.
            In any case, Ford is said to have “worked chiefly in Philadelphia”, but many of his best-known paintings were done in Virginia. According to Wright, he came to Richmond in 1829 at the time of the constitutional convention, and did a number of portraits of delegates. He made other trips to Richmond in the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s, and on one of them painted John Marshall in 1835. Besides the portrait of Martha Jefferson, probably his best-known works were three portraits of chief Black Hawk and other native Americans, painted in 1833. According to Weddell, he was listed in Richmond directories in 1850, 1852, and 1855. Weddell also quotes Ford’s advertisement in the Richmond Whig, 18 March and 23 May 1851: “painting members of the Convention; and has portraits of members of the old Convention” (p. 150) – that is, the two Virginia Constitutional Conventions of 1850-51 and 1829-30.
            James Westhall Ford certainly was in the right place at the right time to have painted the portrait of Michael Vaden, but it remained to find a strong link. I found it in the Papers of James Westhall Ford, Accession #6073, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, Va. From Clover Hill on 17 October 1854, James Henry Cox wrote a letter of recommendation for Ford, addressed to members of the agricultural club: “Mr. Ford proposes to sketch the heads of the club, for his own use. I trust each member will find it convenient to give him a sitting. You will find Mr. F. a faithful artist, and an agreable companion. Any kindness you may be able to show him will be acceptable to him and grateful to your humble servant.”
            Brief as it is, this letter establishes that James Henry Cox knew Ford, and was in a position to recommend him as a portrait painter. It also proves that Ford was in Chesterfield County, or close by, in October 1854, a date that conforms to Edwin Piper Cox’s recollection. I feel very confident, then, that the portrait of Michael Vaden was painted by James Westhall Ford in 1854, probably in September or October.


  1. English - I was recently pursuing family history on the Cox family and came across this interesting article on Michael Vaden. I am distantly connected to the Cox family - my primary pursuit being the ancestors and descendants of John Markham of Chesterfield county Virginia. I have come across Michael Vaden before. His second wife, Catherine Rowlett, was first married to Edward James Robertson, son of Jonas Robertson and Catherine Markham. It was a pleasure to read your post!!! Thank you for sharing!
    Pam Garrett
    Family Stories Database;
    Family Stories Blog;

    1. Pam, thank you very much for your comment. It is always very gratifying to know that other family history researchers have read my posts and liked them. Best regards, English