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Portrait of the Reverend Elijah Slack

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Portrait of the Reverend Elijah Slack

Artist: John James Audubon (French, 1785-1851)

Date: 1820
Medium: Graphite on paper
Dimensions:
Overall: 7 × 6 1/16in. (17.8 × 15.4cm)
Signed:
Inscribed: Recto, lower center: 'Drawn for the Western Museum'; lower right: '[J]u[l]y' (?)
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 78.11
Text Entries

Audubon began making portrait drawings in the summer of 1819, shortly after his bankruptcy in western Kentucky.(1) He recalled of this period of his life, “As we were straitened to the very utmost, I undertook to draw portraits at the low price of five dollars per head . . . and succeeded so well that ere many days had elapsed I had an abundance of work.”(2) Some of his first portraits were made in Shippingport, near Louisville, in the profile manner that James Sharples, Charles B. F. de Saint-Mémin, and other itinerant artists used to create faithful likenesses quickly.

Audubon then moved to Cincinnati where he made portraits, taught drawing, and worked at the newly opened Western Museum.(3) Before leaving for New Orleans in the fall of 1820, he drew portraits of Rev. Slack and his wife. Slack had moved to Cincinnati several years earlier and in 1820, at the age of thirty-six, became president of Cincinnati College. He was also a manager of the Western Museum, which occupied rooms at the college.(4)

A pair of portraits of Rev. and Mrs. Slack at Princeton University was included in the 1965 exhibition of Audubon’s drawings and watercolors. A second set surfaced early in 1977 and was acquired by Munson-Williams—Proctor Institute shortly thereafter.(5) The date in the lower right corner of the MWPI portrait of Rev. Slack is obliterated. But there is some reason to believe Audubon made this work in ]uly, for this was the month he signed and dated the pendant portrait of Mrs. Slack.(6) Although these works were drawn on sheets of paper of similar size, there is considerable difference in the relative sizes of the two figures; Rev. Slack is a full inch and a half higher than his wife. This is not the case with the portrait pair at Princeton.

Although there are significant differences in Mrs. Slack’s pose and dress in the drawings of her at Princeton and MWPI, the two drawings of Rev. Slack are very similar in appearance, and both were drawn in a tight, linear style. In a pencil inscription on the scrapbook page to which the MWPI drawing was mounted at one time, one of Slack’s children referred to the singular coat he is shown wearing. It reads, “My Dear Father Taken by Audubon (the great ornithologist) with his President[’]s silk gown on, delivering a lecture.”(7)

PDS

1. For Audubon’s portrait career see Edward H. Dwight, Audubon Watercolors and Drawings (Utica, N.Y.: Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute, and New York: The Pierpont Morgan Library, 1965), 22-27; and Reynolds, Audubon and His Sons, 17-27.

2. Maria R. Audubon, Audubon and His Journals (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1897; reprint, New York: Dover Publications, 1960), 1: 47.

3. Edward H. Dwight, “The Metamorphosis of John James Audubon,” Art Quarterly 26 (Autumn 1963): 466-73, 477.

4. For biographical information about Rev Slack see Francis H. Herrick, Audubon the Naturalist (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1917), 1: 304-05; Dwight, “Metamorphosis of John James Audubon," 472-73; Dwight, Audubon Watercolors and Drawings, 24, cat. no. 30. Also see page 2 of an unpublished genealogical record of the Slack family compiled in 1964 by R. L. Jenkins, curatorial files, Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute.

5. Duplicates of other portraits by Audubon are known. See Edward H. Dwight, “Unpublished Audubon Originals,” Antiques 87, April 1965, 455.

6. Reynolds, Audubon and His Sons, 21, fig. 19, and 68, cat. no. 23.

7. The inscribed fragment of the scrapbook page is in the curatorial files, Munson-Williams—Proctor Institute.

 

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