Tom Eblen

Rare 1840s portraits of black couple tell story of race, family, religion in Kentucky

Rare oil portraits of an African-American couple from the late 1840s, thought to have been part of the Spears family of Bourbon County, are being sold at auction Feb. 20.
Rare oil portraits of an African-American couple from the late 1840s, thought to have been part of the Spears family of Bourbon County, are being sold at auction Feb. 20. Photo provided

Rare 1840s portraits of a black couple are up for auction, and the story behind them offers a glimpse into complicated relationships of family, race and religion in Central Kentucky before the Civil War.

Carlisle auctioneer Mark Mattox (Mattoxrealestate.com) is selling the portraits at 10 a.m. Feb. 20 on behalf of Seventh Street Christian Church in Paris.

The historically black Disciples of Christ congregation was given the portraits more than 20 years ago but decided to sell them because they have no relationship to the church, said Wallis Brooks, a church leader.

In preparation for sale, the church had the portraits cleaned, restored and appraised by two experts, including art historian Estill Curtis Pennington of Paris, an author and leading authority on 19th century Kentucky portraits.

“He said we have something huge here,” Brooks said.

Pennington dates these portraits to 1845-1850. Although he couldn’t identify the subjects, he was able to associate them with the Spears family of Bourbon County and discover much about their history.

In the late 1970s, Lockhart Spears of Stoneleigh Farm got a call from a man in Dayton, Ohio, saying he had a pair of portraits of Spears family members and wanted to sell them. Spears agreed to buy the portraits and drove to Dayton to get them.

When Spears saw the paintings, he was surprised the subjects were black. Still, he acknowledged the family connection, bought them and gave them to a black employee, Dorothy Thactor, who later donated them to her church.

Pennington thinks the couple was part of the household of Noah Spears (1793-1868). He was the fifth child and second son of Jacob Spears, a Revolutionary War veteran who settled in Bourbon County before 1790 and started a distillery in the Ruddles Mill area.

Noah Spears made several flatboat journeys to New Orleans with his father and brother, transporting bourbon whiskey and mules for trade. He became a prosperous farmer and in 1854 built a Greek Revival mansion in Paris that would later become the home of Claiborne Farm owner Arthur B. Hancock Sr.

“However, from an early age Noah seems to have developed political, religious and social ideas contrary to those held by many in his family and community,” Pennington wrote in a report about the portraits for the church.

The Spears were then Baptists, but Noah became influenced by the anti-slavery views of Alexander Campbell and Barton Warren Stone, who would found the Disciples of Christ. Noah Spears freed his slaves and bought them land near Xenia in Ohio, which prohibited slavery. Many freed slaves at the time adopted the last names of their former owners.

“Though rare, portraits of African-Americans were commissioned by those who held them in affectionate regard,” Pennington wrote.

He thinks Noah Spears commissioned the couple’s portraits by Reson B. Crofft (1809-1877), an itinerant artist Pennington also thinks painted an unsigned portrait of Spears around the same time.

“Crofft is one of the most appealing, and elusive, itinerants working in the Southern ante-bellum period,” Pennington wrote, noting that other paintings by Crofft are in the collections of Transylvania University in Lexington and the Filson Historical Society in Louisville.

Crofft wasn’t the most talented portrait painter working in Kentucky in the mid-1800s. His style was rather plain, focusing on costume detail and forthright color, Pennington noted.

This unknown man and woman sit in front of plain backgrounds, staring emotionless at the viewer. Yet, they are well-dressed and depicted with dignity at a time when most African-Americans in Kentucky were enslaved servants or laborers.

What is remarkable about these portraits is not their artistic merit, or lack of it; it is that they were painted at all.

Tom Eblen: 859-231-1415, @tomeblen

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