PORTRAIT OF A MAN (Possibly Member of the Van Vechten Family)
Sheldon Peck
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  • PORTRAIT OF A MAN (Possibly Member of the Van Vechten Family)
  • Attributed to Sheldon Peck (1797–1868)
  • Possibly Vermont or New York
  • c. 1820–1828
  • Oil on wood panel, in original grain-painted wood frame
  • 12 5/8 x 10 3/8 x 1 in. (framed)
  • American Folk Art Museum purchase with funds provided by David and Barbara Krashes, 1999.23.2
  • The introduction of the daguerreotype about 1840 had dramatic consequences for the art of portrait painting. The majority of Americans, who had relied on local and itinerant artisans, now had the option of a quicker and cheaper method that produced an uncannily accurate likeness. Photography ultimately sounded the death knell for the portraiture that we characterize today as “folk,” but in the early years of the daguerreotype, the two methods competed side by side. The impact of photography on the aesthetics of portraiture is clearly seen in the work of Sheldon Peck, who began painting about 1820 in his native Vermont before moving to western New York, in 1828, and then to Illinois, in 1836. Peck’s earliest efforts, bust- and waist-length paintings on wood panels, quickly establish his characteristic Spartan approach to portraiture. Sober faces with hard, angular planes, unsoftened by any decorative treatment of dress and furniture, emerge from dark backgrounds in the Vermont portraits. Peck’s hallmark use of a rabbit’s-paw motif is already established in this first period.

    Peck married Harriet Corey (1806–?) in 1824, and by 1828, the couple had moved to Jordan, Onondaga County, where they joined other friends and relatives from Vermont who were relocating to the boom towns along the path of the recently completed Erie Canal. Peck farmed and continued to paint, adding curtains and other details to his generally brighter portraits. In 1836, he suddenly sold his property, and the family left New York for Chicago, where they stayed only briefly, because of the Panic of 1837, before moving to Babcock’s Grove (now Lombard), twenty miles west of Chicago. Here Peck reestablished himself as a farmer and painter and also became one of the area’s most influential citizens. In 1843, he hired Almeda Jane Powers Dodge to be the community’s first schoolmistress, and she operated her “school” from the summer kitchen of the Peck farmhouse. His home was also a station on the Underground Railroad during the Civil War. During these years, Peck may have supported his family primarily through farming, but in 1854 he again set up a studio in Chicago, advertising as an ornamental painter. The 1860 census was the last to include his name, and his occupation is listed as artist. Peck died in 1868, of pneumonia. The house he built in 1839 descended in his family and still stands, the oldest home in Lombard.

    This unsigned pendant portrait, one of a pair in the museum’s collection, is characteristic of Peck’s early style, reminiscent of works he created in the 1820s. The palette is dark, and the background is plain. The modeled face shows strength and dignity, but the eyes are not as intense, nor the expressions as austere, as those in Peck’s later works.

    The subject, if indeed from the Van Vechten family, may be Jacob Ten Broeck Van Vechten (1801–1841). Jacob’s father, Abraham Van Vechten, was a prominent lawyer. The Van Vechten family was from Greene County, New York, but may have traveled to Cornwall or the northwestern part of New York State nearer to Onondaga County, where Peck lived from 1828 until 1836.
  • Photo by John Parnell