Recently the NCMA acquired a true puzzle picture. Painted by an unknown artist around 1845, it presents three generations of a North Carolina family, gathered together on the porch of their plantation.
This picture of three generations was painted in Missouri though seemingly set in North Carolina. The name of the artist is currently unknown. Ashe-Moses Family Group, circa 1845, oil on canvas, 28 7/8 x 36 1/8 in., Purchased with funds from the William R. Roberson Jr. and Frances M. Roberson Endowed Fund for North Carolina Art
Group portraits of this quality are all but unknown in antebellum North Carolina, where patrons of the arts were few and far between. (Most common are bust portraits rendered by mostly itinerant painters.) So it’s no surprise to learn that this picture was almost certainly painted in St. Louis, Missouri, the dynamic “Gateway to the West,” and a city of new wealth and a developing artist community.
The seated patriarch is Col. Samuel Ashe, a Revolutionary War hero and son of a North Carolina governor. (Asheville, Asheboro, and Ashe County were named for the family.) Col. Ashe is the very model of an old-fashioned southern gentleman—from the shine of his patent leather slippers to the wisp of pipe smoke trailing from his mouth. Beside him stand two young women in house coats, identified by descendants of the family as the Colonel’s eldest daughters, Elizabeth and Mary. Next to Mary is her lanky, Lincolnesque husband, Dr. Simon Gratz Moses, a Philadelphia-born physician who numbered among his patients Napoleon’s exiled brother. He was also scion of two of the most prominent American Jewish families, and his parents and grandparents were painted by Gilbert Stuart and Thomas Sully. His aunt was Rebecca Gratz, remembered today as a beloved philanthropist and educator. In the painting Dr. Moses appears to be taking leave of his family. He reaches for his toddler son, John, supported by sister Bessie. To the right elder son Gratz Moses bounds off the porch, a bookbag slung over his shoulder. Is he eager to accompany his father on some business? Or he is on his way to school? (A fourth child, Mary, was born in 1846. Her absence in this gathering suggests the painting dates from about 1845.) On a step at lower left sits an African American boy, his back to the family, his attention focused solely on the horse. (Family descendants remember the boy as Santa Claus and the horse as Thunder.)
So, what’s the problem here? Well, for starters, Col. Ashe should not be there. He died in 1835—more than two years before his daughter’s marriage to Dr. Moses. He never met his son-in-law, much less his grandchildren. It perhaps explains why the old gent appears to ignore the Moses family, turning his gaze instead toward his other daughter. But if she is Elizabeth Ashe, she is also a specter, having died the year of her sister’s marriage in 1838. Of course, the family may have mistaken one sister for another. There were four Ashe daughters. But if it is Elizabeth who returns her father’s loving gaze and gently touches his chest, she would not be out of place in an already improbable family reunion. One wonders if reunion and the assertion of family ties across time and place are the underlying themes of this painting? But if so, what are we to make of Dr. Moses and his son taking leave of their family? Where are they off to? And why?
A minor but niggling question arose during the cleaning the picture. Soon after the painting was acquired by the Museum in 2015, Conservator of Paintings Noelle Ocon undertook to remove the yellowed varnish along with areas of old restoration. The effect on the picture was akin to letting sunlight into a dim room.
BEFORE CONSERVATION AFTER CONSERVATION
Detail from Ashe-Moses Family Group. During conservation treatment it was discovered that the black stovepipe hat worn by Dr. Moses (left) was a later addition. He originally sported a dapper straw topper. Note also the pattern change in his cravat. The curator and conservator opted for the original look.
Noelle discovered that the black stovepipe hat worn by Dr. Moses was a later addition. The doctor originally sported a dapper straw topper. (Young Gratz Moses also had a lighter colored hat.) One can only speculate why the change of fashion. Perhaps the family found the straw hat too casual for a distinguished physician. (Note also the pattern change in the doctor’s cravat.) Or perhaps the dark hat made the doctor appear older: he was six years younger than his wife. In any case the curator and conservator opted for the original straw hat.
As noted above, this picture was painted in Missouri though seemingly set in North Carolina. Frustrated by the lack of opportunities for a physician on the East Coast, Dr. Moses in 1841 moved his young family west to St. Louis, where he quickly established himself as a leader of the city’s medical community. For Mary Ashe Moses, finding herself settled in a still rude and rowdy frontier town, the painting would have provided comfort by uniting her past and present families.
Finally, there is the problem of who painted this picture. The name of the artist is presently unknown. During the 1840s many painters of varying talent passed through St. Louis, traveling the rivers between New Orleans and Cincinnati. Whoever our artist is, he had some degree of academic training and courage enough to undertake an ambitious composition. With infrared light one can clearly see the well-tutored drawing underlying the figures and note a few changes, notably at the lower left, where a second horse may once have nuzzled the black boy.
Of course, there are undeniably awkward parts to the picture: the younger children do not come off happily. But there are also passages of quite expert painting: Col. Ashe’s slippers, for instance. So, right now we are looking for a professional painter of moderate skill, probably from the East Coast, who worked in St. Louis, at least long enough to make a few paintings before moving on to greener pastures.
The recently acquired painting Ashe-Moses Family Group will go on view this summer in West Building.