Thursday, August 20, 2009

Limner on the Lam

Have you ever felt like you’ve known someone for decades but perhaps don’t know them at all?

To me, Samuel Jordan was some little-documented, mild-mannered itinerant portrait painter working in New Hampshire in the 1830s. Our two signed and dated portraits by him have hung in our storage area (they’re not great artworks) at least since I arrived here in 1983. My 1987 entry on him in our catalogue Folk Art’s Many Faces refers to the scarce biographical data and the few known paintings in the Fenimore Art Museum and other collections.

Boy do I have a new opinion of this guy now.

This month’s Antiques and Fine Art includes an article on Jordan by Deborah Child that is just stunning in its revelations. It turns out that Jordan, who was born in Boston in 1804 and fought in the War of 1812 on board a privateer, once told a prison keeper that he “was never given to Drink & that this is almost the only vice to which he was not addicted.”

Jordan was sent to Massachusetts State Prison in the mid 1820s for passing counterfeit money. While incarcerated he continued plying this trade, and was caught altering bills during a prison search in 1825. Three months after his release, he stole a horse and, angry at the prison keeper, wrote a letter under the pseudonym “Richard III” threatening the keeper and his family. He was arrested again, and served five years of an eight year sentence.

While in prison in 1829, Jordan began to sketch and received encouragement to become an artist. This is not surprising, since the prison officials wanted to give him something better to do than steal from other inmates, traffic in contraband, and try to escape. Jordan was eventually pardoned on the condition that he leave the United States for four years.

He got as far as New Hampshire, and that’s where our portraits come in. They were painted in Plaistow, and may depict the local postmaster and his wife (above) and the postmaster’s parents (below).

Jordan’s respectable career as an artist didn’t last long, however. Charged with burglary in 1834, he was tried under an assumed name and given 20 years, but that sentence was changed to life when he arrived at the prison and officials recognized him as a repeat offender. Two years later, in September 1836, he escaped from prison with six others who planned to make their way to Texas. He was never heard from again.

I’m pretty sure that Samuel Jordan is not someone I would have wanted to paint likenesses of me and my family, for reasons of both aesthetics and self-preservation. It is an intriguing thought, however, that somewhere out there we might find a previously unknown group of portraits of frontier settlers in the southwest. Or maybe just a wad of altered bills moldering away in a hot Texas attic.


  1. Paul, another great post, along with the last about "Maremaid"'s painter. These details on the lives of the artists add a layer of fascination to the works of art that make them even more compelling.

    Thanks for the great stuff.

  2. And all true stories! Stranger than fiction.


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