Matthew Harris Jouett – Kentucky Portrait Painter

Last weekend my son, Linton, and I had a day together in Louisville.  He lives in Indianapolis, not the ends of the earth, but not an easy day trip.  When our weekend was planned I told Ritchey and Kate he was mine on Saturday, but I would share him with the rest of the family on Sunday!  We had a huge family dinner and Julian had quite a day with Uncle Linton.

Most of our day together was spent at bookstores, record shops, eating and talking.  Beforehand I searched for those rare and used bookstores and the first we visited was A Book By Its Cover on Dartmouth.  When we turned in it was a residential area.  We searched again and came up with the same place.  Linton called, and, yes, we were in front of the business!  The gentleman told us most of his business is online, but he welcomes those who want to come and peruse.  And he had one room of Kentucky history and county histories – I was in heaven!

One book I found was Matthew Harris Jouett – Kentucky Portrait Painter (1787-1827) by E. A. Jonas.  The book is in excellent condition, being No. 264 of 500 copies of the first edition.  About forty of his portraits are reproduced in the book.  Being a Mercer County resident and having a little knowledgeable about the history of our county, I recognized the last name as the same as the wife of Thomas Allin, our first county clerk.  Thomas Allin married Mary Jouett on February 16, 1789, at the home of her brother, Captain John Jouett, Jr.  Their parents were John Jouett, Sr., and Mourning Harris.  Captain John Jouett, Jr., better known as ‘Jack’, was the father of Matthew Harris Jouett.  Matthew was born in 1787, two years before his aunt’s marriage.

After a local education, Matthew’s father sent him to Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, to be educated as a lawyer.  He studied and became a lawyer, but his free time was spent painting.  In 1812 he married Miss Margaret Allen of Fayette County.

He could not continue his law profession, gave up his business and started painting portraits as his livelihood.  His father was not happy, and that is an understatement.  The War of 1812 changed everyone’s lives, and Matthew Jouett volunteered his services and served valiantly.  He enlisted in Captain Robert Crockett’s Company, Third Mounted Regiment, Kentucky Volunteers, Colonel Allen commanding.  July 13, 1814, he was appointed paymaster, with the rank of captain of the 28th United States Infantry by President Madison.  At the battle of the River Raisin the payrolls and papers, in his care as paymaster, fell into enemy hands and were never recovered.  He found himself in debt to the War Department for $6,000.  That doesn’t sound like a huge sum today, but it would be about a million dollars.  This was not due to negligence or lack of prudence, just a fortune of war.  He was determined to pay the money back – and he did so through painting portraits.  His father was furious and called him a ‘sign-painter’, never realizing how great his talent truly was.

Matthew Jouett went to Boston in 1817 and studied for a year with Gilbert Stuart – who painted the famous George Washington portrait.  Back in Kentucky Matthew painted assiduously.  Those who sat for him sound like a Who’s Who of history – Henry Clay, Judge John Rowan, Andrew Jackson, Hon. George M. Bibb, Mr. Justice Thomas Todd, Captain Robeson DeHart, Colonel Edmund Taylor, Sr., General LaFayette, Hon. John Brown, Hon. Robert S. Todd, George Rogers Clark and many, many others.  It is said that in the ten years of his career he produced over 400 portraits – and there could be more.  In 1964, at an auction in Lexington, a gentleman bought a portrait of a child for $22 – and afterwards found out it was a Matthew Jouett painting, worth $1600-$2000!

Matthew Jouett died after a short illness, August 10, 1827, in his fortieth year and at the top of his professional success.  It is said he accomplished as much in ten years as many others were able to do only in a lifetime.  His fame as a great painter truly began at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.  His paintings were given the best place in the gallery by the Hanging Committee because of their recognized merit.  In 1928 fifty to sixty of Matthew Jouett’s portraits were exhibited at the J B Speed Museum in Louisville.  Some of his work is in the Hall of Governors at the Kentucky History Center, and I believe one hangs in a New York museum.

Matthew and his wife are buried in Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville.  I think there’s another road trip to plan – to the cemetery, J B Speed Museum in Louisville, and the old state house in Frankfort where the life-size portrait of General LaFayette hangs!  I will keep you updated!

2 thoughts on “Matthew Harris Jouett – Kentucky Portrait Painter”

  1. You should come in July 2018 to Revolutionary Kids Day at the Jack Jouett House. As a member of the Sons of the American Revolution (SAR), we always setup a display of 18th century items and all the flags that have flown over the US since 1775.

    Mike Sullivan Lafayette Chapter KYSSAR

    >

  2. Fully engaged with this story of a life well-lived from beginning to end. Thank you for bringing our history alive in such a way that it encourages us to live thoughtful, principled lives today–no matter the cost.

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