He would have wished it otherwise, but Matthew Jouett is less known for his portraits than for the notes on painting that he made during his brief study, in 1816, with Gilbert Stuart in Boston. His encounter with Stuart was the central event of his education as an artist, yet he remained, in some respects, a provincial painter whose way of seeing and recording reality differed fundamentally from that of the urbane Stuart.
“Provincial” need not be a pejorative word when describing Jouett’s work. Certainly, he did not have Stuart’s native gifts as a painter, but he did have an instinct for strong design and coherent shapes. In Henry Clay, the coat collar and lapel seem to grip the shirt, the forthright structure of which serves as a pedestal for the large, broad-browed head. It is in this head that painter’s strengths and weaknesses are equally apparent. He sets the mouth into a rigid smile at the corners and the ear is overworked and inorganic. The exaggeratedly angular eyebrows, however, project the strength of the head and Clay’s intellect. Jouett remains a limner at heart—a matter of temperament—and his linearity is insistent, although it is broadly conceived rather than minutely descriptive. His brush stroke is often long, and fluid to a degree, but under cautious control. Spontaneity and improvisation, so central to Stuart’s style, are foreign to Jouett.
Physically, Henry Clay (1777–1852) was a difficult subject. Rawboned and awkward, he seemed the stereotype of a frontiersman. Born in Virginia, he moved to Lexington, Kentucky, where he lived from 1797 for the rest of his life—when he was not in Washington as senator or congressman. In a sense, he and Jouett were a perfect match of sitter and painter, for Jouett was a Kentucky native who remained loyal to his state, venturing abroad only for study or to expand his practice.
The riveting, unwavering gaze of Clay’s eyes dominate this portrait as perhaps nowhere else among the myriad likenesses painted during his long life. Indeed, it is striking how many artists painted Clay with his gaze averted, while Jouett meets him face-to-face. It would have pleased Stuart, whose dictum Jouett recorded: “In laying in your picture be bold and decisive as to the character.” Jouett convincingly shows us the open countenance of the man who forthrightly urged war with Great Britain in 1812 saying, “If you wish to avoid foreign collision, you had better abandon the ocean.” He was later described as “untrained in diplomacy but an expert poker player.”1 “Notes from conversations on painting with Gilbert Stuart in 1816,” in Morgan, 83; Morison, 398. For Clay’s life, see DAB, s.v. “Henry Clay.”
All of Jouett’s portraits of Clay derive from a single, undocumented sitting; it probably took place in Kentucky about 1818, after Clay, as Speaker of the House, had consolidated his power and influence in Congress. The life portrait is assumed to be the work now at Ashland, the Clay homestead in Lexington. Naturally, it concentrates on the head. The background is neutral and the cravat is summarily, though strongly, set down. The Department of State’s variant, which is virtually identical to the better known one at Transylvania University in Lexington, is clearly copied from the same head. The cravat, however, is much elaborated and the handling somewhat more refined, as Jouett emulates Stuart’s “method of flinging in Marbled pillars” to further dignify the sitter.2 Morgan, 90.
The Transylvania portrait was given to the university where Jouett went to college and where Clay once taught law and served as trustee, by Dr. William Newton Mercer of Natchez and New Orleans. Dr. Mercer, a good friend of the artist, had a New Orleans home at 824 Canal Street (now the Boston Club). From 1817 to 1827, Jouett spent the winters mostly in New Orleans, where, in 1824, he lived at 49 Canal Street. From the framemaker’s label, transcribed above, we can assume that the Collection’s portrait was painted in New Orleans, as Dr. Mercer’s version probably was.3Floyd, 15, no. 33. Jonas, 53, has observed, “The spelling of proper names has always been a field into which Kentuckians have ventured with a fine impartiality.” “Jewett” for “Jouett” was common among the artist’s contemporaries.
Excerpted from Clement E. Conger, et al. Treasures of State: Fine and Decorative Arts in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the U.S. Department of State. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1991.