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Kentucky by Heart: Mercer County native Matthew Jouett was prolific artist renowned for portraiture

By Steve Flairty
KyForward Columnist

In the realm of visual arts, Kentucky has a celebrated history of noted painters. Names like John James Audubon, Ray Harm, Paul Sawyier, and Frank Duveneck are ones that may quickly come to mind. But there is one individual, Matthew Jouett, who may surpass all mentioned if you agree with the opinion of folks at the Jack Jouett House Historic Site, in Woodford County.

Matthew Jouett self portrait

John “Jack” Jouett, it should be noted, was the father of Matthew, and Jack lived quite an exemplary life that is chronicled at the site named after him, as well as in the annals of America’s heritage. Jack, called “The Paul Revere of the South,” rode 40 miles through the Virginia backwoods in 1781 to warn Governor Thomas Jefferson and his Virginia legislature that British troops were advancing on them. He later moved with his family (which grew to twelve children) to what is present-day rural Woodford County. He played, according to the Jouett web site, “an important role in the Kentucky statehood convention, served in the legislature, and became a prosperous planter and breeder of fine horses and cattle.”

Second son Matthew was born in 1788 in Mercer County and spent his first five years of life there until the Jouetts moved to nearby Woodford County. He later graduated from Transylvania College and studied law under Judge Bibb, in Frankfort, which pleased his father. Matthew loved painting more, however, and began crafting small portraits locally that were well-received by members of the community. Alas, some of his portraits showed up a distance away, in Philadelphia and Virginia, and artists in those areas were aghast that they were painted by someone with little training from the frontier.

Henry Clay portrait by Matthew Jouett

However, Matthew proceeded to practice law after moving to Lexington in 1812 and marrying Margaret Allen. But in that year the War of 1812 began, and he joined the 28th Kentucky Infantry. He achieved the rank of captain but resigned from his post in 1815. It’s reported that as a paymaster for the military unit, Jouett was held responsible for $6000 that was lost during a campaign, and he eventually repaid the deficit with funds he obtained through his paintings. After his service, he returned to Lexington and opened a studio in order to paint miniatures and portraits. But the next year, he left for Boston to work under the tutelage of renowned portraitist Gilbert Stuart and gained Stuart’s admiration and support.

With that, Matthew’s career as an artist zoomed, and the Jack Jouett site noted that Matthew was recognized at the time as “the best portrait painter west of the Alleghany Mountains.” It also expanded that to say he was the “greatest painter Kentucky has produced.” He maintained three studios in Lexington, and at the studio on North Upper Street, he painted the famous general from France, Marquis de Lafayette, who was touring America. Jouett also maintained painting studios in Louisville and New Orleans. It’s been reported that Jouett received $50 per portrait at that time, certainly a princely sum in the early 1800s.

Thomas Jefferson by Matthew Jouett

During Jouett’s illustrious art career, he painted portraits of such figures as the iconic Henry Clay, Isaac Shelby, Thomas Jefferson, and Associate Supreme Court Justice Thomas Todd; the portrait of Lafayette now is on display in all its glory in Frankfort’s Old State Capitol. He also did a much-noted self-portrait.

Interestingly, Jouett’s grandson, Richard Jouett Menefee, hoped to write a definitive book about the great artist, who died in 1827. Menefee sent out the word through newspapers asking for information on his grandfather. His reach was throughout Kentucky and much of the United States at the time. He gathered a good bit through his research. Unfortunately, Menefee died in 1893 and the book was never completed.

Historian and former EKU professor Dr. Thomas Appleton, praised Jouett’s influence. “Antebellum Kentucky was blessed to have a trained artist of Jouett’s caliber. What a tremendous legacy he left before his tragic death at the early age of 39. He left us more than 300 portraits of some of the most important figures of his day, many of whom sat for him. Our image of Clay and Lafayette, for example, have been largely shaped by Jouett.”


Matthew Harris Jouett: Portraitist of the Ante-Bellum South (materials from Jouett art exhibit at Transylvania University, 1980 written by William Barrow Floyd





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Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of six books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and five in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #4,” was released in 2015. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

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