James Robertson Portraits
A few years ago the discovery of a portrait, purported to be of Nashville’s founder, James Robertson, was brought to the attention of the public. Since that time it has appeared in at least one newspaper article, it has been published in an historical journal and identified as Robertson, and it has been discussed as possibly being Robertson on the Internet. There seem to be circumstantial indications that it might be Robertson, but could it really be a likeness of the eminent pioneer figure?
There is one portrait known to be of Robertson, and it has appeared in numerous histories. Local historian Octavia Zollicoffer Bond reported having been told the story of how the longrecognized likeness of Robertson came to be painted (Harllee, Colonel William Curry. Kinfolks, Volume 3, p. 2537-8). Robertson’s great-granddaughter, Nellie Robertson Cannon, had related that “when the locally noted artist, Cooper, was painting the portrait of the widow, Mrs. Charlotte (Reeves) Robertson, it was the wish of the family and of the public that a portrait of her distinguished husband might be painted. There was no likeness of him in existence then.”
Since the recently-emerged likeness seemed to be of a much younger individual, Nellie Cannon’s information casts a good bit of doubt on there being an earlier likeness. If what appears to be a general lack of resemblance between the countenances in the two portraits isn’t convincing enough, an additional source adds even more doubt.
A letter written in 1839 to historian Lyman Draper (Draper Papers, 8CC,25) by James Robertson’s son, Dr. Felix Robertson, should put the matter to rest. Dr. Robertson wrote that, “No portrait or likeness of my father was taken in his lifetime.” He also named the artist who had painted the portrait of his father. “Some four years ago I prevailed on the late Mr. (John C.) Grimes, a portrait painter, to attempt making a likeness of him from my directions, and…what he could obtain from sketching the features of our family, where a feature was found to resemble my father.He succeeded beyond my expectations, and produced a portrait which was instantly recognized by my father’s old acquaintances… It is not a perfect likeness, but better than many I have seen taken from…life by artists of reputation. My father had been dead upwards of twenty years when this portrait was painted.”
James Robertson’s widow, Charlotte,in her late eighties when the portrait was painted, was even more complimentary than her son. Nellie Cannon related the response of her great-grandmother. “When she was shown the resultant completed portrait, her usual calm gave way to tears of delight at seeing what she pronounced to be a perfect likeness of her deceased husband.”
So who is the man in other painting? “It is his grandson, James Robertson Napier,” says James A. Hoobler, curator of the State Museum where both paintings reside. “This mistake goes back to the donors in the 1970s who told the Tennessee State Museum that they were donating portraits of a young James and Charlotte Robertson. When I came here, I looked at them, and the clothing and style of the portrait told me otherwise. I thought the chair and clothing in the new Charlotte Robertson portrait looked like about 1820. The only known portrait of Charlotte shows her a little over a decade later, toothless,wizened, and white haired. Quite a change from the lovely mid-life lady in the new portrait. So, I looked at an inventory of Ralph E. W. Earl portraits, because I thought the paintings resembled his work. There in the inventory were Charlotte Robertson Napier and her son, James Robertson Napier, dating from when I thought they should.”
—by Paul Clements, republished here by permission of The Nashville Retrospect