PERIOD OIL PORTRAIT OF BRIGADIER GENERAL JAMES SHIELDS

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Quantity Available: 1

Item Code: 259-201

Shields (1806 (1810?) - 1879) was born in Ireland and immigrated to the US in 1826. He was well-known figure in prewar politics and the military. The only man to have served as senator from three different states (Illinois, Minnesota, and Missouri,) his political differences with Abraham Lincoln led to a narrowly avoided duel in 1842 that ended in a friendship. Commissioned a brigadier-general of volunteers in 1846, Shields saw action at Vera Cruz, Cerro Gordo, Contreras, Cherubusco and Chapultepec. He was twice wounded and was brevetted major-general before his discharge in 1848. In 1861 he returned to military service, was again commissioned brigadier general of volunteers, and rose to divisional command. At Kernstown in March 1862 his troops defeated Stonewall Jackson, though Shields, having been wounded, shared the victory with second-in-command Col. Nathan Kimball, and Jackson’s activity still kept troops from reinforcing McClellan on the Peninsula. A commission as major-general for Shields was considered and rejected, which probably played a part in his resignation in 1863, after which he returned to his political career. His Irish connections, in addition to his friendship with Lincoln, may have played a part in his prominence. The Federal high command was anxious to recruit Irish soldiers with field experience. One member of Shields’ staff was recent arrival Captain Myles Keogh.

The painting seems unlikely to be an early Mexican War portrait in undress uniform, and an antebellum portrait would probably show him at his brevet rank of major general. Most likely the painting dates 1861-1863 and we are looking at him in his Civil War uniform, with perhaps some artistic license taken in more youthful appearance.

This painting was once in the collections of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Their accession number appears several times on the back of the frame as do several labels and catalog cards indicating the portrait was a gift to the Academy in 1933 from the widow of John Frederick Lewis and was attributed to artist George Catlin, best known for his vivid portraits of American Indians. The Catlin signature appeared on the reverse of the canvas. It has been relined, but the conservator noted the inscription at lower left rear. The portrait has since been reattributed, however, to the prolific artist “Unknown,” and was deaccessioned from the collection. John Frederick Lewis (1860-1932) was a lawyer, collector and patron of the arts in Philadelphia, who served on the board of the PA Academy of Fine Arts. Among other interests, he had a fondness for portraits of George Washington and donated a number of them to various schools and libraries. A portrait of another historical figure, of lesser importance perhaps, but bearing the signature of a well-known American artist, might have been considered just the thing for him in the opinion of an enterprising art dealer.

The portrait, roughly 29 by 36 inches on the canvas, has been professionally mounted in a gilt frame measuring 37 by 45 inches overall and 3 inches deep. As mentioned before, it was professionally relined to support the canvas at some point. The tones are very good and the facial expression lively. There is some spotting at left, not affecting the figure. Two slightly darker rectangles at his upper chest, center, and shoulder at right probably indicate older patches on the reverse of the original canvas. There might be some in-painting. A view of the painting on the PAFA website shows some other similar areas that are no longer visible. We have not black-lighted it. The craquelure is commensurate with the age and there is seems to be no active chipping or paint loss.

This is a nice period portrait of an active United States political and military figure who was commended by Winfield Scott and interacted with Lincoln. It would look great in a collection dealing with the Valley Campaign. That he is often credited with inflicting on Stonewall Jackson his only tactical defeat does not hurt. [sr]

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