The following article is featured in the Fall 2022 issue of the American Era, a publication of the American School for the Deaf.
Recovered Treasures – The Peale Paintings, 200 Years
By Jean Linderman, Curator of the Cogswell Heritage House
Henry Ford said, “There are three things that grow precious with age – old wood to burn, old books to read, and old friends to enjoy.” We would add “old documents to explore.”
Last November, Laurent Clerc Holt (our friend and ancestor of ASD co-founder Laurent Clerc) paid an unexpected visit to the Wilton Historical Society (WHS). Laurent had a distant cousin named Francis Clerc Ogden who lived in Wilton until his death in 1971. Knowing that Francis had been an active member of the WHS, Laurent suspected that some of his belongings likely ended up in the WHS archives after he passed away. His suspicions paid off.
Laurent engaged the assistance of the WHS curator who located six file folders that had been placed in an old metal filing cabinet 50 years ago – all containing original manuscripts, letters, documents, and photos that had once belonged to Laurent Clerc.
Among the recovered documents were two letters regarding the Charles Willson Peale portraits of Laurent and Eliza Clerc, painted during Clerc’s stay at the Pennsylvania Institute. The first is a short note from Peale to Clerc confirming the date for the final sitting in 1822. We learned that Laurent Clerc never commissioned these two paintings. In fact, Clerc did not want Peale to paint their portraits at all. This is because Peale intended to hang the portraits in his gallery of curiosities, marking Clerc as “the first educated deaf man to walk the streets of the New World.” Although Clerc hardly considered himself a “curiosity,” he recognized Peale’s notoriety and reluctantly agreed that he and his wife would sit for the portraits. The paintings remained in Peale’s Museum after the Clercs returned to Hartford.
The Clercs would not come into possession of the two portraits until more than three decades later. The collection in Peale’s Museum (including the Clerc portraits) was dispersed by auction in 1854, at which time they were spotted by deaf artist Albert Newsam, who purchased them for the Clercs for $20. Newsam’s letter to Laurent Clerc – also found among the papers at the Wilton Historical Society – provides notable provenance which was previously missing, and mentions the purchase as “cheap!” Astounding when you consider that the originals are now hanging in the Wadsworth Atheneum for safekeeping due to their exorbitant value.
Eliza Clerc outlived her husband by 11 years and died in 1880. In those days, family possessions were commonly inherited by the oldest son – in this case, Rev. Francis Joseph Clerc. The next owner of the portraits was likely his daughter, Adele Clerc Ogden – the mother of Francis Clerc Ogden, who gifted the portraits to ASD in his will after his death in 1971.
When ASD received the portraits in 1972, the school was surprised to learn of their appraised value (by Vose Galleries) of $50,000 each. School officials had misgivings about the safety of the paintings. Headmaster Ben Hoffmeyer considered selling the paintings when he read about their increasing value in the financial section of the Hartford Times, but Guy Holt (a Clerc descendant and member of ASD’s Board of Directors) insisted they remain at the school.
The pair of portraits, originally placed in storage by Dr. Hoffmeyer, were eventually displayed in the office of the Executive Director. By the time Winfield McChord took over in 1981, the paintings had tripled in value--upon learning the value of the portraits, Mr. McChord said, “I haven’t slept well since” (Hartford Courant article dated Oct. 22, 1981). He had copies made to hang in the school hallway and investigated a safer alternative for the originals. It was decided that the most suitable placement for the paintings, without ceding ownership, was the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford. (Coincidentally, the link between ASD and the Wadsworth Atheneum goes all the way back to the school’s beginning in 1817 when Daniel Wadsworth served on its first Board of Directors, and later founded the country’s first public museum.) The Peale portraits were unveiled at a reception at the Wadsworth Atheneum on October 21, 1984, and remain there today under a renewable, long-term loan.
The movement to educate deaf individuals appealed strongly to Peale’s imagination and humanitarian impulse, and the decline of his own hearing added strength to this feeling. He wanted to attach his Museum to this effort and that is why, without commission, he not only painted Laurent Clerc but Eliza as well. The lives of Peale and Clerc – so strikingly different – seem almost identical when analyzed in light of their motivations. These two men believed that the quality of existence improved with education and communication.
Last March, ASD joined Laurent Holt in a meeting with the Wilton Historical Society Director, Nick Foster, to make an appeal for transfer of the Clerc documents to the ASD archives on a “permanent loan” basis. Laurent endorsed the transfer on behalf of his family, and Mr. Foster agreed that the documents would be more appropriately placed and accessed among the Clerc collection at ASD. An agreement between ASD and WHS was signed in May. These documents – including the two Peale portrait letters - are now accessioned, transcribed, and on display in the Cogswell Heritage House – with our deepest appreciation to Laurent Clerc Holt, Nick Foster, and the Wilton Historical Society.