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The Laurent Clerc Portraits

Don't we wish that Laurent had an iPhone on him as he went about his daily life? We would now have a wealth of information about his daily life. Before we were lucky to have photographs of Laurent late in his life we had the technology of the day which captured his likeness. This section is devoted to the Laurent Clerc Portraits, the five (5) known paintings that exist of Laurent to this day. 

The Peale Portraits

The Charles Wilson Peale portraits of Laurent and Eliza Clerc, painted during Clerc’s stay at the Pennsylvania Institute. 

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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.

The portraits hang in the Wadsworth as part of an interactive exhibit. 

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Why history is important. 

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The John Carlin  Kentucky Portrait

Born in Philadelphia, John Carlin was remarkable in his day as a deaf-mute painter and poet. He was one of sixteen original students at the Pennsylvania Institute for the Deaf and Dumb, from which he graduated in 1825. From 1833 to 1834, he studied portraiture and drawing in Philadelphia. Of course, John was a student at the school in Pennsylvania during the time that Laurent Clerc was "loaned" from the Hartford Asylum to overhaul their curriculum and methods of teaching. 

One of the portraits that Mr. Carline painted was that of Laurent Clerc. It is proposed that between 1860 and 1866 Carlin was commissioned to paint a portrait of Laurent Clerc by the Kentucky Literary Society of the Deaf. Such societies were common in communities with Deaf schools and often bore the name of Laurent Clerc. After its organization, the society began to commission paintings of important benefactors of the Deaf, this being the second they commissioned. A Mr. Schoolfield, a teacher at the school for over 52 years and member of the society was an active promoter and contributor to the fund for the purchase of the portrait. Apparently, "the Kentucky deaf of that day had a great affection and admiration for Mr. Clerc; Superintendent of (Kentucky School for the Deaf) J. A. Jacobs had spent over a year at Hartford taking training from him (Laurent Clerc) in methods of teaching the deaf."  John Carlin was said to have a "reputation that traveled beyond the Alleghenies, and when it came to selecting an artist to execute the portrait he was the only man considered".


 In 1946, the portrait still hung in the Kentucky School for the Deaf chapel according to an article in The America Era, published out of the American School for the Deaf in West Hartford, CT. Today the portrait hangs in the Jacobs Hall Museum at the school. 

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The All Souls Church Portrait

Coming soon!

The Wadsworth Portrait 

Portrait of Laurent Clerc, c. 1815 ASD Archives

Oil on walnut panel, probably painted by an English artist at the time Thomas H. Gallaudet met Laurent Clerc. Exquisite in detail, it depicts a youthful Clerc signing "C" and holding a stylus and slate. It is believed by Deaf historians that this is the first portrait of a Deaf person signing his/her initial. 

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Housed at the Wadsworth near the Peale Portraits. 
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The ASD Alumni Association Portrait

A gift of the ASD Alumni Association in 1948. Portrait of an older Laurent Clerc painted by Hartford artist Louis Fusari, taken from an original glass plate negative found in the school.

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Laurent Clerc Holt  4x Great Grandson (1957)


Portrait unvield by Clerc family members in 1948.

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