Joseph Hubert Diss Debar (American, born France, 1820-1905). A sketchbook with brown hardcover binding, embossed gold title, SKETCHES / J. H. D. D., including 61 total pages, 59 of which include over 250 sketches in pencil, pen and ink, and watercolors tipped in to front and back of most pages, with the majority labeled with descriptive titles all on sheets measuring 11.5 x 14.25 in. The images include original work by Debar and copies after other artists. Some of the images are loose within the sketchbook. Also included are several photographic reproductions of Debar’s work. An article about Debar in the December 1931 issue of The West Virginia Review is bound inside the front cover of sketchbook.
Debar was an accomplished artist, author, builder, pioneer and social leader. He was born in Strasbourg, Alsace, then a province of France, in 1820, into a prosperous family. He received a classical education in Strasbourg and Paris and was fluent in the French, German and English languages, and he trained as an artist under masters in Paris. Always the adventurer, Debar was not content to remain in his homeland. Instead, he set sail for America in hopes of shaping and guiding the untamed frontier. Sailing on the Cunard steamer, Britannia, from Liverpool, England to Boston, Massachusetts, in the early 1840s, Debar was delighted to find himself in the company of fellow traveler Charles Dickens, the British literary genius. The two developed a friendship on the journey and, as documented in Dickens’ American Notes, the author came to the young Frenchman’s aid during an unfortunate gambling episode. Holding Dickens in the greatest esteem, Debar painted an oil portrait of the author which was acquired by the West Virginia Division of Culture and History, Department of Archives and History. Debar’s additional images of Dickens are wonderfully accurate depictions of the confident young author.
Once in America, Debar moved from one major city to another before settling in what is now West Virginia. There he set up business, did surveying, acted as a land agent, and eventually became involved in the political fabric of the state. Ever the idealist, Debar sought to transform what would become the state of West Virginia from its exclusive and conservative aristocratic traditions to a booming center of commerce and trade. In 1863 the legislature appointed Debar to make drawings for a state seal and coat-of-arms. These designs became the official seal and coat-of-arms for the state when West Virginia came into the union.
In addition to his political and business contributions to the state, Debar, through his writings and sketches, became an important documentarian for West Virginia. He created countless sketches of the state’s noteworthy political figures and its rapidly developing landscape. In 1870, Debar wrote and illustrated The West Virginia Handbook and Immigrant’s Guide: A Sketch of the State of West Virginia. He remained in West Virginia until about 1875 when he left for Philadelphia, remaining there until his death in 1905.
Debar’s sketchbook is an exquisite documentation of American history. It provides a visual record of a growing nation at a pivotal point in history. The sketchbook is organized chronologically and is divided into sections based on geography. The sections are labeled Alsace / 1832-5, Paris 1835-40, In America / 1840, In West Virginia / 1846-75, The Civil War / 1861-65, Kansas / 1880,Visit to Europe / 1881-2, Supplementary / of various dates and places all in pencil. The Alsace section includes quaint landscape scenes, depictions of rural life, and prominent citizens such as military officers. The Paris section title page is adorned with a tranquil landscape watercolor. The images from Paris include sketches of Alexandre Dumas, the French writer, and Adolphe Thiers, the author of The History of the French Revolution.
Debar’s journey to America on the Britannia is illustrated in the American section. This section includes the two images of Charles Dickens, several watercolors of Niagara Falls with one notated Sketched from nature and finished on the spot with three poor watercolors borrowed from Mif Whitne, daughter of the proprietor of the Cataract House, Niaga [sic] Village, July 1840, and images of people of political and military importance, such as General Almonte and Professor Maroncelli, the Italian Patriot and fellow prisoner of Silvio Pellico.
During his many years in West Virginia, Debar recorded the landscape and its people. Rural and picturesque images are abundant in the West Virginia section. The sketch titled Going deer hunting on Tanner’s Fork, Henry Schmitt, The Artist, Pioneer Bill Patton, July 1846 is beautifully rendered and intricately detailed. This section includes images of the Honorable John S. Duncan and Major James M. Jackson, both of Clarksburg, in 1846, tipped in with additional sketches of political figures and a horse. (The West Virginia Division of Culture and History, Department of Archives and History has a similar Debar sketch of Duncan and Jackson, also dated 1846). From life, Debar sketched Alexander Scott Withers, the author of Chronicles of Border Warfare, or, A History of the Settlement by the Whites, of north-western Virginia: and of the Indian wars and massacres, in that section of the state; with reflections, anecdotes, &c. (For a similar example see the collection of Debar sketches in the West Virginia Archives and History). This image is set amongst other small sketches including that of a Miami Indian copied from Withers’ collection.
The Civil War section includes a depiction of Abraham Lincoln at the Willard Hotel in Washington in June of 1864 (also in the collection of the West Virginia Archives and History). Debar’s Lincoln is similar to an image of Lincoln by Pierre Morand. Also in this section is an image of the first military rebel prisoners at Grafton, West Virginia in June of 1864 and one titled Members of the W.Va Legislature receiving doubtful news pending / The Battle of Gettysburg, 3rd July 1863.
The final sections of the sketchbook include additional images of Alsace, sketches of Albert Bierstadt, Charles Dickens and his wife and Ephraim Bee and a Centennial show card from the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876. Cowan’s is pleased to offer this sketchbook, a prize relic of the American past. For additional information see Boyd B. Stutler, “Joseph H. Diss Debar-Prophet, Colonizer” in The West Virginia Review (December, 1931): 154-56, 171.
Condition: Wear to cover, binding is slightly loose, toning and foxing to some images, minor tears on some pages. Not all images are tipped in.