Cowan’s two-day American Furniture, Folk and Decorative Arts auction offered a rare piece of Kentucky history when a portrait of the Commonwealth’s first governor, Isaac Shelby (1750-1826), sold for $112,500. The oft reproduced portrait was painted by famed Kentucky artist Matthew Harris Jouett (1788-1827), and had stayed in the family since Shelby’s death.
“This is the definition of unique Kentucky history,” said Wes Cowan, Cowan’s Founder and Hindman Vice Chair . “Not only is this a remarkable portrait by Kentucky’s greatest early portrait painter it’s also a portrait of a Kentucky founding father and the first governor of the Commonwealth.”
Shelby was a Revolutionary War hero at the Battle of King’s Mountain in South Carolina, who settled in Knob Creek in modern-day Kentucky shortly after the war. As Kentucky approached statehood, he was called to participate in political conventions where he quickly became one of the most revered voices. He was unanimously elected governor in May 1792, and served until June 1796, when he left public life for sixteen years. In 1812, as war loomed, he was again elected governor, and while still in office, led the Kentucky militia at the epic Battle of the Thames, earning the Congressional Gold Medal in the process.
Jouett was born in what would become Mercer County, Kentucky to a Revolutionary War hero in his own right. The family was only able to send one of the eight sons to college and the brothers agreed that Matthew should be given the opportunity. He went to Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky to study law but decided to abandon the legal profession to focus his efforts on painting.
As an ambitious young artist, Jouett spent the summer of 1816 working in the Boston studio of presidential portraitist Gilbert Stuart, who is best known for his portraits of George Washington including the one that adorns the one-dollar bill. Jouett, whom Stuart affectionately called “Kentucky,” was Stuart’s favorite student and in the four months Jouett spent with him, Jouett learned how to set his palette, place the figure on the planar field, and, perhaps most importantly, size up the subject’s character.
Once he returned to Kentucky and established a studio near the Court House square in Lexington, Jouett set about painting many of the seminal figures in early Kentucky history. Drawing upon social contacts from his student days at Transylvania University, family ties, and his distinguished service in the War of 1812, Jouett soon became the portraitist of choice for legends of the Commonwealth. As such, his portraits are highly coveted among Kentucky collectors.
Four phone bidders battled for the lot with the bidding beginning at $45,000. After a few initial exchanges, one of the bidders, understanding the value of the painting, advanced the bid to $65,000. Undeterred, two bidders continued bidding in $5,000 increments against the bidder who increased the bid until the lot was sold to a private collector from Kentucky for $112,500.
The portrait is yet another in a string of recent Kentucky-related successes for the Cincinnati auction house. In 2018, Cowan’s sold another Jouett portrait, this one of Henry Clay (1777-1852), who was a titan of Kentucky politics serving as Senator, Speaker of the House of Representative, and Secretary of State, which sold for $108,000. The year prior, Cowan’s achieved the second highest price ever for a piece of southern furniture selling the massive secretary desk and bookcase of Captain John Cowan (1748-1823), one of the 32 men who established the first British settlement in what is today Kentucky, for $498,750.
The Jouett portrait was sold in Cowan’s two-day American Furniture, Folk and Decorative Arts auction held September 22 and 23. The auction featured over 550 lots of furniture, paintings, folk art, toys, mechanical and still banks, stoneware, trade signs, advertising, and more.