A Tale of Two Portraits

In 2011 we visited Detroit in search of the portraits of my great great grandparents: Senator John Norvell and his wife Isabella Hodgkiss Freeman Norvell.

Isabella’s portrait had once belonged to their daughter Emily Virginia Norvell Walker, the wife of Henry Nelson Walker, a politician, businessman, and former attorney general of Michigan. Early photographs showed it hanging in Emily’s dining room and with her death it passed to the Walker family, who in turn donated it to the Detroit Institute of Art.

Both portraits were done in Philadelphia about 1823-28. They were first attributed to the artist Thomas Sully (1783-1872), a leading portrait artist of the time. Later, it was felt that they were actually the work of the artist Jacob Eichholtz (1776-1842). In 1956, the family donated the Isabella work to the DIA.

Isabella’s portrait had been obtained from the Henry Freeman family which owned it. Henry Freeman was the son of Isabella’s adoptive father, Tristram Bampflyde Freeman. Tristram and his wife had adopted Isabella about 1804 after the death of her biological father Michael Hodgkiss. At the time her mother Sarah DeWeese Hodgkiss was ill and it was feared that she would die.

Much later in her life, Isabella would meet the young John Norvell, a Masonic brother of Tristram B. Freeman.  John would marry her in 1823.  Isabella was John Norvell’s third wife, his first  two had died from pneumonia and consumption, leaving him with two small children. She would ultimately be the mother of 10 children, of which  six sons would serve in the Civil War.

The story of Senator John’s portrait was more complicated. While it existed, it was not clearly proved to be his image.  The family believed it to be so.  But for some reason the family had not owned the portrait.

One story had it that the portrait was brought to Detroit by a family that acquired it in Philadelphia because John Norvell had not paid for it.  There was a bit of truth in this, as John Norvell never had a great deal of money in Philadelphia and the portrait would have been done while he was editor of the Franklin Gazette or later the Philadelphia Inquirer.  Indeed, he was so strapped for funds that with a large family to support he did not resign as postmaster of Detroit until his appointment as a U.S. Senator was ensured.  On the other hand, the Freeman family was wealthy and might have purchased the portrait of Isabella.  About the end of last century, it appeared in Detroit and was attributed to be Senator Norvell’s portrait.  An expert on Detroit history General Friend Palmer stated that he had known the senator and that it indeed was his portrait.

Still doubts lingered if it were authentic. Since the provenance of the work was questionable, other means were necessary to prove its authenticity. The best method was to compare it to images of family members to see if there were resemblances.  With the Sully/Eichholtz portrait of Isabella, the task was easy as there was a photo of Isabella taken about 1873 with her grandson. This clearly showed that the portrait was Isabella.

Isabella H Freeman Norvell

No such photograph of Senator John existed as he died in 1850; however images did exist of his brothers and sons. Perhaps they could be used to establish the identity of the man in the work. There were many of his sons, but all had beards or mustaches, and only one portrait of his brother Caleb Cushing Norvell existed from about the same time.

In looking at three images, it appeared that the portrait of Senator Norvell did strongly resemble his brother Caleb Cushing Norvell and that his son John Mason Norvell (without a mustache) would strongly resemble his father.

Norvell Portraits

This and the fact that General Friend Palmer had identified it as the  Senator’s portrait, also  attributed to Sully/Eichholtz, strongly supported the fact that this was his portrait.   This, then,  is the portrait that the US Senate’s history office uses for Senator Norvell on its website.

About jenorv

John E. Norvell is a retired Air Force Lt Colonel, decorated air combat veteran of the Vietnam War, and former Assistant Professor of American and Military History at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He has written freelance for the Washington Post, the Middle Tennessee Journal of Genealogy and History, and for several newspapers around the country.
This entry was posted in American History, American Newpapers, Detroit, Detroit History, Family History, Genealogy, Masons, Michigan History, Philadelphia, Philadelphia history, Social History and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.