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Faces From the Past: Portraits by Cephas Thompson and Cephas Giovanni Thompson


The Cahoon Museum of American Art will present the exhibition "Faces From the Past: Portraits by Cephas Thompson and Cephas Giovanni Thompson" from March 23 through May 22, 2004. Featuring some 40 works by a successful self-taught artist and the son who followed in his footsteps, the show takes us back to the early 1800s, when so many Americans sought to establish a sense of family identity by having their portraits painted. (left: Cephas Thompson, Caroline E. Keith, 1819, oil on wood panel, 24 x 30 inches)

The exhibition will be drawn entirely from the collection of George C. Decas of Wareham, an attorney who became interested in the portrait artists after he bought a historic Middleboro home for his law office in 1968. Cephas Thompson (1775-1856) was one of Middleboro's most prominent citizens and painted many other people of the town.

The elder Thompson also traveled extensively, painting portraits throughout New England as well as in Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia and, possibly, New Orleans. (He was a "snowbird" before there was such a term, consistently spending winters in the South from 1800 to 1823.) Although self-taught, only some of his work betrays a touch of naiveté, and he consistently achieved a strong sense of his sitters' character. In addition to painting portraits, he also made frames of his own design and patented a "delineating machine," a device to aid artists in drawing from nature.

Cephas Giovanni Thompson (1809-1888) studied under his father, but also with David Claypoole Johnston, a Boston illustrator and painter of some note. He worked in Plymouth, Boston, Philadelphia, New York City and New Bedford during the course of his career; and in the 1850s, spent a number of years in Rome, where he and Nathaniel Hawthorne enjoyed a close friendship. (Hawthorne even mentioned two of Thompson's paintings in his novel "The Marble Faun.") His style was more sentimental than his father's, with more prettified faces and more frequent use of dramatic twilight backgrounds.

Thanks to collector Decas's extensive research on the subjects of the portraits, the exhibition includes many fascinating nuggets of information about these people from the past. We know that Cephas Thompson's father fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill. His youngest son, Julius, who was born cross-eyed, grew up to become a dentist who practiced in Sandwich. A girl from Duxbury, painted by Giovanni Thompson very early in his career, was later struck blind by lightning. Clement Biddle Penrose, who also sat for the younger Thompson, was appointed by President Jefferson as a land commissioner for the new Louisiana Territory.

An opening reception will be held from 5 to 7 p.m. Friday, March 26. Refreshments will be served, and Bob Schneider will provide live music on piano.

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Copyright 2003, 2004 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.