If you are already familiar with the portraits of George Caleb Bingham, especially Mary Ann Gilliss (Mrs. Benoist Troost) at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, then you know at first glance that George Caleb Bingham painted the portrait of Frances Booker George. Her full name was Frances Annabelle Booker (Mrs. James W. George). Several years ago, the painting went up for sale at auction with the artist listed as “American School” through an unfortunate combination of over-zealous re-attributions by a young curator over half a century before and a clerical error. At the last moment, the small treasure was rescued from oblivion.
By descent in family.
Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Ancestor Exhibit, 1953, Catalog #91.
The catalog for the exhibit listed the artist as unknown, and stated that it “may possibly be connected with the circle of Emile L. Herzinger.”
To understand this attribution, it is necessary to know that the portrait of Fanny A. Booker (George) is one of three family portraits. The others are portraits of a son, Richard Booker George (1839-1862), and a daughter, Julia George (1850-1869).
Before beginning detailed comparisons of the portraits with comparable images by Bingham and Herzinger, I reviewed Bingham’s students. In the late 1860s and 1870s, William Morrison Hughes had lived in California for over a decade. George Calder Eichbaum, had developed his own individual, more romantic style and elaborate brushstrokes. A third, Lou Swann Carson, simply did not yet have the technical skill. All three could be ruled out as the artist.
Turning to Emile Louis Herzinger (1838-1887), I learned that he worked as a painter, a photographer, and a colorist of photographs. As a painter and colorist, he used a variety of mediums: charcoal, watercolors, gouache, pastels, colored crayons, and oil. I found images of Herzinger’s work at the Missouri Historical Society, the Missouri Botanical Gardens, the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland, and the Frick Reference Library. I enlarged and compared three public images of Herzinger artworks side by side with Julia George and Richard Booker George. Herzinger’s brush was more heavily laden with paint; his brushstrokes, more labored. In contrast, not only could Bingham’s basic techniques be seen in all three George portraits, but the older artist’s mature ease with palette and brush.
Herzinger worked from a studio in St. Louis, Missouri. The Georges lived on the other side of the state in Kansas City. Their home was only a few miles from Bingham’s studio. Herzinger signed his work. The portraits of Fanny, Richard, and Julia George, like most Bingham portraits, are unsigned. Fanny was painted from life two decades earlier than the portraits of her children. Richard and Julia were painted posthumously, probably from photographs, in the late 1860s or early 1870s. If Bingham ever met Fanny’s offspring, they were children at the time. Adding his usual psychological engagement with his subjects proved to be an impossible task, but in person, face to face with Julia George, the hand of Bingham was unmistakable.
Both connoisseurship and logic led me to conclude that the 1953 curator, without the benefit of computers or internet to aid his memory, probably made a mistake. In my opinion, he mistook the deadpan expressions of the two dead George children for the competent but uninspired work of Emile L. Herzinger. How the curator could have mistaken Frances Booker George for a Herzinger is beyond me. I wonder if that third re-attribution was a clerical error.
Roots and Branches
Among the early settlers of Shelby County, Kentucky, was the Booker family. Richard Marot Booker (1751-1805) and his wife Elizabeth Palmer (1751-1830) came to the region from Amelia County, Virginia about 1796. With them was their first-born son, his father’s namesake, 23-year-old Richard M. Booker, Jr. (1771-1845). Before leaving Virginia, the younger Richard had married 18-year-old Tabitha Fuqua (1777-1834). By 1820, the younger family had seven children and owned 21 slaves. One of those seven was Frances Annabelle Booker, born in 1805 on the family farm, Willow Brook, north of the road between Louisville and Frankfort.
On October 11, 1827, when Fanny was 22, she married her neighbor, James Whitefield George (1805- 1888). Parents of the groom were Moses S. George (1768-1845) and Margaret Holmes (1773–1858). Like the Bookers, the Georges had moved to Shelby County from Virginia. Their home had been from Fauquier County. In 1830, Fanny and James lived on their own farm with five slaves and the first of their nine children, Benjamin R. George (1829-1856). By 1840, they had five more children: Moses Booker (1830-1906); William L. (1832-1897); Martha (1834-1854); Morton Bradley (1836-after 1880); F. M., a daughter (1838-), and Richard Booker (1839-1862). In 1841, they lost an infant son whom they buried in the family plot, now known as the Booker-George cemetery, at Willow Brook Farm. They had three more children by 1850: John Edward (1843-1920); Benjamin J. (1846-1896), and Julia, (1850 -1869). James reported that he owned 18 slaves and $27,400 worth of real estate.
Death Runs Rampant
In 1853, James Geoge lost three slaves to typhoid fever, and his daughter Martha, to a typhoid epidemic. On June 12, 1855, Fanny gave birth to her eleventh, and last, child, James T. George, who did not live to the age of three. Their oldest and youngest sons died in next two years. Benjamin, 27, died August 27, 1856. Little James’ death date was only recorded as 1857. Both were buried in the graveyard at Willow Brook Farm.
Leaving the Old Kentucky Home
Sometime after the deaths of Richard and Little James, the George family moved to New Braunsfels, Guadalupe, Texas, not far from San Antonio, where on November 17, 1858, their son William, 26, married a 17-year-old woman from South Carolina, Elizabeth Legette (1841-1905). The young couple moved to a farm just over the county line in Comal county. When the census taker listed the elder George family on July 26, 1860, James and Fanny, both 55, lived with four of their sons, Moses, 30; Richard, 21; Edward, 16; and Benjamin, 13, and with their daughter, Julia, 10. Their number of slaves had grown to 30, the value of their real estate had dropped to $15,300, but the value of their personal property was $41,400 – more than $1.2 million today.
At the start of the Civil War, Richard returned to Kentucky. He enlisted with the 1stKentucky Cavalry, commanded by General Benjamin Hardin Helm, a brother-in-law of Abraham Lincoln. James W. George wrote in his diary, “Richard Booker George was murdered in cold blood by Bob Carpenter whilst sitting on a fence at sunrise about the 13th of September 1862 near Scottsville, Ky. whilst in the rebel army…” The Georges would later commission George Caleb Bingham to memorialize their son in a posthumous portrait.
By June 6, 1870, the George family had moved to Kansas City, Missouri. The cumulative value of their personal property had dropped to $8,000. Morton and John lived with their parents. Son William lived next door with his wife, their four children, and with his brother Benjamin. All the men worked as cattle traders. Absent from the listings was Julia. She died at 19 in 1869. The Georges would ask the artist to keep her alive in paint, too.
The Georges lived in Salt Fork, Saline County, Missouri, in 1880. John had married Sallie Gill. They and their three children lived with Fanny and James. John and Sallie’s only girl was an infant daughter named Julia.
James W. George died on May 5, 1888, and was interred in the Belton Cemetery, Belton, Missouri. Oddly, neither Fanny’s date of death, sometime after 1880, nor her place of burial can be found. She lived to be at least 74.
Date of Execution
The facts of Fanny George’s life, and her mourning attire, indicated that Bingham created her likeness between the death of her daughter Martha on February 18, 1853, and the birth of her son James on June 12, 1855. Her pregnancy narrowed the time frame to a year.
Originally, I tried to place the date of execution between 1855-1856 and 1859, which, from initial research appeared to be the most likely dates, but in comparing fashion plates and hairstyles, I was not entirely happy with my initial conclusion. Bingham was in Europe in 1857 and 1858, so those years had to be eliminated. Further research caused me to look earlier in the decade. Hairstyles and fashion plates for 1853 and 1854 fit comfortably.
In the public record, I can find no evidence that Fanny George lived in Missouri before 1870. Travel between Kentucky and Missouri, however, was commonplace. Railroads connected the major cities. The Georges could well afford to travel out of Kentucky, especially when typhoid fever and cholera, ravaged the state in 1853-1854. Alternatively, George Caleb Bingham may have painted the portrait in Kentucky in May 1853. In a letter to his friend James Sidney Rollins from Lexington, Kentucky, dated May 22, 1863, he described his recent visit to Louisville, about 30 miles from Willow Brook Farm.
George Caleb Bingham painted the portrait Frances Annabelle Booker (Mrs. James W. George), probably near Shelby County, Kentucky in May 1853. A century later, in 1953, the artwork was mistakenly attributed to Emile L. Herzinger. In 2012, at an East Coast auction, the portrait was put up for sale by “an Unknown American artist.” A connoisseur rescued the artwork from oblivion. Frances A. Booker (Mrs. James W. George) is now a proud possession of a Bingham connoisseur who recently discovered that Fanny George is a distant ancestor.
- Peter E. Palmquist and Thomas R. Kailbourn, Pioneer Photographers from the Mississippi to the Continental Divide: A Biographical Dictionary, 1839-1865 (Stanford University Press, 2005), 318.
- Herzinger signed three paintings from 1863 that were included in the Ancestor Exhibit. The similarities he saw could be the effects of photographs.
- E. Polk Johnson, A History of Kentucky and Kentuckians: The Leaders and Representative Men in Commerce, Industry and Modern Activities, Volume 3 (Lewis Publishing Company, 1912), 1579.
- United States Census Bureau, 1830; Fourth Census of the United States, “Household of James George,” “Shelby County, Kentucky, north of the road from Louisville to Frankfort,” National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) Series M19, Roll 41, page 259, line 18.
- An image from original death records lists Martha George, 20 years, Female, Single; Residence, Shelby County; Birthplace, Shelby County; Date of Death, 18 February 1854. In the column, “Name of Parents or Owners of Slaves,” are the words, “J. & F George.” Below the name of Martha, are the names of George, 35; Harriett, 35, and Henry, 15. All died of typhoid fever. Written faintly beside the age of the last three names is a “B” and by J & F George is written “owner.” The name of Martha does not have a “B” near it nor does “owner” appear with the name of Parents or Owners. I believe this indicates that Martha was not black and was a child of James & Frances George. By her age of 20, she should have been born about 1834 and there is space in the birthdates of the George siblings for her. That she was not listed in the 1850 census concerned me, but at 15, she would have been the right age for boarding school. There is no record of her in the Booker-George cemetery. That concerned me, too, but she was one of four deaths from typhoid. From the previous year’s death records, 1853, James W. George of Shelby County, lost six slaves, dates un-recollected. Four died from typhoid fever, one from dropsy, and one, a year old, smothered by mother. (Kentucky Birth, Marriage and Death Records – Microfilm (1852-1910). Microfilm rolls #994027-994058, pages. Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives, Frankfort, on Ancestry.com, accessed October, 2016) From Google searches with terms, “Kentucky,” “Typhoid,” and “1854,” it is apparent that a typhoid epidemic raged through the state. Health providers eventually determined that contaminated ground water from the numbers of bodies buried was causing the epidemic to persist. I suspect that with seven deaths from typhoid fever, the George family eventually burned their dead.
- F. M. George, female, age 12, is listed in the 1850 census in the household of James George. She does not appear any other records that I can find at this time, including the 1860 census and in the records of the Booker-George cemetery near Shelbyville. I presume she did not appear in the census because she married by 1860, when she would have been 22.
- Information from Ancestry.com family trees, verified with records from Find-a-Grave and later censuses. No census documents from 1840 can be found for James W. George at this time.
- “Infant Son George,” Booker Grove Cemetery, Find-a-Grave, http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GScid=2411114&GRid=102172740&, accessed November 2016.
- United States Census Bureau, 1850 Slave Schedules of the United States Census, “J. W. George,” District 1, Shelby, Kentucky, M432, page 716, column 2, lines 22-40; United States Census Bureau, Seventh Census of the United States, “Household of J. George,” August 25th, 1850, District 1, Shelby, Kentucky, Roll: M432_218; Page: 291B, lines 26-33.
- United States Census Bureau, Eighth Census of the United States, “Household of William George,” September 13, 1860, Outside New Braunfels, Comal, Texas, NARA Roll M653_1291, Page: 217, lines 11-17. I could not find Morton George in the 1860 census.
- 1860 Slave Schedules of the United States, Guadalupe, Texas, M653, page 12, lines 16-40, and page 13, lines 1-6; “Household of J. George, Seventh Census of the United States, August 25th, 1850, District 1, Shelby, Kentucky, Roll: M432_218; Page: 291B, lines 26-33; Eighth Census of the United States, “Household of J. W. George,” July 26, 1860, Guadalupe, Texas, Roll: M653_1296; Page: 308, lines 25-35,
- National Park Service, Civil War Soldiers and Sailors database, https://www.nps.gov/civilwar/search-soldiers.htm Records for the 1st Kentucky Cavalry show the unit near Scottsville, Tennessee in September 1862. Both George and Campbell may have been wounded in a battle in Tullahoma, Tennessee, in July 1862.
- Diary entry quoted in Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, “#92, Richard B. George,” Checklist for the Catalogue: Ancestor Exhibit, 1953.
- United States Census Bureau, Ninth Census of the United States, “Household of James W. George, June 6th, 1870, Kansas City Ward 3, Jackson, Missouri; Roll: M593_782; Page: 591B, lines 1-4.
- United States Census Bureau, Tenth Census of the United States, “Household of J. W. George,” June 14/15, 1880, Salt Fork, Saline, Missouri; Roll: 716, page 16 , lines 41-50, and page 17, lines 1-6.
- I checked records on-line at Ancestry.com. One family tree gave her death date as 1881, but with no documentation. In the exhibition catalog from 1953, her year of death was 1882. I also checked Pre-1910 Birth and Death Database, Missouri Secretary of State; Missouri State Archives; Kansas City Public Library Special Collections, and the Booker-George Cemetery in Shelbyville, Kentucky. She is not listed in the Salt Fork Cumberland Presbyterian Church Cemetery nor the Blackwater Cemetery.