Little is known about the techniques and professional careers of 18th- and 19th-century American artists. Visual evidence is even rarer, but the DAR Museum collection contains an example: a small painting that portrays a young aspiring artist at work. John Wesley Venable’s self-portrait also directs attention to his subject-within-a-subject, his first wife Sarah Farnsworth Venable (1823–1873).
Born in Washington, D.C., John Wesley Venable (1822–1908) began traveling through Maryland and Virginia as an itinerant painter at age 18. About 1842 he moved to Covington, Ky. Occasionally, Venable made the 120-mile journey to Danville, Ky., to further his career as a portraitist and teacher. On October 27, 1846, he married Sarah Elizabeth Farnsworth in Danville.
Venable became a candidate for the Episcopal ministry in 1849. According to Michael R. Averdick, author of a biographical entry in The Encyclopedia of Northern Kentucky (University of Kentucky Press, 2009), while preparing for the ministry Venable taught painting and drawing at Shelby College in Shelbyville, Ky. Ordained in 1854, Venable began a ministry spanning 35 years and at least four parishes. A plaque commemorates his 27 years as rector of St. John’s Church in Versailles, Ky.
Three of Venable’s handwritten sermons, each showing artistic attention to detail, came to the DAR Museum with the self-portrait.
He spent the final years of his ministry at Grace Church in Hopkinsville, Ky. Venable retired in 1894 and lived the rest of his life in Hopkinsville.
The painting is a gift of Claire Long, Honorary State Regent, Kentucky State Society.