Jonathan Jennings (1784-1834)First governor of Indiana, painted by Scottish-American portraitist James Forbes (1797-1881).
The president of the first Indiana constitutional convention and the first governor of the State of Indiana was Jonathan Jennings (1784-1834), a man described as "gentle and kind" and one "of polished manners." (1) Jennings, staunch in his opposition to slavery, served two terms as governor and nine terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. Despite all that, he died in poverty, and his body laid in an unmarked grave for fifty-seven years after his death. Jennings County, Indiana, the only Jennings County in America, is named in his honor. It is the birthplace of Jessamyn West (1902-1984) and her cousin, Hannah Milhous Nixon (1885-1967), mother of the president. Jessamyn West's book and the movie made from it, The Friendly Persuasion, are set in the county of her birth.
The official portrait of Jonathan Jennings was painted by James Forbes. In all, Forbes painted six official portraits of Indiana's governors, yet little is--or was--known of him or his career. That has changed a little in this Internet age. The website AskArt lists four artists named James Forbes. Three of those four may very well have been the same man discussed by art historian Wilbur D. Peat in Pioneer Painters of Indiana (1954) and Portraits and Painters of the Governors of Indiana, 1800-1978 (revised edition, 1978). Archivists and genealogists Sandy Stamm and Lynda Hawley of Plainwell, Michigan, have done as much as anyone in uncovering information about James Forbes. I would like to acknowledge and thank them for their work.
James Forbes (Wilbur Peat called him James G. Forbes) was born on October 1, 1797, in Peterhead, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, to William Forbes and Mary (Walker) Forbes. James Forbes painted in Aberdeen and also taught painting there. John Phillip (1817-1867) was one of his students. "During the 1850s," wrote Wilbur Peat, "[Forbes] exhibited his work at the Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh, and at the Royal Academy and the British Institute, London." (2) He emigrated to the United States in 1859 and by September of that year was in Chicago, where he "conducted an oil painting studio at Washington and Dearborn streets. He had some beautiful specimens of art in his collection." (3) In 1860, Forbes had a studio at 88 LaSalle Street. Wilbur Peat suggested that Forbes was gone from Chicago by 1868, but Lynda Hawley has found information that his studio and many of his paintings were destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
No one knows how James Forbes came to Indiana. Wilbur Peat speculated that Forbes' acquaintance with H.F. Blount of Evansville "induced him to seek commissions here." (4) According to Peat, Forbes spent several winters in Evansville, a city in the the far southern part of the state and one known for its comparatively mild winters. Evansville may very well have offered a haven to an artist from cold and windy Chicago.
Forbes painted a portrait of Evansville mayor John B. Baker in 1868 or 1869. "Through this commission," related Peat, "Forbes was introduced to Governor Conrad Baker, brother of the mayor, a meeting that resulted in his being asked to paint a number of the governors of Indiana for the Statehouse collection at Indianapolis." (5) The idea of commissioning and collecting portraits of the state's governors was conceived by Governor Baker, who asked that the legislature set aside $200 apiece for the canvases. Thus about ten portraits were completed in 1869-1870, including the six painted by James Forbes in his temporary quarters in Evansville and in Indianapolis. In addition to the portrait of Jonathan Jennings, Forbes created likenesses of governors Ratliff Boon, James Whitcomb, Paris Chipman Dunning, Oliver Perry Morton, and Conrad Baker himself. The first three are copies from other sources, the last three from life.
As for James Forbes' personal life, on May 15, 1824, he married Mary Waters (1797-1853) in Peterhead, Aberdeenshire, Scotland. The couple had eight children, two boys and six girls. Two of the girls died in infancy. Forbes' oldest daughter, Mary Forbes Forbes (she married her cousin William Forbes) was a dressmaker and also a portraitist. Jane Forbes Gamack taught music, while the youngest Forbes girl, Elizabeth or Lizzie Forbes Forbes (she married her cousin John), taught art. Both Mary and Lizzie taught in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
According to archivist Sandy Stamm, the Forbeses and other Scottish families settled in the area of Plainwell, in Allegan County, Michigan, north of Kalamazoo. As evidence, a community called New Aberdeen still exists northwest of Plainwell. Ms. Stamm's associate, Lynda Hawley, writes that James Forbes bought a farm from his brother John Forbes. I assume it to have been in the Plainwell area. In the Federal census of 1880, Forbes was living with his daughter Mary and her husband (his nephew) William Forbes in the village of Plainwell. James Forbes died the following year, on March 25, 1881, in Plainwell. He was eighty-three years old. In the coming bicentennial of the first Indiana constitutional convention, I would like to remember the president of that convention, Jonathan Jennings, and the artist who painted his official portrait, James Forbes.
(1) Quoted in Portraits and Painters of the Governors of Indiana, 1800-1978 by Wilbur Peat, Diane Gail Lazarus, and Lana Ruegamer (Indiana Historical Society and Indianapolis Museum of Art, 1978), p. 16.
(2) Pioneer Painters of Indiana by Wilbur D. Peat (Indianapolis: Art Association of Indianapolis, 1954), p. 49.
(3) History of Cook County, Illinois, Vol. 1 (1909), p. 587.
(4) Pioneer Painters, p. 49.
(5) Ditto, p. 50.
Thanks to Sandy Stamm, Lynda Hawley, and Ransom District Library, Plainwell, Michigan, for further information on James Forbes.
Text copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley