Thomas Hovenden (1840-1895) was an emigre to the United States in 1863, having been orphaned as a youth during the Irish potato famine. In New York he worked as an illustrator for Harper’s Magazine and studied at the National Academy of Design. He furthered his studies as an academic painter in France, where he focused his work on painting field workers and peasants. He later returned to Pennsylvania, where he married into a family that had strong abolitionist roots.
These factors strongly influenced his painting style, his materials, his techniques, and his subject matter. Having been trained in the academic style, his paintings were realistic and narrative in scope. He painted with great attention to detail, creating a sense of realism and drama in his pictorial narratives. His main subject matter was recently freed African Americans.
Hovenden’s “Last Moments of John Brown” is a large 77”x64” painting done on canvas with oil paint and careful brushwork. It was completed in 1884. It depicts John Brown being led to his execution. Hovenden had done careful research, including visiting the site and interviewing witnesses, in order to heighten the realism of the moment. The clothing worn by the subjects and the appearance of the location are detailed and accurate.
”Dem Good Ole Times” is a smaller 12”x16” painting, also done in oil on canvas. It was completed in 1885. It is also realistic in style and narrative in tone, and is painted with accuracy of detail. The painting depicts an elderly African American man sitting on a wooden chair with a banjo next to him, and the viewer assumes that he is reminiscing about his life.