NEW ALBANY —
Editor’s note: This is part of an ongoing series about the people and events that have shaped the 200-year history of New Albany. Read all installments by clicking on the bicentennial link under the “seasonal content” header at newsandtribune.com
Swathing the side of an old two-storey brick building along Market Street, a giant four-paneled painting the size of a billboard continues to command attention.
Swirled with pinks, blues and whites, the artwork, which is part of the New Albany Art Project Bicentennial Series, began as a way to pay homage to local artist George W. Morrison. Although in a different style, the piece conceptualized by painter Boris Zakic attempted to find some common ground with New Albany’s notable 19th Century portraitist.
“What brings the shared histories of Morrison and painters of today together, I believe, is the moment at which the artists mirror themselves in their initial gestures, as if witnessing their own becoming in the paint,” Zakic said in a recent magazine insert produced for the series.
The fact that Morrison’s legacy lives on even today is testament to not only the great popularity he witnessed during his lifetime, but the fact that he was also exceptionally talented. Of course, like many memorable New Albanians, the painter wasn’t born a Hoosier. In 1820, Morrison entered this world as a Baltimorean. Several sources state that here he received his first formal training in the arts; with some believing he studied under the famed Maryland artists Rembrandt and Raphael Peale.
As was the custom of the time, a young Morrison packed up his brushes and easel and made his way out west to Connersville. One year later in 1840, the 20-year-old had for reasons unknown migrated to New Albany. Eventually a pretty local girl by the name of Lydia Maynard would catch his eye and his heart. Living their lives overlooking the Ohio on a robust property in Silver Hills, the couple had two children, a boy and a girl. Both went on to become artists themselves.
Yet, unlike his children, back when a young Morrison arrived in New Albany, no family support existed for him. Undeterred from his aspiration, he opened a studio and began to promote his business.
“He announced his arrival with a small advertisement in the New Albany Gazette and invited the public to examine specimens of his work at his studio on Main Street near Bank,” said a transcript from a 1970’s radio program about Morrison from The Historical Society and posted on the New Albany-Floyd County Public Library’s website. “The public liked what they saw, for commissions began coming in and many of the portraits he painted are still prize possessions of New Albany families.”
For more than 50 years, the city’s most famous artist did what he did best — he painted. Many prominent citizens of the age had their portraits done by Morrison. Owning the paintings back then represented more than just a fine appreciation for the arts. Possessing a framed piece meant you also had the affluence to afford to commission one. Even now, the paintings allow today’s viewers an insight into what well-off Victorians found important.
“Morrison had a knack of instilling his subjects with appearances of tranquility, making the finished product of each portrait appear inviting to viewers,” said David Condra in a transcription of a 2012 talk he gave entitled “George Morrison: New Albany’s 19th Century Portrait and Landscape Artist.” “The face is the focal point of each portrait, with hair and clothing commanding attention as well. Hair, clothing, jewelry painted in a subject’s portrait created a visual biography of that person, such as socio-economic status and cultural values.”
Perhaps his most famous painting was that of New Albany resident and Indiana’s 11th governor, Ashabel P. Willard, which still hangs in the Statehouse. To better understand Morrison’s style without traveling to Indianapolis, check out the NAFC Library. His works dot the hallways near the Indiana room. Four pieces damaged by vandals also remain in storage.
In addition to portraits, the local library has preserved some of Morrison’s landscape paintings. His view from Silver Hills inspired him to create a fantastic aerial view of New Albany, complete with riverboats sailing — and even one sinking — down the Ohio. Due to the prevalent river trade with the South, it’s been rumored that his paintings have been found as far away as New Orleans. For a time, the artist spent winters in the bayou city. But eventually, times would change for both the city and its famous inhabitant.
“Following the Civil War, New Albany’s economic boom ceased because of the decline in trade with the South,” said Estill Curtis Pennington in the book “Lessons in Likeness Portrait Painters in Kentucky and the Ohio River Valley 1802-1920.” “While Morrison’s portrait commissions dwindled in the face of competition from photography, he continued to be an active landscape and still-life painter whose work was much in demand.”
Painting well into his final years, sometimes with the use of a photograph to guide his work, Morrison died in December 1893 and was interred on his Silver Hills estate. Later, his body would be moved to Fairview Cemetery.
While always painting for the wealthy citizens of New Albany and gaining commercial success, the man whose obituary chronicled him as quiet and reserved in his manners would never become affluent himself. But money couldn’t have bought the artist his enduring legacy or the lingering historical significance of his paintings, something a local newspaper covering one of his landscape paintings hinted out more than 150 years ago.
“Twenty years hence this picture will be invaluable — when generations yet to be born will gaze with astonishment at the rapid growth of a city destined to become the great commercial emporium of the West, which is now but in her infancy,” said a reporter from a March 1853 edition of the New Albany Daily Ledger. “We hope all will go and see it.”
THANKS FOR THE HELP
Note: A special thanks to everyone at the New Albany-Floyd County Public Library’s Indiana Room for help with researching this and other topics. Each and every worker there is such a great asset to our community in their own right. If you have a chance, stop by their historical archives and see all the wonderful local books and documents they preserve.