In the days before photography, untrained local artists, or limners, were often employed to capture the important people and places in a community. For Schenectady, one such artist who was able to elevate his work above the mere craftsmanship that characterized this group was Samuel Hayden Sexton, who lived and worked in the city his entire life. Over his fifty-seven year career, he produced portraits, as well as landscapes and historical paintings. Currently, about seventy works are known to exist, some unsigned but attributed to the artist.
Sexton was born in Schenectady in 1813, the son of Ezekial Sexton and Henrietta Hayden, his second wife. Samuel initially followed his father into a career as a cobbler, but eventually was attracted to art. He wed Sarah Fullagar and worked from his State Street studio. The couple had two children, James and Langley, who died young.
Sexton was known as a “face painter,” who could render a “reasonable likeness,” but he also produced landscapes. The details of his training are not entirely clear. In 1835 a local newspaper, Reflector and Schenectady Democrat, claimed that although Sexton was primarily a self-taught painter, for a short time he may have been mentored by an accomplished artist in New York City. This claim is disputed by Ona Curran, art historian and one-time curator of Decorative Arts at the Schenectady Museum, now the Museum of Innovation and Science. She believes that Sexton was untrained until 1838, based on his sudden change in technique and style, as well as the introduction of subjects that would likely be accessible only in metropolitan galleries that exhibited works embodying contemporary art trends. He likely studied at institutions such as New York City’s American Art-Union or the National Academy of Design, where he exhibited a few times in the 1840s and 1850s.
As for composition, he usually placed a three-quarter view of the sitter on the canvas. One arm invariably rested on the side of a chair. The hand of the other arm often reposed in the sitter’s lap and usually held an accessory item such as a hat, book or pair of glasses. A drapery often appeared in the background. He paid a great deal of attention to details. Accessories such as shawls, beaver hats, lace caps and ruffles were painstakingly done. As for color, the costumes of his sitters were painted most often in tones of black and white, draperies and chairs in shades of red. Green was often blended into the background color (Curran, p. 12).
The art historian notes that the flatness that characterized his earlier work disappeared by 1840, by which time his portraits showed more realism, better body proportions, greater three-dimensionality and distinctiveness. As she notes, however, he still showed an inability to paint hands skillfully, a shortcoming common to those not trained as professional artists, as seen in the portrait below of Nicholas Marselis, a merchant and boat builder.
|Samuel Hayden Sexton, Nicholas Marselis, 1848, oil on canvas. Schenectady County Historical Society.|
According to Curran, his artistic ability peaked in 1855, after which his production decreased. This 1852 oil painting of Ichabod Spencer, noted minister and a founder of the Union Theological Seminary, reveals the artist’s skill, as well as his standard three-quarter pose.
|Samuel Haydon Sexton, Ichabod S. Spencer, D.D., 1852, oil on canvas, gift of Mrs. Katherine Spencer Leavitt, Union College Permanent Collection. https://muse.union.edu/mandeville/project/19th-century-portrait-collection/|
A few of Sexton’s works were painted from earlier works. The inspiration for his depiction of DeWitt Clinton (1840) was Charles C. Ingham’s fine 1824 portrait of the New York governor. According to Curran, he also completed two paintings of subjects who were deceased, likely using daguerreotypes, although not enthusiastic about the practice.
Although the artist’s output dropped, Curran lists twenty extant portraits produced between 1857 and 1877. Some of them are unsigned but attributed to Sexton, such as a painting of John Ellis, first president of Schenectady Locomotive Works. In addition to all of his existing portraits, the Frick Art Reference Library has attributed to him three additional portraits, whose whereabouts are unknown. Another attributed work, a portrait of Eliphalet Nott, noted minister and Union College president, was unfortunately lost in a fire.
|Samuel Sexton, Schenectady Massacre, circa 1833, oil on canvas. Schenectady County Historical Society.|
|Samuel Sexton, A North View of the Old Dutch Church in Schenectada, 1843, oil on canvas. Schenectady County Historical Society.|
|Samuel Sexton, Frog Alley River, 1890, oil on cardboard. Schenectady County Historical Society.|
|Sexton in his studio, 1889. From Schenectady Ancient and Modern by Joel Henry Monroe.|