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Artist, Indiana Governors' Portrait Collection
Oliver Perry Morton (1823-1877)
Governor of Indiana
January 16, 1861-January 23, 1867
THE PORTRAIT of Indiana's Civil War governor, Oliver Perry Morton, was painted by James Forbes. Correspondence between Governor Baker and the artist informs us that Baker had selected Forbes to paint Morton some time before the artist's visit to Indianapolis in the fall 1869. Forbes looked forward to the undertaking with interest, and not without some anxiety, as is shown in his letter of October 20, 1869:
I would beg to say-that However anxious I may be to paint the portrait of a gentleman of such eminent abilities as Gov. Morton, I am not sanguine he will, from any thing in the two portraits sent, select me to do it-and am unwilling he shall conclude I cannot do a better portrait than either with even less pains than I have bestowed on them. (1)
The two portraits referred to were those he had painted in Evansville of Governors Whitcomb and Dunning. Evidently both Morton and Baker were satisfied with the performances, for Forbes was given the honor of painting the Morton portrait. The sittings were probably in Indianapolis.
Forbes has succeeded in making a convincing likeness, and the boldness of the design is appropriate to Morton's determined, forceful disposition. Strong contrasts of dark hair and beard against light flesh tints and white shirt front, the sharp eyes and clear demarcation of the head against the background help to give the composition a striking effect. The impression is weakened, however, by the self-conscious artificiality of the gesture of declamation, and the governor's fixed expression, totally unrelated to the gesture.
Another portrait of Morton in the collection, done by T.C. Steele, belongs to the paintings of "epochal" governors ordered in 1916 for the executive office, and pays tribute to his leadership through the Civil War period. Since the pose is not the same as the Forbes portrait, we know that Steele went to another source for his model; according to the local press the picture he used came from a relative of the war governor, "who declared the print an excellent likeness." Steele's version of Morton is more reserved in spirit and more restrained in tone and color than the Forbes work. The subject appears several years older, and he looks off to the left in a relaxed, thoughtful attitude.
(1) Forbes to Governor Baker, October 20, 1869. Governor Baker's correspondence.
(2) Indianapolis News, may 20, 1916, p. 17, col. 1.
Source: Peat, Wilbur D. Portraits and Painters of the Governors of Indiana 1800-1978. Revised, edited and with new entries by Diane Gail Lazarus, Indianapolis Museum of Art. Biographies of the governors by Lana Ruegamer, Indiana Historical Society. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society and Indianapolis Museum of Art, 1978.