PLSJC Director Alan Hall writes a weekly column discussing library and community news, history, and other interesting subjects.
Baron Henning von Steuben was a visitor in our city recently, and part of his time was spent at the Main Library to see the portrait of his ancestor, the namesake for the city.
The huge portrait has graced the wall above the mantle in the South Reading Room since it arrived and was donated to the Library in 1913.
The current Baron was impressed with the portrait and the Carnegie Building and its architecture, but wondered about the background of the painting.
He said that it looked “familiar” but he had never seen the particular portrait.
The portrait of Friedrich Wilhelm Augustus von Steuben (1730-1794) was painted on canvas by Steubenville artist Eliphalet Frazer Andrews (1835-1932), whose studio was near the library for a time.
He was a renowned portrait painter, with his work in the Ohio State House, and the White House in Washington, D.C.
From 1887-1902, he was the Director of the Corcoran Gallery in D.C.
Andrews produced several portraits that were used in the Steubenville 1897 Centennial Celebration, including the von Steuben portrait.
An article appearing in the Herald-Star in 1913, states that the portrait “arrived in the city from Washington, D.C.” where Andrews had produced the work.
The canvas was taken to the studios of Charles P. Filson (1860-1937), another Steubenville painter and son of the famous photographer Davison Filson (1829-1899).
Filson was responsible for “framing the picture” to be presented to the library.
That is how the painting got to the library, but why did the current Baron Henning von Steuben say that the portrait “looked familiar” while he had never seen it?
Well, when Andrews produced his painting in 1897 for use in the Centennial Baron von Steuben had been deceased for over a century, so he used an earlier portrait as the basis for von Steuben.
He selected the 1786 portrait of von Steuben which had been painted by Ralph Earl (1751-1801), a fact mentioned in the 1913 newspaper article.
That painting had been presented to the Honorable James Dean, whose “great grandson George W. Featherstonaugh of Schnectady, N.Y. had the painting at that time. This same painting is now owned by the New York Historical Society and is part of the collection of their Cooperstown, N.Y. gallery today.
Baron Henning von Steuben had seen the Earl portrait from which our portrait was made.
The two paintings are similar in the pose of von Steuben, “his right hand resting on the hilt of the sword, the left hand holding a glove.”
He is attired in a “rich Continental uniform in blue and buff with the Order of Fidelity suspended from his neck, and the Order of the Cincinnati on his left.”
What is different is the background of the paintings, with ours showing the Hudson River and the hills behind the Baron.
Ralph Earl painted a second von Steuben portrait in 1786, which has made its way to the Yale Art Gallery.
The von Steuben painting at the Main Library is often mistaken for George Washington, probably due to the uniform and powdered wig, but I didn’t tell Baron Henning von Steuben that tidbit.
All of the paintings at the Main Library were reviewed in 1983 after a million dollar painting was found hanging in a western Ohio library, but our collection was found to have simply “local interest” but no monetary value.
It is probably better this way, as we can all enjoy the paintings made for the Centennial without worrying about their value.
So next time you are in the Main Library, give a wave to von Steuben in the South Room, and maybe a salute to General George Rogers Clark in the North Room.