By Larry Lock — for the Kewanee Star Courier (2007)
During Junius Sloan’s early career he was a portrait artist. To the left is a Self-Portrait, 1857-58, shows the artist as he saw himself at the age of 30. (Photo courtesy of Brauer Museum of Art). On the right, Farm of Seymour Sloan, 1866 is the cover painting for the publication “In Quest of Beauty” that accompanied the 1999 exhibition of Junius Sloan’s art at the Brauer Museum of Art. (Photo courtesy of Brauer Museum of Art)
One of the many benefits of volunteering at a historical museum, such as Kewanee’s Robert and Marcella Richards Museum, is the opportunity to meet new and interesting people and learn about something interesting from the past. In this case both of the above were experienced.
Several years ago a retired art professor at Valparaiso University in Indiana visited the museum to see what more he could learn about the location in Kewanee where 19th century artist Junius R. Sloan lived part of his life and painted several of his landscape pieces.
Professor Richard Brauer has made the life and work of Junius Sloan a scholarly project for much of his professional life. His interest in Sloan was prompted by the fact that Valparaiso’s art museum owns a 400-plus piece collection of Sloan’s work, thanks to a donation some 50 years ago by Sloan’s son, Percy Sloan.
Brauer’s visit to Kewanee to view and take pictures of the area where Sloan lived and worked led the professor to photograph and record on a compact disc 40 works by Sloan that pertain to Kewanee and present it to our museum. The photographs have been printed on photographic paper and are available for viewing at the museum.
Junius’ connection with Kewanee began in 1853 when his parents purchased 500 acres in Wethersfield and Kewanee townships. It was one year before the founding of Kewanee, but parents Seymour and Drusilla Sloan certainly knew the railroad was on its way and that their investment in Illinois farmland had a promising future.
The Sloans came from northwestern Pennsylvania (West Springfield) where they had obviously achieved some financial success in farming and he as a blacksmith and toolmaker and she as a milliner. They brought with them seven children ranging in ages from 28 to 13 and established their homestead on 40 acres bounded by what became Division, East, Prospect and George Streets in Kewanee.
Junius was 25 years old at the time and had spent several years as an itinerant, self-taught portrait artist. He helped his parents get established in Kewanee during 1853 and 1854 and then moved to Princeton for two years where he worked as a portrait artist.
Apparently not satisfied artistically in Princeton, Junius went back on the road. While working in Ohio he married Sara Spencer, the daughter of nationally known penmanship scholar Platt Spencer, in June of 1858. Sara also became a writing teacher and helped provide for their family of three children by teaching penmanship classes.
While in Kewanee with his parents for 18 months after their marriage, Junius painted portraits, including three children of Civil War General John Howe. Sara meanwhile taught penmanship classes in the Union Seminary (also known as the Academy) on South Chestnut. Her class lists include the names of many prominent early Kewaneeans, listed under the categories of “ladies and gents” and “misses and lads.”
After Kewanee the Sloans spent time with her parents in Oberlin, Ohio and her brother in the Catskill Mountains in New York and New York City. During this time Sloan changed his artistic efforts from portraits to landscapes. In 1864 Junius and Sara finally decided to settle in one place. They picked Chicago where they spent the rest of their lives.
For many summers Sloan, sometimes accompanied by family, would visit different places to do landscape drawings that would result in paintings done during the rest of the year. His sojourns included trips to scenic sights in Vermont, New York, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and, of course, Kewanee.
Junius and Sara re-visited Kewanee in the summer of 1866, staying with his parents. He found inspiration here for some 20 paintings, including such titles as Cool Morning on the Prairie, Sunrise on the Prairie, Farm of Seymour Sloan, On Grandpa Sloan’s Farm, Husking Corn and Cattle in Woodlot.
Professor Brauer in a 1999 publication, “In Quest of Beauty: The Art and Life of Junius R. Sloan, 1827-1900,” refers to the Kewanee paintings as “unrivalled prairie paintings thought to be the earliest depictions of life on the settled Illinois prairie.”
In the publication’s introduction, Brauer continues: “Sloan was a regular participant in Chicago’s important exhibitions, and in the 1870’s, he attained prominence among Chicago’s older painters by being elected Academician and vice president of the Chicago Academy of Design.”
“Sloan was among the nineteenth-century American landscape painters,” Brauer adds, “who celebrated the American homeland as Edenic, an unspoiled paradise reflecting its Creator.”
“In Quest of Beauty” was published to accompany a 1999 exhibition at Valparaiso’s Brauer Museum of Art featuring Sloan’s paintings, drawings, photographs, letters and other materials taken from the museum’s “collection-of-record.”
Sloan’s parents, Seymour and Drusilla, are noteworthy in their own right. As pre- Kewanee pioneers in 1853 they helped to develop the city of Kewanee. They lived on and farmed their 40-acre homestead northwest of the Division and East Streets intersection from 1853 to 1867, when they moved “into town” to a home on the northwest corner of Prospect and Chestnut Streets. Drusilla died in 1875 and Seymour and three adult children moved in 1887 to Redlands, California.
An interesting aside is that Seymour sold his Prospect Street home to E. E. Baker, who would soon become Kewanee Boiler president and eventually Kewanee’s foremost philanthropist. And when Baker built the Italian-style villa in 1919 that still stands at Prospect and Chestnut, the former Sloan residence was moved to the northeast corner of Prospect and Vine, where it was occupied for a time by former Kewanee Mayor Mark Saunders (mayor from 1935-1943) and today is the home of the Rev. Burnell Eckhardt family.
When Seymour died in California in 1891 his body was returned to Kewanee where he was laid to rest in Old Kewanee Cemetery beside his wife and daughter Louise, who had been the wife of Norman Pratt, Kewanee postmaster and captain of Company F of the 124th Regiment in the Civil War. That same company included Junius’ younger brother Henry who after the war became a physician residing in Chicago.
Junius Sloan also died in California while visiting a sister in 1900. He is buried in Chicago, his home from 1864 to 1900.
Want to know more? And there is much more. Visit the Richards Museum at 211 N. Chestnut on Thursday or Saturday afternoons from 1:30 to 4:00.