A Philadelphia Artist

I’m currently processing the Campbell- Martin- Furlong Papers, a collection of papers that documents these three interrelated Catholic families as well as other related families such as the Kennedys and Jenkins.  Most of items are family correspondence, though some business and estate materials are also included. One member of the Martin family who is fairly well-represented in the collection and who caught my attention is William A. K. Martin (1816-1867). Other than family correspondence, a decent amount of letters and other items deal with Martin's career as an artist. 

Martin’s works primarily included landscape, portrait, and maritime paintings, specifically paintings of U.S. Naval ships. He also painted works with religious themes. A parishioner and friend of St. Philip Neri's first pastor, John Patrick Dunn, Martin donated one of his first paintings, depicting the Scourging of Christ at the Pillar, to the church. The painting, which hung above the altar of the church, was described in detail in the April 21, 1842 issue of the Catholic Herald in an article entitled, "Beautiful Painting."  

The Catholic Herald April 21, 1842

Martin’s preoccupation with maritime subjects resulted from the fact that several members of the Martin and related families were merchant captains. William’s father, Captain John Martin, mainly conducted business with New Orleans and the Caribbean as well as Western Europe and China. William spent much of his young life at sea. One item in the collection includes his passport from age 12-signed by Secretary of State Henry Clay- when he travelled through Europe. 

William A. K. Martin's passport, 1829

From the turn of the century up until the mid 1800s, Philadelphia served as the preeminent city for artists in the country, particularly portrait artists and lithographers. Thus, Martin was privy to a vibrant artistic scene. He was able to receive tutoring in portrait painting from notable artist John Neagle. Martin was also a member of the Artists Fund Society and Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts which held annual exhibitions to sustain art activity in the city. 

Receipt of payment for lessons in portrait painting with John Neagle, January 9, 1841

Letter from noted lithographer John Sartain with information regarding a meeting of artists associated with the Academy of Fine Arts, January 15, 1856, p.1

Sartain letter, p.2

Martin’s correspondence and business-related materials appear to demonstrate that Martin had a fairly steady amount of business in his home town. His work garnered some interest outside Philadelphia as well. He was asked to exhibit paintings at the Metropolitan Mechanical Institution in Washington D.C.  Moreover, Librarian of Congress, John Silva Meehan took an interest in his paintings. Meehan worked on Martin’s behalf to have him hired to paint a marine subject for one of the panels in the new extensions of the U.S. Capitol building. 

Letter from John S. Meehan to W.A.K. Martin, February 2, 1857

Although Meehan urged Martin to begin work on the project in order to provide members of Congress with a taste of what they could expect, Martin did not want to begin such a large endeavor without certainty that he would be hired for the job. With the recent birth of his fourth child, Martin writes: My pecuniary situation with an increasing family is such as to place it out of my power to incur the expense and loss of time such as I did on the prior occasions, unless with a certainty of success and as ‘hope deferred maketh the heart sick’ and doubting I fear that this twin hope is doomed to meet the fate of its brother killed by an omnibus. Hope however lingers to the last. Thus, the opportunity to have his work displayed in the Capitol building did not come to fruition. 

W.A.K. Martin to John S. Meehan, February 12, 1857, p.1

Letter to Meehan, p.2


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