5,000 Words

Historic Arkansas Museum - Friday, May 08, 2015

If a picture paints a thousand words, then the museum has recently received, through a generous bequest, 5,000 words! The five portraits given by Harrow, K.C. and Josephine Smith help tell the story of an early Arkansas family, and of the well-known Arkansas artist who painted them.

Who was this family? And who was the painter?

5,000 Words
Matilda Hanger by Henry Byrd; Gift of Harrow, K.C. and Josephine Smith

Harrow, K.C. and Josephine Smith were delightful people whose passing over the last three years leaves many of us in sadness. But history is nothing without change, without transitions. The Smiths will live on at the museum as donors of five remarkable antebellum portraits of members of the Hanger family, painted by Henry Byrd.

Peter Hanger and his two wives (one after the other!) are the centerpieces of the Smith collection. Matilda Cunningham Hanger was born to Little Rock’s first doctor and mayor, Matthew Cunningham, and Eliza Wilson Bertrand Cunningham. After her death in 1865, Peter Hanger married Anne Pollard Gaines, the daughter of John P. Gaines, once territorial governor of Oregon.

The actual scarf and jewelry worn by Matilda Hanger in the Henry Byrd portrait; gifts of Harrow, K.C. and Josephine SmithHanger was active in business in Little Rock, and namesake of the Hanger Hill neighborhood of east Little Rock. His son and daughter-in-law – Frederick and Frances Harrow Hanger – built the Hanger House on Scott Street, a social and architectural landmark of the community.

Byrd pictured Matilda Hanger with earrings, a brooch, and a finely-embroidered shawl. The jewelry and the shawl are included in the bequest from the Smith family. To quote Deputy Director and Chief Curator Swannee Bennett, as historical documentation “it doesn’t get any better than this!” The museum is honored to be the repository of much of Arkansas’s creative legacy, and this gift is an extraordinary addition to the collection.

Henry Byrd (1804-1884) was Arkansas’s most prolific portrait painter of the 19th century, capturing the likenesses of many of the state’s early pioneer families from 1841 to about 1865.

Henry Byrd, circa 1870Byrd advertised his arrival to the state in the August 4, 1841 edition of the Arkansas Gazette. During his sojourn in Arkansas, Byrd spent a good deal of time in Little Rock, Batesville and Camden, eventually settling in El Dorado.

Portrait painting was a competitive business in early America before photography, and many artists sought patronage. Well-known American artist Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828) once remarked, “by and by…you will not by chance kick your foot against a dog kennel, but out will start a portrait painter.” Byrd’s ability to work until his death in New Orleans in 1884, is a testament to his talent and popularity in the region.

Many of Byrd’s portraits remain in the collections of the subjects’ direct family descendents.