The greatest painter that Kentucky has produced, and one whose name has shed no little lustre upon the art annals of America, was Matthew Harris Jouett.
Born in Mercer County, Kentucky, April 22, 1788, the second son of Captain John “Jack” Jouett, Jr. and his wife Sarah “Sally” Robards.
He was educated at Transylvania College in Lexington. Following his graduation from Transylvania, Jouett studied law under George M. Bibb, Chief Justice of the Appellate Court of Kentucky. Tradition says that his father encouraged him to enter upon a legal career, feeling that this was a respectable and lucrative profession. However, the young artist was always more fascinated with painting than the law, and while he was studying under Judge Bibb in Frankfort, he often spent his leisure hours at the easel painting ivory miniature portraits which were widely admired by the local citizens. Some of these miniatures made their way to Virginia and Philadelphia where trained artists there could not believe that they had been painted by a frontier painter — one who was still largely self-taught up to this point.
After little more than a year under the guidance of Judge Bibb, Jouett returned to Lexington and began to practice law. Not long after he came to Fayette County, he married Margaret “Peggy” Henderson Allen on May 25, 1812.
In the year of his marriage, war with England was declared, and Jouett entered the Third Mounted Regiment of Kentucky Volunteers. Shortly thereafter, he enlisted as a 1st Lieutenant in the 28th United States Infantry Regiment, ultimately attaining the rank of Captain. He held this rank until his resignation from the army on January 20, 1815.
Immediately after resigning from the army in January, 1815, Jouett returned to Lexington and opened a studio for painting miniatures and portraits. His reputation as an artist was already established, and being a rapid painter, he was often able to complete three portraits a week at the sum of twenty-five dollars each. However, Jouett felt that if he were to be a professional portraitist then he would benefit from some instruction in that subject. This led Jouett in 1816 to Boston where he began studying portrait painting under the noted portraitist Gilbert Stuart. In one account, Stuart is reported to have told a visitor to his studio in later years that “Kentucky” (Stuart’s nickname for Jouett) was the only student that he ever had who was worthy of his instruction.
Shortly after studying under Stuart, Matthew Harris Jouett was recognized as the best portrait painter west of the Alleghany mountains. Jouett maintained several studios during his short career as an artist. His studio in Lexington, was first in a two-story brick building, which formerly stood on Short Street, between the Northern Bank and the residence of the late D.A. Sayre. However, in 1825, Jouett relocated his Short Street studio to North Upper Street. It was in this North Upper Street studio where the Marquis de Lafayette sat for Jouett when he made his grand tour through the United States. Jouett is also known to have maintained a studio at his house that was on the Georgetown Pike just outside of Lexington as well as a studio in Louisville and one in New Orleans.
Some notable portraits painted by Jouett are those of Henry Clay, Alexander John Mitchell, Jr. and Martha Bell Mitchell (children), Dr. Horace Holley, Major Morrison, Governor Letcher, John J. Crittenden, Isaac Shelby, and a full length portrait of the Marquis de Lafayette, now owned by the Commonwealth of Kentucky and on display in the Old State Capitol in Frankfort, Kentucky. Jouett also painted portraits of many of his family members, including his wife, two brothers, a sister and his mother. Unfortunately, the portrait that he painted of his mother burned in a fire sometime in the 1920s. Interestingly, there is no known portrait by Matthew Harris Jouett of his father Captain John “Jack” Jouett, Jr.
Matthew Harris Jouett died at his home on August 10, 1827, and he was buried the following day in his mother-in-law’s family cemetery in Lexington. However, in 1893, both Jouett’s and his wife’s bodies were disinterred and reburied in Cave Hill Cemetery, Louisville, Kentucky.