Putting an exact date or location of execution on an unsigned portrait can be an impossible task. Some times the best you can do is to answer the question “Can you place the subject and the artist in the same place?” This is an American miniature of Dr. John Floyd (1783-1837) -- a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and governor of the state of Virginia -- by the artist Benjamin Trott (1769-1843). Trott’s early 19th century male works are distinctive –thin washes of white and blue to depict an open sky, finely drawn wispy hair, elongated neck, the elegantly posed body turned to the right or left while still making direct eye contact with the viewer. Trott rarely signed or dated his miniatures and, like many artists, no diary or written list of his subjects has survived. The owner and descendant of Floyd had no idea where or when the portrait might have been painted. Research did not reveal the existence, either in print or online, of any reference to Trott having painted Floyd. So the family, with the help of a Floyd genealogist, set out attempting to determine where Floyd and Trott could have met.
John Floyd was born at a settlement on the Beargrass Creek near Louisville, Kentucky the youngest son of Kentucky surveyor and frontiersman Col. John Floyd (abt. 1751-1783), who was killed 12 days before his youngest son’s birth. Thankfully, Dr. Floyd’s wife Letitia Preston Floyd (1779 – 1852) wrote a memoir after her husband’s death which detailed her husband’s early life. After Col. Floyd’s death in 1783, his widow Jane “Sallie” Buchanan (1758 – 1812) married Alexander Breckenridge and raised a second family. But conflict between the Breckenridge family and the youngest Floyd concerned other family members – so much that it was suggested Floyd be sent away from Louisville to study at Dickenson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He would study there on and off for several years as much as the family finances would allow. Eventually Floyd returned to Louisville in 1802 where he was an apprentice to frontier doctor in order to learn a trade. In May 1804 Floyd married Letitia, the daughter of William Preston of Virginia, in Kentucky and later that year set out for Philadelphia to receive more formal training and a medical degree at the Philadelphia Medical College (now the University of Pennsylvania Medical School.)
Benjamin Trott was attempting to establish himself in Philadelphia as a miniature portrait painter by late 1803. His name appears on published Philadelphia directories almost every year from 1804 through 1820. Little is known about Trott’s early years or how he received his artistic education. He is likely the son of Samuel Trott and the child baptized as Benjamin on August 20, 1769 at the Hollis Street Church in Boston. The extended Trott family were known to be merchants and silversmiths in Boston and later in New London, Connecticut. Benjamin Trott is thought to have painted in Virginia (with the Boston artist William Lovett), New York and Philadelphia in the latter part of the 18th century before settling in Philadelphia during the time the great American portrait painter Gilbert Stuart was in residence there. Stuart found Trott’s eccentric manner and sharp whit amusing and also praised Trott, calling him the best and closest of his imitators, and allowing Trott to make copies of Stuart’s famed portrait of George Washington. Trott was also known to paint the students and doctors of the Philadelphia Medical College. So the family of portrait at first thought that it might have been possible that Floyd sat for Trott during his studies in Philadelphia between October 1804 and April of 1806, when Floyd was documented as having graduated.
But when the portrait of John Floyd was sent out for conservation, it returned with a clue. The miniature had been attached to an early 20th century wood display frame and when removed, the case revealed a hair reserve in the back. When case was opened, it revealed that the hair reserve was kept in place by a second piece of heavy card stock. Once separated, printing on one of the pieces of card stock show the letters “LEX”, for Lexington, Kentucky.
William Dunlap (1766–1839), the American producer, artist, and art historian personally knew Trott from his early time in New York as well as Philadelphia. Dunlap wrote “In 1805, Mr. Trott visited the western world beyond the mountains, travelling generally on horseback, with the implements of his art in his saddle-bags. This was a lucrative journey.” While historians have assumed Trott traveled on horseback through western Pennsylvania to Ohio then on to Kentucky, no portraits have surfaced to indicate Trott painted anyplace other than Kentucky in 1805. Kentucky was still very much the frontier of the United States at this time, but trade and travel between cities like Philadelphia and Lexington was very common place, often taking just a few weeks to accomplish. Trott would have been one of the most prominent portrait artists to visit this burgeoning area and would have been sought after by Kentucky’s the most prominent and successful citizens. Only a handful of Trott miniatures are known to exist from this Kentucky trip, including the earliest portrait of the American statesman Henry Clay (1777-1852).
So it is possible to place Trott and Floyd in Kentucky at the same time? No newspaper account of Trott’s exact time in Kentucky has been found to date. Letitia Floyd was pregnant with her first child and living with her mother at her parent’s home in Blacksburg, Virginia while her husband was in Philadelphia studying in the fall of 1804 and early 1805. But Kentucky court records show that the surviving children of Col. John Floyd were called to appear in person during a lawsuit over Kentucky land in the late summer of 1805. Additionally, records also show that the John and Letitia Floyd sold land in Kentucky in November of that year – reinforcing the possibility that John Floyd was in Lexington long enough to sit for his portrait.
The Floyd genealogist was able to locate a descendant of Dr. Floyd’s elder surviving brother, George Rogers Clark Floyd (1782-1823.) The descendant of the George R. C. Floyd branch produced a photo of an apparent miniature which was thought to be of John Gabriel Floyd (1807-1858), George R.C. Floyd’s eldest son by his first wife, Maria Maupin, whom he married in 1806. Although a photo, this is appears to be miniature portrait by Trott but it is unlikely to be of John Gabriel Floyd who was yet to be born when Trott ventured to Kentucky. More likely, it is a portrait of the father George R. C. Floyd – painted during the same trip which yielded the portrait of his brother John Floyd.
What drew Trott to Kentucky in 1805 is not known. Yellow fever – a deadly airborne decease -- had begun to appear in the late summer of 1805 in Philadelphia and those with the means to do so often fled crowded colonial cities into the country until such time as the run of the illness had passed. It is also possible that Trott intentionally traveled to Lexington to visit the British-born landscape artist George Beck (1748-1812) whose name appears in an 1806 Lexington directory. There is circumstantial evidence that Beck and Trott may have traveled together before to Pittsburgh in June of 1804. Beck was a fellow member of the Society of Artists along with Trott and had been living in Philadelphia up until late 1804. Beck and his wife, the artist and educator Marie Menessier Beck, then moved to Lexington which was in the early stages of transforming itself into the “Athens of the West.”
Dunlap, in a letter written to his wife in January of 1806, recorded Trott’s return and that Trott had raised his prices from “30 to 40 dolls” after a successful trip. By 1808, Trott and the recently relocated Thomas Sully would be joint tenants in Philadelphia and George Beck would send a promising Kentucky student – artist William Edward West (1788-1858) – to their studio to study.
Trott’s was at his best during this time period in Philadelphia. His style would fall out of favor after 1820 and he would struggle both personally and professionally for two more decades, painting in Charleston, New York and Baltimore during the later part of his life. He died in Washington, D.C. on November 27, 1843 and was buried in Congressional Cemetery in that city in an unmarked grave.