Off the Cuff: Fort Wayne’s Past in a Portrait

Charles Shepard, President and CEO

The Hanna Family of Fort Wayne has contributed much to the city’s development; historians claim that the story of Fort Wayne is incomplete without including the story of family patriarch Samuel Hanna. Born in Kentucky in 1797, Samuel spent most of his youth in the areas around Dayton, Ohio helping his parents to establish the family homestead and making every attempt to attain an education despite limited opportunities. As he grew, Samuel embarked on a few business ventures that contributed to his noble and trustworthy reputation, and he made the decision to move to Fort Wayne in 1819. The city then was but a little village huddled around the fort, but according to historical accounts, every effort was made by Samuel to build up the town and develop its resources. He worked to open road and river routes, and although transporting goods to this small village was no small task, Samuel worked hard enough at building this town that when Allen County was formed, he was appointed one of the two first judges in the Circuit Court. Success in trading led him to extend operations to Lafayette and Wabash, and after purchasing large tracts of land in the Wabash valley, he became instrumental as the Wabash and Erie Canal began construction in 1832.

Judge Hanna’s list of achievements for the city of Fort Wayne is intriguing, but who are the heirs to this storied local name? In 1822, Samuel married Miss Eliza Taylor, who is said to have possessed a noble character of great strength and courage. One of the only known pictorial representations of the Hanna family hangs in the Fort Wayne Museum of Art, thanks to a gift from the family in 1937. Although only eight children are shown in the portrait, the Hannas were parents to thirteen children total. The last child and only daughter of the Hannas was born in 1843, the same year of this portrait, so we can be almost sure Mrs. Hanna was pregnant when this picture was painted, taking the tally of children in this picture to nine. This leaves 4 children not shown, leading us to believe they died in infancy or early childhood. Some believe that the older looking gentleman to the far left in the painting is Hugh Hanna of Wabash, brother of Samuel, omitting yet another child from this family portrait.

The portrait shows the Hanna Family seated around an ornately carved wood table. The mother sits holding the youngest boy while another son sits across from her reading a book. The other six boys are seated or standing around the table, with the father seated in back next to the mother.
Horace Rockwell, American. Samuel Hanna Family. Oil on canvas, 1843. Gift of the Hanna Family Heirs, 1937.02. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Whoever is shown in this painting, parts of it were painted well and parts of it show a great lack of skill or a disinterest in accurately depicting parts of the picture. This painting was commissioned to local painter Horace Rockwell, who made a modest living in the business of commercial portraiture and occasionally executed nearly life-sized family portraits like that of the Hanna family. Rockwell, exercising the style of the time that people should be depicted naturally and without idealization, paid special attention to the faces of the Hanna family and rather skillfully shows how these people probably looked in real life. Ironically, the bodies of these people look quite unnatural, lacking anatomically correct bone structure and proportion. Feet look more like wooden wedges, shoulders slump like shapeless sacks of flour, and the youngest Hanna in the portrait is shown to have only four toes.  Rockwell has problems with his composition as well. An empty spot in the middle of the painting leaves an awkward division between the sitters, and almost no attention is paid to the background, which the artist has chosen to resolve by painting it a flat brown with no clue to tell us where this family is sitting.

Why, then, did a man of such great stature as Samuel Hanna choose Horace Rockwell, an artist with limited skill, to immortalize his family? We shouldn’t blame Rockwell for creating a sub-par portrait, because the demand at the time for family portraits placed greater importance on factual portrayal of each person’s face and less emphasis on frivolous details like accuracy in dress and anatomy. With the invention of photography being a few decades away, families relied on painters to document their likenesses, and it’s probable that Samuel Hanna, a man so invested in the city of Fort Wayne, chose to support  local portrait painter Rockwell instead of outsourcing the job to an accomplished painter from the East. Where Rockwell shines is in his ability to depict the Hanna family as a humble yet accomplished group of Fort Wayne people who show quiet pride on their plain, but distinguished faces.

Want to know more about Fort Wayne history and the Art Museum? Check out Sue Slick’s post about the Fort Wayne Art School, the precursor to the museum in Historical Highlight: Mrs. Hamilton’s Carriage House.

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