“I must do what is right for me,” he muttered under his breath while gathering up his tools and shuttering the shop window. Jacob Eichholtz was living a double life, and it soon had to stop. He couldn’t stand it any more.
His parents were second-generation Pennsylvania Dutch, amazingly successful as innkeepers in Lancaster, and had insisted he learn a trade as a tin and coppersmith. Becoming an artist was too risky, and, besides, there was no money in it. How would he ever be able to support a family? And so, Jacob, ever the dutiful son, followed his parents’ wishes, was now a father of four children, and a most successful craftsman. Although he decorated tin ware, fire buckets, and keyboard instruments, and made signs, this was no substitute for the kind of art he wanted to paint. It was time to do what his heart told him he had to do.
Around 1808 Jacob Eichholtz began painting simple profile likenesses of friends and family on 7” x 9” wood panels for very reasonable rates. He networked among his connections, as well as advertised in the local newspaper. Whenever he could steal a moment, Jacob could be found painting. In 1809 Andrew Ellicott, a well known person in national political circles, asked Eichholtz to paint his likeness. This is one of only 13 such profiles that the fledgling artist noted in a day book he kept from 1809 to 1817. There are, however, 80 such simple portraits that are attributed to his hand.
Some incredibly fine painters such as Gilbert Stuart, Charles Wilson Peale, and Thomas Sully were the portraitists of the rich and famous. In 1808 Sully came to Lancaster, then the capital of Pennsylvania, to paint the portrait of the new governor, a Pennsylvania Dutchmen, Simon Snyder. Not having a suitable studio in which to work, Sully accepted Eichholtz’s offer of his painting space. Jacob showed his work, and Sully tactfully noted that a copper smith could always make a good living. Was Jacob deterred by this critique? Not in the least. Thomas and Jacob became lifelong friends, and Sully’s honest opinion was valued and followed.
Eichholtz found he liked doing portraits: An artist could portray someone as he imagined him to be, not like he really was. And if the sitter really had the desire, he could become the image portrayed. This is exactly what Eichholtz did with a self-portrait done ca. 1810. His look of determination, and securely held paint brushes depict him as he wanted to be seen, i.e. as an artist, not as a tin and copper smith.
Possibly Sully’s studies with Gilbert Stuart inspired Jacob to travel to Boston in 1811 for lessons with the great portrait artist. Eichholtz brought along his recent painting of Nicholas Biddle, a young man of means who as editor of an arts magazine Port Folio, is thought to have addressed a long letter to himself signed only as “Russel” extoling Jacob’s talents and promise as an artist, thus introducing him to the Philadelphia art world. Those several weeks in Boston under Stewart’s tutelage transformed the way Eichholtz painted. Sully couldn’t believe the difference and said so. This much appreciated moment of recognition may have encouraged Jacob to exhibit his work at the First Annual Exhibition of the Society of Artists in America in 1811 held at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. For the next 20 years he was to show his art there.
After 1813, Eichholtz made his living solely as an artist. In the next 10 years he spent time in Maryland, Virginia, and western Pennsylvania painting more than 250 portraits. In 1823 Philadelphia and its middle-class beckoned. Jacob answered the call, and again for a decade or so incessantly painted their portraits. Among those were John Frederick Lewis and his wife, whose grandson John Frederick Lewis and spouse later donated much of their magnificent medieval manuscript and cuneiform collections to the Free Library of Philadelphia.
Around 1823 he started keeping a commonplace book of pencil sketches of his favorite paintings, as well as notes of painterly advice from Sir Joshua Reynolds, and Anton Raphael Mengs. The manuscript is now part of the Pennsylvania German Collection at the Free Library of Philadelphia. Many of the 52 sketches in Borneman Ms 103 are of Sully’s paintings. For example Eichholtz sketched Sully’s 1810 portrait of Captain William Chamberlain, as well as a likeness of Sully’s 1811 painting of Captain Charles Stewart, a native Philadelphian, who was to have a prestigious U.S. naval career.
Sully showed his appreciation of his friend’s work when in 1820 he closely imitated a ca. 1815 half-length oil portrait on wood panel Jacob had painted of his son Rubens Mayer Eichholtz. No one was buying Sully’s paintings, and he was about ready to give up. Deciding to paint in a more casual manner, he remembered Rubens' portrait, and portrayed his own son Thomas Wilcocks Sully facing forward in a wide-brimmed straw just like Rubens. The Torn Hat painting is now very famous, and the remarkable similarities cannot be denied. Sully asked $100 for the work, twice as much as he charged for a painting of the same size, and sold it to John Hubbard, a Boston merchant and art collector.
Eichholtz established himself as a major regional portraitist of a middle-class clientele. Along with Bass Otis and Thomas Birch, he acted as a consultant to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts for its exhibitions installations. He maintained two houses in Philadelphia, and one in Lancaster, enjoying the admiration of fellow artists, and friends in both places. A humble, yet very self-assured man, he ventured forth to paint landscapes, religious, historical, and genre subjects. His parents should never have feared that their son, who died in 1842, would fail. His innate abilities, passion for art, and sheer tenacity assured success. Jacob’s artistic legacy lives on in the more than 800 portraits that have been attributed to him.
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Preservation of the Free Library of Philadelphia's Pennsylvania German manuscript collection has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Because democracy demands wisdom. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this post do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.