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Artist at work: John D. Barrow's portraits represent how Skaneateles painter made living
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Artist at work: John D. Barrow's portraits represent how Skaneateles painter made living

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SKANEATELES — Like most people, John D. Barrow worked at one thing and played at another.

Born in 1824 in New York City, the painter of portraits and landscapes moved to Skaneateles at age 15 with his family before completing his education in England and returning to Skaneateles four years later.

Barrow built the family home at the corner of State and Academy streets — now the 34 State Historic Luxury Suites bed-and-breakfast — but spent much of his adult life operating a portrait studio in New York City and traveling to Skaneateles in the summertime to create his landscapes.

Peg Whitehouse, director of the John D. Barrow Art Gallery located inside the Skaneateles Library, said "portraiture always was his bread and butter" — Barrow made his livelihood with his Manhattan portrait studio while landscapes were his passion.

"Coming home every summer to get out of the squalor of 19th century New York City, he would devote his time during those summers to landscapes," Whitehouse said. "Just like when any of us go on vacation, we don't do what we always do."

At a time when photography was prevalent enough to be accessible to the common person but having one's portrait made was a sign of status, she said Barrow's portraiture career was successful enough that it allowed him to retire at a relatively early age and return to Skaneateles permanently.

He "lived very handsomely," Whitehouse said, and he never had to sell another painting for the rest of his life. Nonetheless, he continued to create landscapes, though he gave many of them away as gifts and it is not known if he ever sold any of them.

Barrow's studio was located on Lower Broadway between Third and Fourth avenues in what would today be considered Greenwich Village. Artists worked in enclaves then, Whitehouse said, and his studio was near those of other Hudson Valley School landscape painters.

"He learned a lot rubbing shoulders, certainly with artists who could sell their landscapes," she said.

Portrait artists did advertise in those days, Whitehouse said, though photography was pretty commonplace by then.

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"Every soldier that went off to war for either the Confederacy or the Union  had a photo taken, but if you were still a person of stature, it spoke very highly of your position in society to have a portrait," she said.

Perhaps the highest-profile person whom Barrow painted was U.S. President Abraham Lincoln when Lincoln spoke at Cooper Union in New York City about his views on slavery on the campaign trail in February 1860.

"The public had a much greater access to presidents-elect than they do today, but it still speaks something of his notoriety," Whitehouse said of Barrow's Lincoln portrait.

She said the Lincoln portrait is owned by the Chicago Historical Society, but the painting did visit the Skaneateles gallery during America's bicentennial in 1876.

The Lincoln portrait notwithstanding, many of Barrow's portraits hang in the gallery that bears his name and once served as his studio, both on display and in storage, though Whitehouse said none of the portraits that hang in the library itself were done by Barrow.

In the gallery, there are his portraits of his parents, John Barrow III and Elizabeth Moode Prior Barrow, his brother George and George's wife, Caroline Tyler Barrow. There are also three of his brothers, William, Charles Henry and Edmund Prior Barrow, who all died of tuberculosis within a five-year span from 1856 to 1861.

There is a portrait of his sister Rebecca Haydock Barrow and another one of Rebecca titled "Study of a Young Lady." The latter painting is an interior scene showing Rebecca sitting in a chair in the family home, and Whitehouse said the gallery still owns and displays that chair.

There are two portraits — "Autumn" and "Portrait of a Lady" — that depict the same model at different ages. Whitehouse said Barrow painted the woman at least three times, though her name is not known.

Barrow also painted portraits of well-known people in the Skaneateles community: Arthur Mott, a businessman who owned a mill in the hamlet that was named after him, Mottville; Judge William Marvin, who served as the first president of the Skaneateles Library Association; the Rev. William M. Beauchamp, the St. James' Episcopal Church pastor known for putting Iroquois tribes' languages to paper; John G. Ellery, who was preparing to be a mining engineer when he died suddenly; Frannie Murfey, a Brooklyn woman said to have visited Skaneateles; and Emma Porter, whose family lived in the home behind the library and gallery.

Barrow also painted U.S. President John Adams — though it is a copy from a painting done by Gilbert Stuart in the style of the famous presidential portraitist. Whitehouse said Barrow and Adams never met.

Missing from the portrait collection, however, she added, are some local historic figures that barrow may have interacted with in the area.

"Do we wish he had painted William Seward? Absolutely," Whitehouse said. "We believe they probably crossed paths because of their similar ties to abolition and same dates of approximate lifespan, but no William Seward."

Journal Editor Jonathan Monfiletto can be reached at jonathan.monfiletto@lee.net or (315) 283-1615. Follow him on Twitter @WOC_Monfiletto.

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