Ohio History Journal

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The Historical Paintings

of William Henry Powell



In 1865 the Ohio General Assembly commissioned William Henry

Powell to paint a large historic picture depicting the heroic naval victory

of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry and his men over the British in

the Battle of Lake Erie in 1813. A former resident of Cincinnati, Powell

had won fame in the eastern urban centers of the United States as well

as European capitals, and his majestic "Perry's Victory" hung in

Ohio's capitol for over one hundred years as one of the state's most

valuable art treasures.' However, from its inception the painting was

a controversial item. Questions arose concerning what seemed to be an

excessive payment for the work, critics attacked the quality of the

painting and its historical accuracy, and public confusion developed

when the artist painted an almost identical version of "Perry's Victory"

for the United States Capitol. This study of William Henry Powell

and his work seeks to detail Powell's remarkable career as an artist

of historical scenes, examine the politics surrounding the commissioning

of Powell by political leaders conscious of the public's growing taste

for historical art, and assess Powell's works and the public reactions

they generated.

Powell was the product of an unusual, brilliant flowering of portrait

and landscape artists in frontier Cincinnati which included such diverse

talents as Thomas Worthington Whittridge, James H. Beard, Lilly

Martin Spencer, Abraham G. D. Tuthill, and John P. Frankenstein.

Born in New York on February 14, 1823, Powell moved to Cincinnati

with his family at the age of seven, and he soon demonstrated a


Michael J. Devine is Executive Director of the Greater Cincinnati Consortium of

Colleges and Universities.

1. "Perry's Victory" was removed from the Capitol while the rotunda was being

painted in 1967 and placed in storage by the Department of Public Works. Recently,

however, the Ohio Historical Society has had the painting restored with funds provided

by the Ohio American Revolution Bicentennial Advisory Commission and it is once

again on display in the Capitol. Two companion paintings, "The Wright Brothers"

painted by Dwight Mutchler (1959) and "Edison" by Howard Chandler Christy (1950),

have been locked in storage since 1967 in the care of the Ohio Historical Society.

Christy's "Greenville Treaty" (1945) is still on public display in the statehouse. See

report of Charles Pratt to Ohio Historical Society Board of Trustees, July 8, 1967,

Ohio Historical Society Records.