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Sheldon Peck, “David and Catherine Stolp Crane” (1845), oil on canvas (Gift of Ralph Esmerian, courtesy American Folk Art Museum)

Sheldon Peck, like many 19th-century itinerant American artists, did not sign his work. So almost 150 years after his death, the self-taught artist’s portraits are still being identified, recognizable for the incredibly detailed faces on the sitters. Their intense gazes catch the viewer’s eye, making each distinctly individual, even while Peck sometimes painted identical clothing on his subjects.

Sheldon Peck and his wife Harriet at their house in Lombard, Illinois (via Lombard Historical Society/Wikimedia)

His former house in Lombard, Illinois, is now a historic site, and the homestead was added in 2011 to the National Park Service’s Network to Freedom list of Underground Railroad locations. Peck was a staunch abolitionist as well as a traveling artist, and many of his clients were also abolitionists, leaving a visual record of this anti-slavery movement. Paintings attributed to Peck are now part of the Art Institute of Chicago, American Folk Art Museum, and Yale University Art Gallery.

Nevertheless, his name remains little known, including in other places where he lived and worked. This September 23, as reported by the Eagle Observer, a historic plaque will be unveiled at the site of his home in Jordan, New York. His house, where his family lived from 1828 to 1836, is now gone, and only in 2016 did property research by former Jordan resident Lynn Fall lead to the identification of the site at 5 South Skaneateles Street. The marker was funded by the William G. Pomeroy Foundation, which has supported over 400 such markers in 50 New York counties.

In the video below, you can hear more about Peck from Jonathan Fielding, whose collection of early American art at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California, includes a portrait that was uncovered in 1997 on the TV series Antiques Roadshow. Long forgotten, its piercing eyes were hidden behind a later print.

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...