110 Stebbins St. Ashland, VA 23005 , United States Call Seller 703.299.0800


Portrait of Mary Ball Houston of Memphis, Tennessee, ca. 1855

$ 16,500
  • Description
    ARTIST: Attr. to James Hart (1812-­1870)

    ORIGIN: Memphis, Tennessee

    COMMENTARY: A mid-twentieth century inscription on the reverse of the relined canvas bears neat block letters that identify the sitter as “Sally Houston Carr’s Mother/ Sam Houston’s Niece.”

    “Sally Houston Carr’s Mother” can be identified with certainty as Mary Ball Houston (1818-ca. 1859). However, the mid-twentieth century descendent who inscribed the painting mistook the sitter’s relationship to Sam Houston, for she was his sister-in-law, having married the Texas general’s younger brother William Houston (1802-1872) in 1836.

    The sitter’s age and style of clothing underscore her identity. The dress has short, narrow, bias-trimmed sleeves, and a broad neckline that drops to the shoulders—a style referred in the period as “a la Grecque.” The style was at its height when Houston turned 30 in 1848, and had given birth to five children.

    Itinerant Huntsville, Alabama artist James Hart (1812­1870) who painted the portrait frequently visited Memphis after 1839. Mary Houston likely met him at the luxurious Guyoso Hotel, managed by her husband William in the late 1840s, and from which Hart would later advertise. Indeed, one must wonder whether the artist “took her likeness” while lodging there or paid his bill with the portrait—and, whether he also recorded Mr. Houston on canvas. At present not one of the questions is yet answered.

    Regardless, Hart returned to the Houston’s neighborhood periodically for more than the next decade. He visited long enough in 1855-56—and then again in 1860—to appear in the city directory as a portrait painter. One portrait signed “Jas Hart/Pinxt./18[5]0,” depicts a woman wearing a short sleeve version of Ms. Houston’s dress. That sitter wears a late 1840s hairstyle looped to leave only the bottom of each ear exposed, and the hair piled high in the back to form a crown.

    As with many Tennesseans in the period, the Houstons were not secessionists when regional tensions heated in the 1850s. Her brother-in-law Governor Sam Houston was ardently pro Union, and the family moved to Washington DC in 1860 where her husband secured a government clerkship from President Abraham Lincoln. By the time they arrived in the capital, Mary Houston had died. At present, neither the specifics of her death nor her place of burial have is recorded.

    PROVENANCE: The portrait descended thus:
    - Mary Elinor Ball (1818-d. before 1860) , m. William Houston (1802-1873), to daughter
    - Sally Houston Carr (Oct 11, 1835-1919), m. Rev. Horace Merwin Carr (7 Mar 1836-1922) to only son
    - Sam Houston Carr (b. 13 May 1865-1934) m. Ann Avery (b. abt. 1867- 3 May 1935 Surrey, England) , to one of two daughters
    - Sarita Carr Best (b. 1904, Cuba-d. 1944 Lake Florida)
    --or her sister--
    - Mary Houston Carr (b. 13 Oct 1905 Kansas, lived Florida 1926-17, last recorded returning from abroad 1929).
  • More Information
    Origin: United States, Tennessee
    Period: 19th Century
    Materials: Oil on relined canvas, with original white pine stretcher.
    Condition: Excellent. The portrait survives in fine condition on the original strainer. It shows expected wear, including several scattered pinpoint losses and an overall yellowed varnish. A detailed condition report is available upon request.
    Creation Date: 1855
    Styles / Movements: Folk Art
    Dealer Reference #: PT0281
    Incollect Reference #: 124676
  • Dimensions
    W. 28 in; H. 36 in;
    W. 71.12 cm; H. 91.44 cm;
Message from Seller:

Sumpter Priddy III, Inc. maintains superb relationships with an active group of collectors, as well as private and public institutions. Among its clients are the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts; the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation; the White House; the Maryland Historical Society; the Philadelphia Museum of Art; and Historic Deerfield, Inc.

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