An Artist of Rare Merit

Shaver: An Artist of Rare Merit traces the artist’s maturation through the 19 portraits held by the East Tennessee Historical Society and the Calvin M. McClung Historical Collection, Knox County Public Library. The exhibition is organized on the occasion of three recent Shaver acquisitions, making the East Tennessee History Center the largest repository of the artist’s works.

April 23, 2021 to January 30, 2022
Rogers-Claussen Feature Gallery
There are two ways of understanding portraiture–either as history or as fiction.
Charles Baudelaire, 1846

Portraits were the “social media posts” of the American colonial and antebellum periods.

Today, social media allows users to not only visually document and share life’s moments but also curate how others see themselves.

Early Tennessee portraits afforded the sitter the same duality. “They are,” as one art historian puts it, “the rhetoric–not the record–of self-representation.”

As viewers two centuries removed, how are we to understand early portraiture in East Tennessee? Is it history, fiction, or perhaps a bit of both? This exhibition of works by Samuel M. Shaver, East Tennessee’s first native-born artist, provides interesting examples for discussion.

About Samuel M. Shaver (1816-1878)

Samuel Moore Shaver was the youngest or next to youngest child born to David and Catherine Barringer Shaver on Reedy Creek (near present-day Kingsport) in 1816. Little is known about his formative years. He may have studied at Jefferson Academy in Blountville; a Leonidas Shaver is listed as a teacher there, and his older brother David, Jr., operated a tavern nearby.

In 1833, William Harrison Scarborough (1812-1871), a traveling portrait painter from Middle Tennessee, visited Sullivan County. What impact did Scarborough’s stay have on 17-year-old Shaver? Did he watch Scarborough paint the portraits of his neighbors? Or did he simply benefit by imitating the works Scarborough left behind?

Whether by native talent, with formal instruction, or both, Shaver possessed the skill set to begin producing competently done portraits by the late 1830s.



In memory of Philip Scheurer

Based on the original research of Prentiss Price, Hawkins County historian

Volunteers: Lina Bahrom, Harrison Pierson, Nathan Richardson

Special thanks: Steve Cotham, Danette Welch

Related Resources:

Bishop, Budd H. “Art in Tennessee: The Early 19th Century.” vol. 29, no. 4, Tennessee Historical Quarterly, 1970-71.

Bullin, April S. “‘The Powell Boys:’  Poignant and Political Messages of Samuel M. Shaver.” vol. 8, no. 1, Journal of Backcountry Studies, 2013.

Hennig, Helen Kohn. William Harrison Scarborough: Portraitist and Miniaturist. Columbia, SC, R. L. Bryan Company, 1937.

Keith, Zachary. “Powel Law Office.” Architectural and Historical Assessment. Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area, 2019.

Kelly, James C. “Portrait Painting in Tennessee.” vol. XLVI, no. 4, Tennessee Historical Quarterly, 1987.

Masler, Marilyn. “Painting in Nineteenth-Century Tennessee.” A History of the Arts in Tennessee, University of Tennessee Press, 2004, pp. 79-98.

Price, Prentiss. “Samuel Shaver: Portrait Painter.” East Tennessee Historical Society’s Publications, vol. 24, 1952, pp. 92-105.

Staiti, Paul. “Character and Class: The Portraits of John Singleton Copley.” Reading American Art, Yale University Press, 1998, pp. 12-37.

Young, Namuni Hale. Art & Furniture of East Tennessee. Knoxville, TN, East Tennessee Historical Society, 1997.