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Paintings That Tell a Story

Life in America during the nineteenth century was dramatically portrayed by a number of artists who took homely, everyday scenes as subjects for their canvases. Known as "genre" paintings, they are now records of social and economic activities in the rural United States of a century ago. Some of these artists found various phases of the New England countryside appealing, some painted scenes laid in the mountains of the South, and still others showed Indian life on the plains of the Middle West.

One artist, John Whetton Ehninger, depicted a type of merchant known throughout the country for close to two centuries. He called his painting "Yankee Peddler" and in it recorded faithfully how these commercial knights of the road sold their wares, what the customers were like, and what sort of things were sold. These peddlers naturally got their name from the fact that most of them were enterprising young men from New England who scraped together a few dollars, invested them in the trade items from that locality, and then went on foot or by horse-drawn wagon to sell their wares in almost every part of the country.

Beginning in the eighteenth and continuing through the nineteenth century, they went up and down the land, dispensing needles and pins, combs, cheap jewelry, dress goods, pewter articles, tinware, and occasionally the newest in household articles, such as pattern-glass tableware and novelties, along with gossip and news. The last two made any peddler a welcome visitor in remote villages and isolated farms. As his wares consisted of practically everything for which there was a demand, many of today's heirlooms were originally distributed in this manner.

Peddlers successful enough to afford a pair of horses and a covered wagon carried a fairly large stock of merchandise that often included silver teaspoons, shelf clocks, and similar household accessories. A peddler of this type, selling his wares on the village green of a rural town, was the subject of this example of genre art in the illustration. The artist, John Whetton Ehninger a member of the Astor family, was born in 1827 in New York City. He graduated from Columbia College when he was twenty and then went to Europe to study art. This picture, done while abroad, was exhibited in 1854 at the National Academy of Design, New York.

In the course of a long and active career, he painted a number of genre subjects that vividly depict life in the United States at that time. In "The Yankee Peddler" one can almost see sales resistance crumbling and feel certain that the salesman's load of merchandise will be lighter by several items before he moves on. Other well-known genre paintings by Ehninger include "The Ford" painted in 1858, "Old Kentucky Home," 1863, and "October," 1867, which may have been painted near Saratoga> New York.

During these years, he also painted some New England landscapes and such historical subjects as an equestrian portrait of George Washington, and the General's first interview with his future wife, Martha Custis. A number of portraits include those of Eastman Johnson and James Renwick. He was also an illustrator of reputation. As early as 1849, he published the illustrations for Hood's "Bridge of Sighs" and, a little less than a decade later, did the illustrations for Longfellow's "Courtship of Miles Standish."

In 1872, rather late in life, he married the granddaughter of Judge Samuel Young of Saratoga, gave up his home in New York, and settled in Saratoga where he lived until his death in 1889. A popular artist in his day, his work was practically forgotten until a few years ago when "Yankee Peddler" and several other canvases were discovered. Today interest in his paintings is keen and one bearing the signature of John Whetton Ehninger and the date is worth owning. Because he was a very prolific artist there are probably a good number of his paintings still to be found. As far as is known, he signed and dated all his pictures.



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