Matthew Harris Jouett was born April 22, 1788, near Harrodsburg, in what became Mercer County, Kentucky. Except for a few trips outside the state in search of commissions, he would reside virtually all of his life in Kentucky. His father, Captain Jack Jouett, was known as the "Paul Revere of the South" in honor of his 1781 ride warning Southern patriots of the approach of the British. Only able to afford an education for one of his eight sons, Captain Jouett allowed his children to make the choice, which fell on Matthew. Although he studied law at Transylavania College in Lexington, Kentucky, Matthew subsequently abandoned the legal profession in favor of painting, leading his father to remark, "I sent Matthew to college to make a gentleman of him, and he has turned out to be nothing but a damned sign painter!"
Jouett was married in 1812. He served in the Kentucky Volunteers during the War of 1812, rising to the rank of Captain. He became known for his charcoal sketches of fellow officers, which were admired for their precise verisimilitude. At the end of the war Jouett accepted responsibility for the loss of $6,000 worth of payrolls and other papers that had been in his care, even though they disappeared during battle. He would work to repay this debt for much of the rest of his life.
Although Jouett's reputation as a portraitist was such immediately after the war that he began to receive regular offers of employment, he decided he needed further training. In 1816 he went to Philadelphia, and then on to Boston, where he studied with Gilbert Stuart for four months. Stuart considered Jouett, whom he called "Kentucky," his favorite pupil, and conveyed to him the essentials of his late style of painting. In particular, Jouett adopted Stuart's use of heavy shading and little or no background detail. Jouett kept a meticulous journal while studying in Boston, a document that remains one of the main sources of information about Stuart's methods.
Jouett returned to Lexington following his study with Stuart, established a studio, and began a busy practice as a portrait painter. He is believed to have completed more than three hundred portraits before his death at age 39. His primary concern was to capture his sitters' faces as accurately as possible, and the results were often direct and candid. His insistence on truthful portrayals led him to dismiss one friend who sat for his portrait dressed in outlandish clothing and to refuse the request of a small child who wanted the color of her eyes changed. Most of Jouett's portraits were bust-lengths of prominent Kentuckians such as Governor Isaac Shelby, Senator John Brown, and Henry Clay. He also completed a full-length portrait of the Marquis de Lafayette (Kentucky Historical Society) and copies of famous paintings such as Gilbert Stuart's Atheneum Washington.
Some of Jouett's late works are characterized by a slightly softer use of line and more chiaroscuro, which may reflect a knowledge of Thomas Sully's style gained from a visit to Philadelphia in 1823. Generally, however, his style remained consistent until his death on his farm near Lexington on August 10, 1827. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Hart, Charles Henry. "Kentucky's Master Painter." Harper's New Monthly Magazine 98 (May 1899): 914-921.
Price, Samuel Woodson. The Old Masters of the Bluegrass--Jouett, Bush, Grimes, Frazer, Morgan, Hart. Louisville, 1902.
Jonas, E. A. Matthew Harris Jouett: Kentucky Portrait Painter (1787-1827). Louisville, 1938.
Floyd, William Barrow. Jouett-Bush-Frazer: Early Kentucky Artists. Lexington, 1968.
Floyd, William Barrow. Matthew Harris Jouett: Portrait Artist of the Ante-Bellum South. Louisville, 1980.
Kelly, Franklin, with Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr., Deborah Chotner, and John Davis. American Paintings of the Nineteenth Century, Part I. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1996: 385.