Matthew Wilson - Portrait of Horace Fairbanks
Matthew Wilson (1814-1892), British-American
Portrait of Horace Fairbanks, 1873-74
OIL ON CANVAS, 96 x 71 inches
Presented by the Citizens of St. Johnsbury
At the Athenaeum's public dedication in 1871, founder Horace Fairbanks expressed his hope that the people of St. Johnsbury would make it a favorite place of resort for patient research, reading, and study." Devoted to education, Fairbanks believed that there was no reason why St. Johnsbury should not become a crossroads of the world both literally and intellectually. His complementary initiatives in transportation and public education successfully achieved that goal in his day, transforming the town into a manufacturing and cultural center that actively engaged the world around it.
In this full-length portrait by New York painter Matthew Wilson, commissioned by St. Johnsbury residents to honor
Fairbanks' generosity, the sitter is portrayed as a man of wide-ranging intellect. Although Fairbanks is shown in his home, Pinehurst, with several actual works of art from his collection in the background, the artist has embellished the composition's foreground with so-called "objects of virtue" to suggest the sitter's expansive intelligence. Fairbanks sits at his desk, apparently turning away from his study of an ancient bronze cup and medallion to face us. An animal skull resting on the table behind him symbolizes an interest in natural history, while the small statuette of an ancient philosopher atop his desk above him suggests both sagacity and classical education. Fairbanks is presented as the embodiment of the Athenaeum's founding ideals.