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Stratford’s Presidential Portrait Painter

By David Wright
Town Historian

Stratford’s Presidential Portrait Painter

Calvin Curtis is known as the portrait painter for President James Garfield. Curtis was born July 5th, 1822 in Stratford and passed away in July of 1893. His portrait of Garfield was not used as the “official” portrait because it was considered too dark.

President James Garfield by Calvin Curtis

Calvin Curtis’ sketchbook from 1873-1893 came into the collection at the Stratford Historical Society in 2018. The sketchbook contains many sketches of our local area. In the Judson House, the Historical Society has on display Calvin’s first painting which was of his aunt.  Calvin painted the portrait of his aunt at the age of seventeen.

Calvin Curtis portrait of his aunt at the age of seventeen in April 1839

 Despite our best efforts, and after hours of research, we have been unable to locate a picture of Calvin Curtis himself. Calvin painted many local people of distinction, and many beautiful local landscapes. If you wanted a wonderful portrait made of yourself, and you lived in the greater Bridgeport area, you contacted Calvin Curtis.

Lew Knapp wrote in his book In Pursuit of Paradise:  “…from youth Calvin Curtis was determined to paint. He taught himself from instruction books and built his own palette and easel without ever having seen either  He had a studio in New York until 1847, when he came home to Stratford to settle and paint in Derby and Waterbury. In 1856 he was confined to bed with a long illness, but in 1859 began to paint again. It wasn’t easy; for 20 years, each brush stroke brought on pain. But he continued – in fact, he added ability in landscape painting to his skills with portraiture…his portrait of President James Garfield hangs today in the White House.

A Presidential Portrait Painter

New Haven Morning Journal and Courier

July 12, 1893

Calvin Curtis, who was one of the most widely known American artists of the old school, died this morning at his home here, aged seventy-one years.

…Before reaching his majority he became a pupil of Daniel Huntington, a famous artist of years ago, and later was an associate of all the American artists of the old school.  His fame spread throughout the United States, and his works were to some extent known abroad. In early life he devoted his talents almost entirely to landscape painting, and was beyond middle age when he began to paint portraits, which also added to his reputation. When he was fifty-five years of age he was stricken with paralysis in the lower limbs. For a year he was compelled to give up work, and when he again took up his brush began to paint portraits.

He painted portraits for most of the leading families in this section of the state and the portraits of the judges which hang in the county court house at Bridgeport are his productions. Among the works produced during this period which decide his position as a painter and will live as a lasting memorial of his ability is the portrait of Chief Justice Butler, now in the Fairfield county court house.

This work would have won him recognition as an artist of great power had he never done any other equally excellent work, but his portraits of Judge S. B. Beardsley, Amos S. Treat, esq., Lieutenant Governor Averill, the Hon. James C. Loomis, I. M. Sturges, esq., and Colonel S. B. Sumner, hanging in the same building, are of similar character and amply vindicate his artistic ability.

Calvin Curtis portrait hanging in Stratford Historical Society

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