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  • Artist/MakerUnidentified artist
  • Date Made1854
  • Place Made
  • MaterialsOil on Canvas
  • Measurements44" x 37" overall
  • Gift Bequest of Estate of Allen Dulles
  • Accession #1975.0001

John Watson Foster

The diplomatic career of John Watson Foster consisted of several appointments during the 1870s and 1880s, followed by service as Secretary of State.  President U. S. Grant made him minister to Mexico in 1873, an appointment renewed by President Rutherford B. Hayes.  He was transferred to Russia in 1880–81 then retired to private life and a legal career in Washington, D. C., representing foreign legations in the U. S. courts.  In 1883 President Chester A. Arthur appointed him minister to Spain, with whose government he negotiated a significant commercial treaty that was opposed and finally refused by the Senate in 1885.  Unsuccessful in his efforts to revive the treaty, Foster was recalled.   He served as Secretary of State during the last two years of the Benjamin Harrison administration (1892–93).  His grandson, John Foster Dulles, was to become a more prominent Secretary of State under President Dwight D. Eisenhower.  This portrait descended in the Foster and Dulles families.

The handsome, properly serious young man was probably painted just following his Civil War service, when he had become editor of the Evansville, Indiana, Daily Journal or at the end of the 1860s when he was postmaster of that city.  This is suggested by his apparent age and by the certainty that any portrait painted during his late twenties would have shown him in military uniform.  John Foster was born in Pike County, Indiana, on March 2, 1836, graduated from Indiana State University in 1855, attended Harvard Law School for a year, was admitted to the bar and opened a law practice in Evansville.  At the outset of the Civil War he entered Union service as a major in the 25th Indiana infantry.  Often promoted, he served throughout the war in the western armies under Generals Grant and Sherman.  He was commander of the cavalry brigade that entered Knoxville in early September 1863, in advance of General Burnside’s Army of the Ohio, an often overlooked but quite significant tactical victory for the Union.  Foster’s distinguished service was surely a factor in his first diplomatic appointment.

The artist is unknown.  Probably an Indiana painter, he continues in the old American tradition of folk artists whose training was rudimentary but whose strengths were an inherent instinct for design and structure.  At the State Department the Foster portrait hangs among many nineteenth-century official portraits by more urbane and technically competent artists, yet it stands out for its forcefulness.  With a minimum of naturalistic detail, the artist has grasped the simple, sure structure of the head.  Yet it is not a generalized portrait.  The large chin, full lips, long nose, and introspective pale eyes are convincing signs of an accurate likeness.  He skillfully paints the black against black of the clothes, disposing the highlights in the waistcoat with intuitive rhythm.  Uncomfortable with accessories or with depicting space beyond the figure, he simply floats a dim column in a nebulous background and uses the corner of a table as an excuse for an effective contrasting patch of bright red in the black and white environment.

William Kloss

1  “John Watson Foster,” in Virtual American Biographies (edited Appletons Encyclopedia, 2001), at www.famousamericans.net..


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