The Culbert Family Genealogy Project:
 Connecting a Migratory People

The Culbert family mystery portrait was owned by William (Bill) Eves Culbert, Sr., and his wife Irene Dorothea (Gilbert) Culbert, where it was hung in a prominent place over the living room mantle at their home in Collingswood, NJ until after Bill's death in 1948. Whether or not the portrait is a Culbert is unknown, for none of Bill Culbert, Sr.'s children ever found out who the person was or why the portrait hung there during their childhood in the 1930s and 1940s. A son, Bob Culbert, remembered his mother saying she obtained it at a second-hand store because she liked it. However their daughter, Jane Culbert Young, said to me that it was passed down through the family because it was a Culbert.

Bill Culbert, Jr. once said to me, "Who was this person? If not a Culbert, why and how did it land in our modest family home...? The portrait is of a quality found only in the world's main art galleries. It is not something an indigent Irish immigrant commissioned for himself in the early 1800's!"

Bob Culbert, as eldest son, inherited the portrait when Irene Culbert died in 1977. She wrote in her will on 20 Sep 1948 the following, "The portrait of a man seated in a chair [I give] to my son, Robert William Culbert," and this portrait currently belongs to Bob's eldest son, Dave Culbert, who lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Bill Culbert, Jr. wrote to me in October 2001 with some information he had collected about this portrait from Bob's wife, Dorothy Culbert in 1979. About 1969, when Bob and Dorothy lived in Washington, DC, they had the painting examined by experts at the National Gallery of Art. After an x-ray and critical art examination, Mr. McGill (Magill?) James provided the following comments:

"It was painted in Philadelphia about 1830, give or take a year or so. It was not painted in Wilmington - no one there did this quality work. The most likely artist was John Naegle - there are many of his works in Philadelphia galleries; or maybe it was done by Jacob Eichholtz. There was probably a companion portrait of the subject's wife. This would be a typical commission done at the time of marriage. It is not a Peale or a Stuart. It is a first-class piece of work, even though the hands are poor. The flesh tones are outstanding, and better than the Peales' work. The black frame is much newer, but nice."

Bill Culbert, Jr. also reported in 1979 that Dorothy Culbert said, "The care of the painting by the elder Dorothy Culbert (Irene Dorothea Culbert), that of scrubbing the painting annually with ivory soap, was precisely the right thing to do. It almost certainly is of a family relation - no one else would have kept such a thing."

These 1979 comments conflict in several ways with the following comments related by the family later on. However, the 1979 comments are thought to be more accurate because they were written down in 1979, rather than recalled later.

As it was later recalled in our family, they had the portrait examined by McGill James at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC in 1948. Mr. James's examination indicated that the portrait had not been retouched, and ventured his thought that it had probably been done in Philadelphia around 1837, give or take ten years. He asked that an 8 by 10 professional photo be made of the portrait, which he would circulate, as he was confident that it would be identified by others. The photo was made and sent to Mr. James, but no further word was ever heard about it. Mr. James left the National Gallery shortly after the photo was sent to him, and has since passed away.

Bill Culbert, Jr. also later (than 1979) said to me, "My recollection of what they (Bob and Dorothy) learned is this: there is no signature on the portrait; it is of excellent, but uneven quality, indicating different artists, perhaps a student, did parts of it, especially the hands, which are poorly done; the face and its lighting are exceptional, and could possibly have been done by Charles Wilson Peale, the great portraitist, famous for numerous portraits of George Washington. When Anne Culbert Bourne Schulz sent me (Bill Culbert, Jr.) some stuff in the early 1970's that said that Moses' (Culbert) brother James (Culbert) was believed to have once been mayor of Wilmington, Delaware, I wondered if this portrait is of James, thinking Wilmington (pretty important back then) might have popped for portraits of mayors. The mystery portrait bears no resemblance at all to a poor photo of what I assume was a painting of someone Anne Bourne said, was 'Moses, the guy who started it all in this country.'"

Bob Culbert later (than 1979) said, "The most striking thing I know of to support the theory that it is a Culbert progenitor is the uncanny resemblance it bears to a couple of Bill Culbert, Jr.'s sons."

When Bob and Dorothy lived in Baton Rouge in the early 1990's they reportedly had the portrait relined and the mark on the forehead restored, made when Carolyn Young shot an arrow into it. This may be just a story, because when I examined the portrait at Bob's house in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in June, 1997, I found no evidence whatsoever of an arrow to the forehead.

Putting the portrait in our known Culbert family historical context, if it was painted about 1830, it most likely would have been done of James Culbert, who married Martha Morrison in Wilmington on 14 Nov 1826, presumably in Wilmington, Delaware. It is much less likely that it is a portrait of Moses Culbert, who married Jane Fleming in Philadelphia on 15 Nov 1832, because he was much less prosperous than his brother. Moses started out in the retail business in 1835 in Nether Providence Township, Delaware County, Pennsylvania, and about 1842 became a farmer. However, James Culbert was a prosperous grocer in Wilmington, and I have determined he was not a Mayor of Wilmington. James' sons Samuel and Thomas may have been more prosperous than their father, however they were born in 1838 and 1833, respectively, which would place the time of the painting about 1850-1860, later than the period estimated. Thomas married Mary Ellen Springer about 1859, and she was the daughter of Peter Springer, a well-to-do hatter and furrier in Wilmington. Samuel never married. At Samuel's death in 1903, listed as part of the inventory made as part of the settlement of his estate was "1 picture 'Saml. Culbert' value $ 1.00," which might be this portrait. However, also on this list is, "1 oil painting (marine scene)" valued at $1.50, so for consistency's sake in the inventory, it is most likely that the picture of Samuel referenced was a photograph and not this portrait. The inventoried picture of Samuel hung in the front parlor of his home in Wilmington, and it is not known what happened to it.

I took some photographs of the portrait in 1997, when I saw it in New Mexico, and have been circulating them to various art authorities since then. In 1997, I sent a photo to Lillian Miller, Historian of American Culture and Editor of the Peale Family Papers at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. She wrote back that she did not believe the portrait was by any of the Peale artists. She suggested it might have been done by Charles Bird King, a Washington portraitist at the time (1825-1830) that this work was likely done, judging by the sitter's clothes. Also, she was not able to identify the sitter. She suggested that I contact Andrew Cosentino, a King expert.

I contacted Dr. Cosentino in 1997, and his verbal comments to me on the telephone were that this portrait is not a King. He said it is more in the Sully or Stuart style. The empire chair and pose indicate the 18th Century tradition, probably painted before 1820. He also related that, traditionally, hands and other anatomy were not accurately painted by these portraitists, so the fact that the hands on the portrait are not well done is not remarkable. He suggested that I contact Ellen Miles of the National Portrait Gallery.

In 1998, I did contact Ellen Miles, and she said they cannot identify the artist or sitter. She suggested by the style of clothing that it was painted during the 1825-1835 period. She also commented that it was an unusual pose for the sitter, not looking toward the painter. She suggested that I contact Darrel Sewell, the Robert L. McNeil, Jr. Curator of American Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art.

In 1998 I contacted Mr. Sewell, and he said that if Lillian Miller and Ellen Miles could not identify the artist, it is going to be hard to identify based on style, when the history of ownership and exhibition are not known, and the sitter remains unidentified. He suggested that the painting may be by Robert Street, who was a successful and prolific second-tier portraitist in Philadelphia at the time. However, if it is a Street, it would be one of his best works because the pose is very complex, and his male sitters usually wore black. Mr. Sewell made a quick check of the exhibition records of the Pennsylvania Academy, and determined that Street never exhibited a portrait of any Culbert there.

The information received from Bill Culbert, Jr. in Octber 2001 about John Naegle and Jacob Eichholtz provided some new avenues for investigation. There are several references to Eichholtz on the Internet, and one portrait by him currently for sale appears to be of the same style as our portrait. I have sent an electronic image to an Eichholtz expert, and it was not recognized. I have yet to find any information about John Naegle.

So, that is where things stand now, a continuing family mystery, as it will remain until additional opportunities for further research are discovered.

The portrait can be seen here: