McIntosh’s double-dealing was made possible by "Alabama fever," a frenzied period of speculation and settlement that also attracted the Neguses to the frontier. Born in rural Petersham, Massachusetts, both boys had been influenced by their jack-of-all-trades father, one of whose talents was painting. Nathan, who had shown more artistic talent than Joseph early on, was selected for an artistic apprenticeship, while Joseph had gone to work for a Vermont relative in the mercantile trade. Since their father's death in 1816, both boys had been responsible for providing for their mother and sisters, and the new state of Alabama looked promising. In 1819, just as General McIntosh was beginning to reap the financial rewards of his many years of consorting with land-hungry whites, Joseph landed in Savannah, intent on going to the new Alabama capital at Cahawba to make a quick fortune, probably as a merchant. He made it as far as Eatonton, Georgia, before deciding to entice Nathan to join him. "I think we could make money very fast in the southern states for a year or two," he wrote his brother, telling him also of his recent success painting carriages in Eatonton.
Not particularly happy with his apprenticeship in Boston, Nathan left the city in late 1820 and sailed for Savannah. During a twelve-week stay, the talented nineteen- year-old dreamer made friends with actors and artists and attended the theatre, but he found little demand for his portraits because other artists had cornered the Savannah market.
In March 1821 Nathan joined Joseph in Eatonton, only twenty-one miles from the Georgia capital at Milledgeville. They became active Freemasons, an association that provided entree for several portraits as well as work painting the Masonic Hall and Masonic aprons and regalia. They also painted commercial signs and scenery for the local theatre. But Nathan was restless, and he traveled around the area at every opportunity, following the drama companies and seeking work painting portraits.
Although the exact circumstances of the meeting are unknown, it was during this period that he landed the commission to paint William McIntosh. In January 1821, McIntosh and other chiefs had met with representatives of the United States and the state of Georgia and signed the first Treaty of Indian Springs, which provided Georgia with all the Indian land between the Oakmulgee and Flint Rivers. For his part in orchestrating the deal, McIntosh received $10,000 in hand and one thousand acres around Indian Springs for himself. McIntosh’s wealth and influence made him a likely candidate for self-aggrandizement and just the type of catch a confident but unrecognized artist would like to net. He had money to pay for a portrait but not the experience or sophistication that would lead him to spurn upstart and unknown artists. He also had an exoticism about him because of his race and dress that made him interesting to paint.
The Negus brothers traveled to Indian Springs in May of 1821 and over the course of the next few weeks painted the full-length portrait of William McIntosh and a head-sized portrait of McIntosh’s young daughter. Compared to other portraits painted in the South during this period, the painting of General McIntosh is overpowering. Though the figure's stance is a bit awkward, as are the placement of the features and the head position, Negus' McIntosh dominates the canvas, a grand but still human figure. At the time, McIntosh was forty-two years old, tall and handsome with curly black hair and a muscular body. The most striking paint application in the portrait is the depiction of the clothing, representing the duality of McIntosh’s red and white worlds. The ceremonial cloak and coat, from which emerge an American-style ruffled shirt and tie, are decorated with embroidered rosettes and overlaid with beaded-and-fringed belt, sash, and pouch. Fringed leggings and moccasins complete the Indian elements of his attire.
Negus placed McIntosh in a quasi-real romantic landscape, following the European scenographers' practice of choosing real and imagined elements and placing them where they were needed for dramatic effect. The landscape is rugged, yet fragile and mysterious, and very similar to several widely known Italian landscape prints of the time
The transfer of the painting from Columbus to Montgomery was occasioned partly by chance. Peter Brannon, working as a curator for the Alabama Department of Archives and History since 1910, had grown up near Columbus, Georgia, and had known of the McIntosh painting from childhood. Aware of McIntosh’s role in the early history of east Alabama, Brannon wanted the striking painting to hang in a proper place in the state. He negotiated with the Kivlin heirs over a period of ten years, and fin ally, in 1922, with the approval of archives director Marie Bankhead Owen, purchased the pain ting for the state of Alabama for $500. It hung in the state capitol in Montgomery, by the speaker's chair in the House of Representatives, until 1943, when it was moved to the newly constructed archives building.
The misattribution to Allston came about because Brannon incorrectly deciphered the monogram on General McIntosh’s right moccasin toe. He thought the fancy entwined letters read “WA."- Washington Allston- but, in fact, they are the initials of Nathan and Joseph Negus. The incorrect attribution was perpetuated until 1957, when a Connecticut art historian, Agnes Dods, acquired one of Nathan Negus' diaries from the 1820s and published an article in Antiques magazine on the Negus brothers. She and a rather indignant Peter Brannon, who had been delighted to have an Allston in the archives' collection, exchanged many letters over several months. Finally, in view of Dods' overwhelming evidence, Brannon acquiesced: the portrait was by Negus.
Sadly, the young painter was not destined to realize his early promise as an artist. In 1822 the Negus brothers left Georgia and settled in Cahawba, Alabama, where they continued to paint murals, houses and carriages, and portraits. Joseph married in 1822 and died the next year from yellow fever. Nathan moved to Mobile in 1823, where for the next two years he painted portraits and signs, as well as scenery for Noah Ludlow's American Theatre Company. Chronically ill from consumption, he returned to Massachusetts in 1825 and died only days after his arrival. Ironically, he was buried less than three months after General McIntosh.
In the tangled web of Indian removal in the 1820s and 1830s, the connection between Nathan and Joseph Negus and the McIntosh portrait was lost. Young men without artistic reputations, they had no one except several adoring sisters in faraway New England to keep the story of their talent alive. The deaths of McIntosh and Nathan Negus in the same year further ensured the clouding and fading of their acquaintance. But now, 177 years after the portrait was completed, Nathan Negus is finally receiving the recognition he deserves. In 1997 archives staff placed a new attribution plaque on the General McIntosh portrait, united at last with its true creator, the very talented Nathan Negus.
This feature was previously published in Issue 50, Fall 1998.
About the Author
Laquita Thomson is an independent researcher specializing in the history of art and culture in Alabama. She lives in Georgia.