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Indiana Governor Portrait Artist: James M. Dennis (1840 -1918)

James M. Dennis

Artist, Indiana Governors' Portrait Collection

James Atwell Mount (1843-1901)
Governor of Indiana
January 11, 1897-January 14, 1901

Artist: James M. Dennis, American, 1840-1918
pastel on canvas, 45 x 34 (114.3 x 86.4)

THE PORTRAIT of James A. Mount is the work of James M. Dennis, a native of Dublin, Indiana, and a resident of Indianapolis during the sixties and seventies. Dennis was born in 1840. He studied in Cincinnati and lived in Indianapolis from 1865 to 1873 and again from 1875 to 1883. In the latter year he moved to Detroit, and continued to paint portraits, landscapes, and murals. He died on May 6, 1918.

Confirmation that Dennis painted the portrait of Governor Mount is found in a letter that he wrote to Jacob Dunn after he had moved to Detroit. After mentioning a period of study in New York, Dennis said: "I again returned to Indianapolis and painted many portraits and landscapes. Some of the portraits that were painted at that time were John C. New, for the Treasury Building, Washington, D. C.; Governor Mount, for the State House, Indianapolis; Jefferson Davis. . . and Joseph E. Johns[t]on . . . all from life." (1)

The second period of his sojourn in Indianapolis was from 1875 to 1883. It is puzzling to have him say that he painted Governor Mount's portrait for the State House at that time, because Mount was then living on his farm and had not entered political life. His election as governor was in 1896, thirteen years after Dennis had left the state. Two alternatives present themselves. Either Dennis made the portrait approximately fifteen years before Mount became governor, or he returned to Indianapolis again in or around 1900 to paint it for the collection. His reference to the portrait as "for the State House" suggests the latter possibility. The date 1900 seems more plausible, too, when the painting itself is analyzed. Mount appears as a man between fifty-five and sixty years of age, and not forty as he would have been in 1883. Dennis has used pastel instead of oil paints, a medium he used almost exclusively around 1900 and thereafter.

Another riddle that may be explained someday is why Dennis was not commissioned to paint any of the official portraits in the seventies when other local artists were being favored; yet, after leaving Indianapolis, he was called back (if the above conclusions are correct) to paint Governor Mount - and this at a time the city could boast of several capable and experienced painters to whom the governor could have turned. (2)

The portrait of James Mount is not very impressive as it hangs in the State House now, but due to its poor condition it is not a fair measure of the artist's work. At some time it was cleaned by somebody who did not know that it was a pastel and was unaware of the frailty of the medium, and much of the original color and drawing were removed.

(1) Dunn, Greater Indianapolis, I, 482.

(2) Unfortunately, no new information has come to light regarding the circumstance surrounding the commission of the Mount portrait. Scant biographical information on James M. Dennis is provided in Arthur Hopkins Gibson, Artists of Early Michigan, Detroit, Wayne State University Press, 1975.

Source: Peat, Wilbur D. Portraits and Painters of the Governors of Indiana 1800-1978. Revised, edited and with new entries by Diane Gail Lazarus, Indianapolis Museum of Art. Biographies of the governors by Lana Ruegamer, Indiana Historical Society. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society and Indianapolis Museum of Art, 1978.