By Michelle Ann Kratts
Lewiston Public Library
I love when a mystery finds its way into the Lewiston Public Library…especially when she has a face. It was about this time last year that Jeff Streb, Lewiston resident, asked if I would help him solve the mystery of his newly acquired painting. He had picked it up at Nettie Stimson’s antique shop located at the old Campbell farm on Ridge Road. Drawn to its dark elegance, he knew that there was something special about this nameless portrait. Before coming to the library he had already been to countless area historians but no one seemed to be able to pinpoint who the lady in the painting might be. It was time that I had my chance to take a stab at it.
I knew at once that Jeff is a natural born researcher. He is extremely focused and organized. Along with providing me a slideshow of pictures (which included the painting in question as well as other possibilities) he even wrote up a page of “basic facts”—or details and suppositions based upon the information that he was gathering during his investigation. As for the history of the acquisition, Jeff was informed that the painting had “been acquired by the antique dealer in the mid 1980’s from Augustus Porter V as he was relocating (retiring) with his wife, Virginia (Curtis) from 210 N. 2nd Street in Lewiston to Sarasota, Florida. Guss (as he was known) passed away in 2005 and Virginia in 2011, with no heirs. Guss had a pair of portraits in addition to this single portrait and had inherited all three. He knew who the couple was in the pair of portraits but he did not know the subject of the single portrait.” And so begins our mystery…who is she?
Jeff has his heart set on discovering the personality behind the face and said that his ultimate goal is to bring her home—to wherever it is that she may belong. Or, at least, he wants to leave her in a place where her memory will be honored and appreciated.
Shortly after his initial (email) inquiry, Jeff brought this beautiful portrait into the library so that I could see it up-close. I am not an art expert in any way, shape or form…but I was stunned by the richness of the colors, our lady’s demure and upturned smile, the dark plain clothing, her neatly pulled back hair, the delicate lace around her collar and cap. As a librarian, of course, my eyes were drawn to the book that she held. There are words printed on the book: Fanny Wilson. Is this the title of the book? The author? Is this a clever way to showcase the lady’s name? The artist’s name? We are not sure at this time.
At first glance, I knew one thing…that this woman’s style was that of the 1840’s or 1850’s. The severe middle part of the hair, the dark clothes. She did not exemplify the capriciousness of dress more prevalent in the following decades. I also imagined that the subject of this painting must be between the ages of twenty-five and forty. Knowing a little about the history of where it had come from my heart raced…could it be??? Could this be a portrait of Lavinia Porter?
As a volunteer at Oakwood Cemetery in Niagara Falls, I am quite familiar with the Porter family and, especially, with Lavinia Porter. I have learned all about her importance to our local history. In fact, the land upon which the cemetery was built was donated to the association by Lavinia Porter. There are no known images of Lavinia. So many of us have hunted high and low. I recently wrote a piece on the history of the cemetery for WNY Heritage Magazine and as Lavinia was a cornerstone of our story we tried to find something with her likeness…but to no avail. We consulted with every expert in the area, with family…and nothing was ever located. But could this finally be our elusive lady Lavinia?
Lavinia Porter (1810-1863) was the daughter of Augustus and Jane Porter. Augustus was a land surveyor, a judge and an Assemblyman for the state of New York. He is also noted as the founder of Niagara Falls. Lavinia is considered a true pioneer of Niagara Falls. She was born here on September 7, 1810 and during the War of 1812, though just a young child, braved the ordeal alongside her mother and her two older brothers. When the war came to Niagara her mother fled with her children to Canandaigua by sleigh and they stayed there for the duration of the war. They eventually returned although their house was completely destroyed. They rebuilt the house in 1818 and it stood there until it was razed in 1933. Lavinia never married. In 1841, Mrs Porter died and left the care of the household to her daughter, Lavinia. Lavinia was very sickly herself and was said to have had a cough which could not be cured. She was called “the Lady of the Mansion.” No one ever really knew the extent of her private charity work. Her tombstone in Oakwood Cemetery reads: First pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy. Some of her charities involved the donation of a house (on Buffalo Avenue) to the First Presbyterian Church and the donation of land (on Portage Road) to Oakwood Cemetery.
Of course, no one is certain that this is a portrait of Lavinia Porter. It just seems that she is a good candidate. There are several reasons for this (which Jeff so succinctly points out in his “basic facts” outline). First of all, the painting was in the household of Augustus Porter V. So it is very likely that this portrait is of someone from his own family. Augustus Porter V’s great grandfather, Albert Howell Porter, was Lavinia Porter’s brother. Augustus Porter V’s grandparents (Albert Augustus Porter and Julia Granger Jeffrey Porter) were the last occupants of Judge Porter’s homestead before it was demolished in the early 1930’s, so it is possible the painting was removed from the home at that time and passed down that family’s line. An old Niagara Falls Gazette article about Mrs. Augustus G. Porter (Augustus V’s mother) states the following: “A lover of the fine arts, she is keenly appreciative of good books, good music, and the paintings that have been handed down to her, several having graced the drawing room of the old Porter homestead.” Also the face in the portrait certainly shows a likeness to the known images of Lavinia’s parents, Augustus and Jane Porter. As Lavinia had no children, no heirs, it is very likely that any portrait of her would be passed on through her siblings’ family lines.
Jane Porter, Lavinia’s mother
Judge Augustus Porter, Lavinia’s father
There are a few other possibilities; other female members of the Porter family that may hold the key to this mystery. Jeff has researched these women, as well. There was Sarah G. Porter who married Judge Porter and Jane’s son, Augustus S. Porter. She would have been 33-43 years old during the 1840’s. She was also the great grandmother of Augustus Porter V (the person this painting was acquired from). Another possibility is Jane S. Porter Townsend. She was Judge Porter and Jane’s daughter who married Daniel Townsend. She would have been 24-34 in the 1840’s. Of course, there are numerous other women that could in fact be the woman in the painting.
And so we are calling out to the public, to the citizens of Niagara, to try and help us solve this history mystery. The painting will be on display in the front lobby at the Lewiston Public Library for the month of March. Come on over, look at her. Tell us what you think. Do you think that this is truly Lavinia? Do you know more than what is written here? Have you seen this painting as it hung in the house in Lewiston or in Niagara Falls? Please contact Michelle at the Lewiston Public Library for more details or to share your findings at email@example.com or at 716-754-4720 ext. 228. And please share this story and these photos with others, especially those who may have knowledge of this painting.