Creating portraits from the past

Chloe Aurelia Clarke Willson & William Holden Willson

I have precisely one photo each of my great-great-great grandparents, Chloe and William. I don’t know the dates the photos were taken, although both pose as older adults. And, despite not knowing what they looked like as babies, children, or as younger “newlyweds,” I feel fortunate to have the one. In this Wild West of selfies and GoPros, it may be hard to imagine a time when we didn’t capture what sometimes feels like each second of life’s every moment. Could it be – as some of our own parents may have once told us – it makes us better appreciate what we have, when we have less?

Last month after I shared my memoir at our State Capitol on Oregon’s Birthday, I asked several staff members whether anyone could positively identify William in the painting prominently displayed on the House Chamber wall. This work of art, created by artist Barry Faulkner in the late 1930’s, imagines the famed May 2, 1843 assembly vote in Champoeg. Although none that day could confirm for me, I was virtually certain, only questioning because the painting features the back of William, not his face.

Mural painted by Barry Faulkner.

Yesterday Mom and I soaked up early March sunshine – a welcome change from recent snow flurries – as we drove to one of our favorite places, Champoeg Park. While inside the Visitor Center I was fortunate to run into Ranger Dan Klug, one of the most knowledgeable folks about all things early Oregon. Last spring I enjoyed his reenactment of the May 2 vote during the 2018 Founders Day event. It was during last spring’s celebration that I nearly jumped out of my pants when a rifle celebrated one name too early – just as I arose in honor of my relative’s name. The rifleman had forgotten there was yet another William Wilson to call, this one with only one “L,” prior to shooting off the celebratory rifle salute.

The Inception of the Birth of Oregon, credit Champoeg State Park Visitor Center, artist Theodore Gegoux.

After sharing a chuckle about the “misfire” yesterday, from Dan I learned more about the extraordinary measures early Oregon artist Theodore Gegoux took in his efforts to ascertain what those early Oregon meeting participants looked like. From the walls of today’s Champoeg Visitor Center we learn that Theodore Gegoux (1850-1931) was the first residential caretaker at Provisional Government Park, living in the Champoeg Pioneer Memorial Building from 1918-1924. Although native to Montreal, Canada, he emigrated first to New York in 1864, arriving on the Pacific Coast in 1909. Gegoux was largely a self-trained artist, although he did serve a year early in life as an apprentice to a portrait studio in New York, first learning to retouch portraits. After settling in Portland he became known for painting portraits of Portland mayors serving from 1851 through 1913, based on Oregon Historical Society photographs. According to information offered at the Visitor Center, Gegoux was inspired after reading a 1915 newspaper account about the Champoeg meeting and its annual commemoration, stating it was a worthy “subject of great historical painting.” Gegoux was the first artist to successfully paint this meeting, and his is still recognized as the most researched depiction. He used all the information he could find, especially from the Oregon Historical Society, including later-in-life likenesses, and earliest photos (mostly daguerreotype and tintype), painting some characters who he had very little information to go on.

While some of this I did know, I thank Dan Klug for helping me better recognize how much research Gegoux completed, using available information sources to capture – as true to life as possible – the men involved in the vote. Many of the works of Gegoux can be viewed on a website in his name, including a few non-portraits, like “The Willamette River from Inspiration Point.” It was through Dan that I learned the one photo we do have of William was in fact used by Gegoux to paint William’s image. Because of this, I easily identified him the first time I saw Gegoux’s Inception painting, although since then I have come to appreciate learning the intended identity of each of the painting characters, now listed near the painting in the Visitor Center. And it is fair for me to assume, even without anyone else’s confirmation, that the man holding paper, wearing a dark coat, and facing the crowd in the House Chamber painting most certainly is to be William. I don’t know where Gegoux viewed William’s photo, if the original was still with family or in the protection of Willamette University, where it sits today. Yet another detail for me to learn, some day. Or maybe it’s okay if I just imagine.

Dan Klug, Champoeg Park Ranger, Founders Day 2018.

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