Out & About: Historic portrait returns to Hanover


Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 12-09-2023 11:46 PM

ETNA — In the 1850s, famed portraitist Ulysses Dow Tenney painted a likeness of his father, Hanover resident John Tenney.

Where the portrait traveled in the roughly 175 years since, is anyone’s best guess. But now, it’s returned and at 6 p.m. Monday will be unveiled at the Etna Library.

“A lucky series of events led this portrait to find its way back home,” Etna Library Director Jeff Metzler said.

Around a year ago, the portrait ended up at the Nifty Thrifty Shop in Fishkill, N.Y. Employees there reached out to the Norwich Historical Society because a label on the back of the frame said that John Tenney’s portrait was painted at R.A. Tenney’s Norwich home, Metzler said. Norwich Historical Society members reached out to the Hanover Historical Society to see if they’d be interested in it because of the elder Tenney’s ties to the community. At the time, it was unclear who the artist was.

Historical society members agreed to take it — without knowing who painted it. They started researching John Tenney’s life and discovered that his son, Ulysses Dow Tenney, was a famous portraitist.

Over his lifetime, the younger Tenney (1826 to 1908) painted around 1,000 portraits, said Alan Callaway, the Hanover Historical Society’s curator. Roughly 30 of his works hang at the New Hampshire State House in Concord and there are others at Dartmouth College. Based on his research — which included speaking with Hood Museum of Art curator Michael Hartman — Callaway learned that Tenney was most proud of a portrait he painted of President Franklin Pierce. Tenney was primarily known for portraits of prominent New Englanders.

“When I did my initial research, we didn’t know for sure that John’s son had painted the portrait,” Callaway said. At the unveiling, Callaway will discuss John Tenney’s life, as well as how the portrait came back to Hanover.

Once the portrait was returned to Hanover this summer, they took it out of the frame and discovered Ulysses Dow Tenney had indeed painted it, as evidenced by his signature.

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“Ulysses Dow Tenney is kind of famous. That’s why we wanted to save it,” said Cyndy Bittinger, president of the Hanover Historical Society.

Then the question came of where to put it: The problem was that the historical society’s museum, Webster Cottage, was already full.

“We at the Hanover Historical Society wanted to find a home for it, but weren’t sure what the right home should be,” Bittinger said. They wanted the portrait to go somewhere where it would be appreciated and displayed, not a storage facility.

Bittinger reached out to Metzler, who agreed to find space for the 2½-foot wide by 3-foot tall portrait at the Etna Library. He rearranged a few other works of art to make room for it.

“I’m grateful that the Etna Library gets to be part of this portrait’s journey in that we’re honored to be giving this portrait a new home,” Metzler said. “I feel working in this library when the building is from 1905, that I sit in a piece of living history each day. Having the Etna Library support the historical society with a project like this feels like a natural fit.”

It is currently on a wall covered by a cloth.

“It is darker. John Tenney has a very serious expression, as also was very common back then,” Metzler said, describing the portrait. “It’s very beautifully done, the details are very impressive.”

Ulysses Dow Tenney might’ve been famous beyond Hanover, but his father was a community stalwart. John Tenney, who lived from 1801 to 1888, was a farmer who served as a justice of the peace for 20 years and was a member of the Hanover Selectboard, including a stint as chair from 1857 to 1858.

“The ancestors, the people who worked hard in this town … they should be appreciated and noted,” Bittinger said.

For more information, visit etna-library.org. Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.