Objects in museum collections often tell rich stories—but sometimes you have to search for them.
A few months ago, The Henry Ford’s staff came upon an intriguing object in our collection—a late 19th century painting of the Michigan Cavalry Brigade Monument in Gettysburg, Penn. In this painting, the figure of a soldier at the top of the monument gazes out over the field where this famed Civil War unit fought fiercely on July 3, 1863, helping to assure Union victory on the final day of the Battle of Gettysburg.
Detail of Jessie’s signature on the Michigan Cavalry Brigade Monument painting.
We thought this painting would be a perfect choice for our upcoming Civil War Remembrance Weekend in Greenfield Village! The theme of this year’s display of objects from The Henry Ford’s collection was Michigan Soldiers in the Civil War. And 2013 is the 150th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg.
Yet we knew virtually nothing about the painting—how could we tell its story to our visitors? The signature of the artist provided an intriguing clue. It read “Jessie C. Zinn/Gettysburg Pa.” But who was Jessie Zinn? And why did she choose this subject to paint?
Our search for answers to these questions took us from internet sources like Ancestry.com to places like Gettysburg and Williamsport, Penn., and Dallas, N.C. Along the way, we found helpful librarians and museum curators who provided information and gave us further leads for our search. To our great surprise, one of these leads put us in contact with Jessie’s grandson, Lawrence Lohr! Even more surprising, Mr. Lohr lived only about 30 miles from The Henry Ford.
It was exciting for The Henry Ford’s staff when Mr. Lohr paid us a visit to view his grandmother’s painting in mid-April. We had managed to learn quite a bit about Jessie in the previous couple of months. But Mr. Lohr shared photos of Jessie and rich stories that could only have come from family.
Here are some of the things we learned about Jessie Zinn.
Jessie had a very personal connection to the Battle of Gettysburg—she was born on a farm near the town the day after the battle! From 1868 through 1876, Jessie’s father ran a store in Gettysburg. The Zinn family then lived on an Adams County, Penn., farm for a few years, returning to Gettysburg by the late 1880s. Jessie moved to Dallas, N.C., in September 1890, where she served as head of the art department at Gaston College for Girls. Here, Jessie met Luther Lohr, a professor at the college, whom she married in July 1891 in Gettysburg. Luther then attended the Lutheran seminary in Gettysburg, graduating in 1894.
Jessie and Luther Lohr with their children, 1905. (Image courtesy of Lawrence Lohr)
In the early 1900s, Jessie and her young family—children Minnie, Lawrence, Elida, and Edmund—lived in Williamsport, Penn., where Luther served as minister at St. John’s Lutheran Church. Jessie Zinn Lohr died in Williamsport in 1905 of a kidney ailment. Then Jessie came back “home” to Gettysburg, where she was buried in the family plot in Evergreen Cemetery.
But what of Jessie’s evocative painting of the Michigan Cavalry Brigade monument? A number of the surviving veterans of this brigade, also known as the “Wolverine Brigade,” were present at the dedication of the monument on June 13, 1889. Jessie Zinn likely created this painting of the monument soon after.
Did a proud Michigan Cavalry Brigade veteran ask the 26-year-old Gettysburg artist to paint it? Did Michigan veterans commission the artwork to hang in their local Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R) Hall? And, if so, how did the client find out about Jessie’s skill as an artist? We don’t yet know. But we do know that Jessie painted one other Gettysburg battlefield scene of monuments near where Pickett’s Charge took place. And Jessie’s brother Merville ran the Gettysburg Hotel. Could a visiting Michigan veteran have seen that painting hanging in the hotel and then asked the Jessie to create one of the Michigan Cavalry Brigade monument? An interesting idea to ponder.
If you come to the Civil War Remembrance at Greenfield Village on Memorial Day weekend, you will see Jessie’s painting on exhibit in the Pavilion. And perhaps stand in the shoes of the unknown individual--Michigan Civil War veteran or not—who, by commissioning this painting, desired to have a tangible reminder of the valor and sacrifice of the Michigan Cavalry Brigade’s men to gaze upon.
As they’ve demonstrated before, being a curator often involves some sleuthing – see how a simple search uncovered the puzzling life of a 20th-century portrait painter for our curator of decorative arts.
Recently, while searching through our painting collection for portraits of Henry and Clara Ford, I came across two created in 1926 by an artist named Carl Bennett Linder. Displayed at Henry and Clara Ford’s Fair Lane home, these portraits came to Henry Ford Museum in 1951, following Clara’s death.
A search of our collections database revealed that we actually own nine canvases by Mr. Linder – all portraits of the Ford family. Curious, I searched the Ford family papers, where I found letters and receipts spanning from 1924 to 1936 for an even larger group of paintings of the extended Ford family: Henry and Clara’s son, Edsel, and his wife, Eleanor; the Ford grandchildren; and even a portrait of Mrs. William Clay, Eleanor Ford’s mother. Mr. Linder was apparently a favorite artist of Henry and Clara, as he produced several portraits of them over the years.
The Ford papers also contain catalogues of Linder’s exhibits, including the prestigious Knoedler Gallery in New York, where Mr. Linder exhibited in 1920, 1926 and 1942; several catalogues feature photos of the Fords as well as other industrialists. Clearly, Mr. Linder – although little known today – was an important society portrait artist in the 1920s and 1930s.
The accompanying exhibit catalogue essays indicated that Mr. Linder was born in Helsinki, Finland, and lived in New York City but spent significant time each year traveling in Europe. His name appears in most online art databases and biographical dictionaries – but interestingly, no death date is listed. This was turning out to be quite a mystery! I knew I had to explore further.
After a string of online search failures, Carl Bennett Linder surprisingly turned up on a Jewish genealogy website as Sam Linder – born in Helsinki, Finland, on the same date as Carl Bennett Linder. At age nine, Sam Linder immigrated to Chicago in 1895 with his family (which included seven siblings). Now we were getting somewhere.
Tracing Sam proved fascinating. He appeared in the 1900 census at age 13, as an office clerk in Chicago. By 1910, at age 23, he was still in Chicago but was now listed as a portrait painter. In 1920, at age 33, his name changed to Carl Bennett Linder – and his new residence? New York.
Mr. Linder’s last exhibition was at the Knoedler Galleries in 1942. A copy of the exhibit brochure is included with the Ford family papers in our collection; on the cover, Linder handwrote a personal note to Clara Ford, inviting her to the show in New York and concluding by wishing her and Mr. Ford well.
The last letter in the Ford papers dates to 1943, when Ford’s secretary, Frank Campsall, wrote to Mr. Linder, inquiring about the dates of Linder’s many portraits of the family. In his response, Mr. Linder apologized for any delay as his mail was being forwarded to his new home in Rye, New York. He apparently remained in Rye, as the online Social Security Death Index reveals that Sam Linder died there in 1981.
What emerges from this sleuthing is a 20th-century American immigrant story. To achieve success, Linder gave up some of his past, thereby creating a bit of a mystery for researchers. But for me, as a curator interested in studying objects for what they say about the past, solving this mystery is a great satisfaction.
Charles Sable is curator of decorative arts at The Henry Ford; he enjoys a good mystery, whether in a book, movie, but especially in the museum’s collections.