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A Portrait is Worth a Thousand Words

Historians have always used drawings and paintings to give us insight into life in times past. Pictures are worth a thousand words, and portraits are no exception. Check out some of our favorite portraits held in Department of Arkansas Heritage collections:


George Weigart, by unknown artist, oil on canvas, circa 1834

An oil portrait of George Weigart, the supervising architect of Arkansas’s original state capitol, is a collection favorite at the Old State House Museum. Weigart’s great granddaughter donated the painting to the museum in 1973. No artist name or date is included with the painting. While the artist is unknown, the mystery adds to the painting’s striking beauty.


Matilda Hanger, by Henry Byrd, oil on canvas, circa 1856

Matilda Cunningham Hanger was born to Little Rock’s first doctor and mayor, Matthew Cunningham, and his wife, Eliza Wilson Bertrand Cunningham. In this portrait, painted by Henry Byrd, Matilda Hanger is pictured with earrings, a broach and a finely embroidered shawl. The portrait hangs in the All of Arkansas exhibit at Historic Arkansas Museum.

Originally from Ireland, Byrd was one of Arkansas’s most prolific portrait painters in the 19th century. Byrd established himself as a painter in the 1830s in New York and later moved to El Dorado. Unfortunately, very few portraits can be traced back to Byrd. While hundreds of paintings attributed to him hang in the homes and buildings of many, he seldom signed his work. As of 2010, only two known signed paintings of Byrd’s exist.


“Edward Payson Washbourne Self Portrait,” by Edward Payson Washbourne, oil on canvas painting, circa 1850-1860

Edward Payson Washbourne was a renowned portrait painter in the mid-1800s. Best known for his most popular painting, The Arkansas Traveler, Washbourne grew up in Fort Smith but moved to New York City in 1853 to study art under Charles Loring Elliott. By 1855, Washbourne returned to Arkansas and opened studios in Fayetteville, Little Rock, Fort Smith and Washington. This painting is in the Arkansas State Archives collection.

Julienne Crawford, curator at the Arkansas State Archives, said, “The painting is gorgeous and shows Edward Payson Washbourne’s great skill as an artist. It is interesting to view how an artist sees himself. I have loved this painting since I first saw it.”


“Big Bill,” by George Hunt, Oil on canvas with burlap, circa 2009

Big Bill Broonzy, born Lee Conley Bradley, was a key African American blues singer, songwriter and guitarist during the 20th century. Although his career skyrocketed and peaked while he was in Chicago, some of his earliest experiences as a performer and songwriter were in Arkansas. This painting is in the Delta Cultural Center collection. The painter, George Hunt, spent most of his childhood in Hot Springs before attending college at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (UAPB) where he studied art.

"Untitled (Woman with Buttons)," by Delita Martin, gelatin printing, conte, acrylic, hand stitching, buttons, circa 2015

While portraits are oftentimes seen as an art form of the past, modern artist Delita Martin still uses them to shed light on many topics and issues. Martin is an African American painter whose use of vibrant colors and patterns brings paintings to life. According to Martin’s artist statement, this untitled portrait is part of a collection that depicts “sisters, mothers, daughters and women who show a solid resolve to life’s obstacles.” This collection was created to raise awareness of the diversity among women of color. “Untitled (Woman with Buttons)” is part of the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center’s collection. Portraits have the power to tell stories – stories the Department of Arkansas Heritage preserves through the work of its eight divisions. Visit one of our sites today to experience these stories.