The Art and Life of Solomon Nunes Carvalho

The art and life of Solomon Nunes Carvalho, one of the first American-born Jewish artists, speak to the extraordinary and unaccustomed degree of freedom available to Jews in antebellum America. His eleven paintings and photographs on view in By Dawn’s Early Light serve as a lens into the exhibition and into the period, a time of exceptional experimentation and change for American Jews.

Solomon Nunes Carvalho (American, 1815–1897), Grand River (Colorado River), n.d. Oil on canvas, 51 x 76 cm. The Oakland Museum Kahn CollectionLike members of many of South Carolina’s first Jewish families, Solomon Nunes Carvalho (1815–1897) was born into a Sephardic family. Persecuted by the Inquisition, his ancestors fled Portugal in the seventeenth century to Amsterdam, settling in London, where Solomon Nunes Carvalho, the artist’s grandfather and namesake, was born in 1743. Two of his sons moved to Barbados, and from there to the United States, settling in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1811. Family tradition claims the younger Solomon studied art with Thomas Sully, who first visited Charleston in 1818 and returned for several months between November 1841 and March 1842.

In June 1849, Carvalho opened a gallery in Baltimore offering both oil portraits and a variety of daguerreotypes—a photographic process invented in France ten years earlier that brought the cost of portraiture within the reach of the middle classes. Knowing of Carvalho’s facility with this new technology, in 1853, Colonel John C. Frémont invited the artist to accompany him on his fifth crossing of the continent—an attempt to prove that the “central route” near the thirty-eighth parallel would be the best path for the transcontinental railroad. Carvalho accepted the challenge and traveled from New York to St. Louis and from there by steamer up the Missouri River to Westport, Kansas Territory. Almost every day of the expedition, Carvalho made daguerreotypes, photographing not only the landscape but also the Native Americans and their settlements that the travelers encountered.

While only one daguerreotype from the expedition survives, By Dawn’s Early Light features several of Carvalho’s painted documents of the mission, including portraits of Frémont; Utah Chief Wakara of the Timpanogos tribe; and the Mormon leader Brigham Young, whom Carvalho befriended while recuperating after the expedition. It also features one of Carvalho’s few surviving landscapes, a majestic image of the Colorado River.

Even as Carvalho established portrait studios along the eastern seaboard and explored the western frontier, he poured time and energy into the development of Jewish congregations, schools, and social institutions. He followed innovative religious, political, artistic, and technological pursuits—he was an inventor in the field of thermodynamics—without apparent anxiety that he was crossing into new territory. Carvalho stood out, and still does, as a man of his time, an artist, and an observant Jew.

Dale Rosengarten, guest cocurator

Director, Jewish Heritage Collection at the College of Charleston Library

By Dawn’s Early Light: Jewish Contributions to American Culture from the Nation’s Founding to the Civil War has been organized by the Princeton University Library. The exhibition is sponsored by and based on the collection and gifts of Leonard L. Milberg, Class of 1953.