• Bob Vlach, Woodford Sun Staff

Not a descendent, but has keen interest in Jouett art

The executive director of the Jack Jouett House Historic Site said she will sometimes receive emails from individuals who think they may have a painting by 19th Century portrait artist Matthew Harris Jouett. After receiving a correspondence, Jill Roseberry said she'll usually forward that information and any photographs to Steven Ray Menefee, a member of the nonprofit Woodford County Heritage Committee, which organizes fundraising activities and provides volunteers for the Jouett House, a museum open to the public. Menefee has previously been identified as a descendent of the Jouett family by Roseberry, who now acknowledges that she "just assumed that" he was a descendent because of his family name. "Steve has never said that to me - that he is a descendent," she added. "He's never claimed that (he's a descendent) and it honestly didn't change my opinion about him or his research or any of the work he's done for us. So it wasn't a cause for concern or for further research," said Roseberry during an interview at the Jouett House visitor center on June 23. Menefee said he has been identified as a descendent of the Jouett family, but has never claimed to be a descendent of the family. The Lexington resident then explained during a telephone interview that he and Richard Hickman Menefee, who was married to Matthew's daughter, Sarah Bell Jouett, do share a common ancestor, which spurred his interest in the art of Matthew Harris Jouett and a search for his portrait paintings. "So I've seen a whole lot of (his paintings), I know about them, I get to go to people that have the collections (of his artwork) ... and I know a lot about Matthew Jouett. And I know a lot about his paintings and the people that he painted. And that's just something I'm interested in and that's what I do," said Menefee, who works at Trane and acknowledges that he does not have a degree in art history. Whenever he's introduced or identified as a descendent of the Jouett family, Menefee said, "I always say: No, I'm not." In explaining her appreciation for Menefee's volunteer work with the Jouett House, Roseberry said, "He's done the research. He's built a lot of good relationships with good, trusted people. He's seen a lot of portraits. He's taken a lot of pictures of portraits that not a lot of people have seen. He's done so much for this house as far as research ... to get us programming, to get us portraits here for public viewing. So it never occurred to me to question the work that he's done." Janice Clark, executive director of the Jack Jouett House from March 2013 to March 2016, said Menefee never told her that he was a descendent of the Jouett family and she does not know his genealogy, but he has been researching Matthew Harris Jouett and his art before he even started volunteering at the Jouett House in 2003 or 2004, she said. "He does a lot of in-depth research - not only on Matthew Jouett - but he also researches the folks that are in the paintings so we can understand the connections between these folks and the historical place that they held in early Kentucky, which helps us to understand and better tell the story of Jack Jouett and the Jouett family," said Clark. A volunteer at the Jouett House since 2002, Clark said not being a descendent of the Jouett family and not having a degree in history or art history does not diminish the many efforts undertaken by Menefee during his years of volunteering at the Jack Jouett House. She noted that other volunteers, herself included, do not have degrees in history, but share a passion for learning more about the past. According to Roseberry, Menefee knows a lot about how to identify a work of art as a painting by Matthew Harris Jouett as well as tracking down the prolific Kentucky artist's paintings. She said other respected individuals know and trust his opinion. "One of the main problems with (identifying the artwork of) Matthew Harris Jouett is he did a lot of work, but he did not sign or date most of it," said Roseberry, who knows of at least one painting (in a private collection) that Jouett did sign. Because nearly all of his paintings are not signed, identifying the work of Jouett requires "a lot of educated guessing," Roseberry said. Well-trained people can identify specific aspects of a portrait, including what colors are used and how backgrounds are painted, which point to Jouett as the artist, Roseberry said. She said catalogs and lists of Jouett's paintings also help verify his artwork, "but even then there's some portraits you're never going to know 100 percent because they're not listed or they've been disputed. And that's just the nature of art history." A portrait of William Robards Jouett was believed (by Menefee and others) to have been painted by Matthew Harris Jouett and listed in a catalog of his work, according to Roseberry. She said this perception has changed over time as many now believe the portrait was painted or finished by another family member. "Most of the portraits in the house are there because they are Jouett family members. So for us, they're a way to tell the story of the family that lived there," said Roseberry, who has a master's degree in museum studies from the University of Glasgow in Scotland. Clark said it's not uncommon for original conclusions about history to change as you gather more information. "So it's a fluid kind of thing. It's always changing. And that's why it's so exciting," she explained. "That's why I tell folks who come to the Jouett House: 'You need to come back because we're learning new things every day. And learning new things that will help us to tell the story...'" To anyone who may wonder whether a portrait in the historic house was painted by Matthew Harris Jouett, Roseberry said, "We're always very honest if people are curious about the stories behind the portraits - we'll be happy to tell them whether we think it might be or isn't, or what kind of evidence we have to suggest that it is" the art of Matthew Harris Jouett. A self-portrait in the historic house and its visitor center (both reproductions) has more evidence than other portraits to identify Jouett as the artist, Roseberry said. One catalog cites the portrait as being used for an illustration in a book about Matthew Harris Jouett and being owned by the same family of Jouett descendents for nearly 180 years, and was listed as an original sketch in a 1939 catalog, she said. One original portrait - on loan from a private collector - and a rare miniature are currently on display at the Jouett House, but most of its paintings are reproductions of originals that were displayed during a "Home for the Holidays" exhibition at the historic site in December 2010, according to Roseberry. Menefee will speak at the annual Matthew Harris Jouett Day on Saturday, Aug. 12. Visitors to Jouett's childhood home at 255 Craigs Creek Road will also have an opportunity to see some of his paintings during the program, Roseberry said.

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