On the eve of the Civil War David Hunter Strother was possibly the best known graphic artist in America. The nation's leading art journal, The Crayon, hailed him as "one of best draughtsmen this country possesses." Other publications noted that his work was known to "half the country" and that his pen name, "Porte Crayon," had become "almost a household word."
Born in Martinsburg, (West) Virginia in 1816, Strother studied painting with Samuel F.B. Morse during the mid 1830s. After further study in Europe, he returned to America and learned the craft of designing on wood for book and periodical illustration. He honed his skills on educational books and ephemeral tracts before a commission to contribute 20 illustrations to The Swallow Barn by John Pendleton Kennedy brought him critical acclaim in 1852.
In 1853 Strother was commissioned by Harper and Brothers to write and illustrate an article about a sporting expedition into the remote Allegheny Mountains of (West) Virginia. Submitted under the pen name "Porte Crayon," and published in Harper's New Monthly Magazine in December 1853, the article proved to be immensely popular.
In the ensuing years Strother became a regular contributor to Harper's Monthly. Among the more than two dozen illustrated travelogues he penned between December 1854 and May 1861, were articles focusing on "Winter in the South," "The Dismal Swamp" and "Summer in New England." These articles transported a growing body of readers across the nation, introducing them to American localities and characters from Maine to Louisiana.
During the Civil War Strother served as a topographer and staff officer to assorted Union generals. At the war's end he was appointed Adjutant General of Virginia but served only briefly before retiring to organize his memoirs of the war.
Between June 1866 and April 1868 Harper's Monthly published eleven installments of "Porte Crayon's " "Personal Recollections of the War." Written with accuracy, detail, and criticism towards each side, the series contains an immediacy and an objectivity that is often lacking in the Civil War reminiscences of other writers.
In the years that followed Strother continued to contribute to Harper's Monthly and various of publications. A ten part series entitled "The Mountains" introduced America to the rural character and folkways of the new state of West Virginia. Other articles focused on eclectic topics ranging from politics and "negro schools" to Chief Sitting Bull. Though he continued to write and sketch until his death, his appointment to the post of Consul General to Mexico by President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1879 brought the career of "Porte Crayon " to an end.
A New York Times obituary's reminder that his pseudonym had once been "almost a household word" suggests that Strother's fame had faded by the time of his death in 1888. Within a few short decades his work was largely forgotten. The reasons for this neglect are many. As both an artist and an author Strother does not fall neatly into a single field of study. Nor is he easy to categorize from a regional standpoint. Though the primary emphasis of his work rested in depicting the South, his Union military service precluded enthusiasm for his work in circles where it should have been the greatest. As a writer, his forum was the ephemeral vehicle of the magazine, the content of which is often regarded as falling somewhere between literature and journalism. As an artist, he found fame in the field of illustration, a field in which few artists have achieved enduring recognition.
There can be little doubt, however, that Strother's combined artistic and literary sketches of America and its diverse inhabitants played a significant role in helping to define a national identity at a time when the nation's very existence was threatened by sectional differences. Indeed, his colorful portraits of American characters, ranging from hospitable Virginia squires to self reliant mountaineers, helped to establish archetypes that were so powerful that they were adopted and reiterated by generations of subsequent writers.
During the course of his lifetime David Hunter Strother made many drawings, some with a specific use in mind and others apparently for the sheer pleasure of doing them. These drawings afford insight into Strother's world: individuals, people at work or at play, friends, neighbors and assorted "characters," buildings, animals, carts, landscapes, and episodes he had seen or experienced at home or while traveling. Like the sketches of other 19thcentury graphic artists ranging from F.O.C. Darley to Winslow Homer, many of these drawings were considered to be primarily a means to an end in Strother's day; a preliminary, but all important, step in the production of mass produced wood engravings. They represent the artist's original inspiration.
The drawings are included in the West Virginia Historical Art Catalog and may be browsed by title and keyword ( Click this hyperlink to browse the drawings by title ). They are also available in a PDF file entitled: David Hunter Strother, Drawings & Sketches - West Virginia University Regional History Collection Holdings, 2001 (Note: PDF file is 104MB)