Isaac Augustus Wetherby (1819-1904).
Isaac A. Wetherby was many things to many people: an artist, a photographer, a husband, a father, a wanderer and a dreamer. One thing Isaac Wetherby was not?
A timid man.
Isaac Augustus Wetherby was born in Providence, Rhode Island on December 6, 1819 to Isaac and Sophia (Greene) Wetherby. Isaac Sr. worked at a number of professions to provide for his family but struggled to keep a steady job.
The happiest years of Isaac’s childhood were spent in Charlestown, MA where his father enjoyed a bit of success as the foreman of the Charles Newell Distillary, a rum maker on the Charles River.
Wetherby’s childhood passion for sketching eventually led to a short-lived tutorship under Mr. William Rice, “the most prolific sign painter known to have operated in the Northeast.” Here Wetherby was exposed to the craft of sign painting and lettering, skills he would continue to indulge throughout his life.
Meanwhile, Isaac Sr., always under pressure to provide for his family, encouraged his fifteen-year-old son to cultivate his talent and earn money of his own. Isaac decided to take fate into his own hands, and over the next few years, eventually relocated to Boston to began a career as a professional artist, earning commissions through his oil portraits. There, he teamed up with Benjamin F. Nutting, a well-respected oil painter, who Wetherby later described as “a fine gentleman & good draughtsman.” It was here, in Nutting’s studio, where Wetherby learned the ins-and-outs of the oil painting trade.
By the fall of 1839, the process of daguerreotyping had spread to the U.S. and was opening up new worlds of revenue to the working artist. Wetherby, never a timid man when given a new opportunity, obtained his first “daguerrian apparatus” in the fall of 1841 through a trade with an art supply dealer in return for painting two full sized portraits of the dealer and his wife. As one of the first Bostonian artists to experiment with this new form of art, Wetherby used his “dags” (as he called them) to serve his artwork, painting oil portraits from his daguerreotypes. But soon, Wetherby put aside much of his work in oils, focusing more on marketable portraits that could be produced in a matter of minutes and not hours, using only a silver plate, heated mercury, and the rays of the sun!
In January, 1844, Wetherby, never content to stand still, took his new photography business to Louisville, Kentucky, where his work was well received. The Louisville Dime noted his presence in the city:
We had the pleasure yesterday afternoon of spending a few moments in the studio of Mr. Wetherby, on Market Street. He had just finished likenesses of several of our fellow-citizens, and for true reflections of the originals, (for) faithfulness of expression and beauty of finish, we confidently pronounce them unsurpassable. Mr. Wetherby is an artist of no ordinary merit, and we hope our friends will evince their appreciation of his talents by liberally patronizing him, and thus secure his permanent location here. He is every inch a gentleman, and a visit to his rooms, he will render both pleasant and agreeable.
After a successful eight-month gig in Louisville, Wetherby was on the road again, steam boating his way up the Mississippi through St. Louis and Rock Island, and then taking a stagecoach east toward Chicago. It was on this road trip when Wetherby was first exposed to the writings of photographer John Plumbe, reading his pioneering book on Iowa and Wisconsin Territory. It was this book that started Wetherby dreaming about moving west. Read more about John Plumbe here.
Wetherby, in order to pay for his extensive travels, sold photos all along the way. In Chicago, he boarded a steamer that took him through the Great Lakes to Niagara Falls, where he caught a train to return him back to Boston. Once home, he purchased yet another new camera and continued to grow as a photographer. Interestingly enough, it was through his work that Wetherby eventually met his wife-to-be, Catherine M. Thayer, daughter of a respected Boston house-builder. Commissioned by her father to paint a portrait of the young lady in the summer of 1845, Isaac and Catherine were married on February 19, 1846.
Over the next eight years in Boston, the economy was hard on Wetherby, making him resort to carpentry and other handy-man jobs. Much like he had experienced as a boy, Isaac and his growing family traveled from town to town but could not get relief from their economic depression. Inspired by the idea of a new frontier as a new start, Wetherby decided to move his family westward in May of 1854. Here’s a letter sent from Isaac to a friend explaining the move…
Earlier that same year, on January 25th, Isaac purchased a warrant for 40 acres of farmland in Eureka Grove on Richland Creek in Tama County, Iowa. At the time, land in Iowa could be purchased for $1.25 per acre. The deed to his land arrived in the mail at his former home in Boston, but possession would only be officially recognized when the owner registered his claim at the land office in Iowa City with a payment of $43.50.
By the summer of 1854, as his family was settling in at Rockford, Wetherby ventured on toward the Hawkeye State (“the paradise of earth” as he called it) to finalize his new land purchase. In later years, here’s how Issac wrote about his 1854 arrival in Iowa:
(I) came to the west when the alternating woodlands and flower-strewn prairies of Iowa were still the home of the Redman and his game. One cannot imagine a more picturesque region than was this at that early period for an artist to work in.
In July, Wetherby registered his forty acres (parcel #7662) in Iowa City, and while there, he decided to open a Daguerrian Room in a small second-floor office on Clinton Street. It was very customary for photographers of the day to stay in a community for several weeks, renting studio space while advertising for “sitters” to come in and have their photograph taken. Generally, once a customer base was tapped out, the photographer would move on to the next city, setting up shop wherever the market looked promising.
On August 1, 1854, Wetherby’s first Iowa City customer walked up the stairs to his new studio on Clinton Street, and from that first day through the end of October, business was brisk. On overcast days, Isaac would walk the streets of town, meeting the good citizens of Iowa City. This business man was not timid, even developing mutual friendships with some of his fellow competitors. But when the sun was shining, it was time to open up the windows of his second-floor studio, take pictures, and make hay.
Throughout that first fall, when he wasn’t pre-occupied with customers, Isaac would venture about Clinton Street, experimenting with “non-professional” outdoor pictures near his studio – photos which, at the time, had little market value. But today, these outdoor shots, taken between August and October of 1854, have become Wetherby’s best known photographs, and by far, the most history-laden pictures historians have of early Iowa City. Below are the four rare Wetherby photographs that have survived:
In late October, Isaac returned to his family in Rockford, continuing to build his photography business with a studio very similar to the one he had put together in Iowa City. All the while, he still traveled about to other communities throughout northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin, making a living wherever he found a market for photography. For a season, Catherine and the family moved to Monroe, Wisconsin, living there with her parents, but through it all, Isaac’s ultimate dream was to return to Iowa to grow his wealth through farming. In 1855, Isaac built on that dream, purchasing more land in Iowa, this time in Johnson County.
All this was not an easy task for any one man, but for Wetherby, one who challenged himself to be the best in the business, he was determined to keep ahead of the competition. During one of his stints in Rockford, he learned to make ambrotypes under another photographer, E.P. Huyler, a process that ended up saving Wetherby both time and money when compared to daguerreotypes.
Briefly, allow me here to describe the three major types of photography developed in the 19th century, all of which Wetherby utilized in his growing photography business:
Daguerreotype: Images produced on a polished silver-coated copper plate – developed in the early 1840’s, and the most costly process in time and money.
Ambrotype: Images on a transparent glass plate with a black backing – developed in the early 1850’s, making the process quicker and cheaper than daguerreotypes.
Tintype: (also called ferrotype or melainotype) Images on a thin iron plate resembling tin – developed in the 1860’s, and by far the most common and least expensive process of the three.
By 1857, Wetherby had done well enough in business to secure more farmland in Tama County, so in May, he moved there and began plowing up five acres and digging a cellar for the family home he planned to build. In April of 1858, he planted his first crops and then headed off to Wisconsin to move his family westward; his long-held dream of farming about to unfold. Here, from his daybook, is his account of that “damdst” road-trip to Iowa…
Unfortunately, between the foulness of weather during the 1858 growing season and Isaac’s under-developed farming skills, the dream of becoming a huge success in agriculture failed within a year of the move (1859), leaving the Wetherbys once again in transition. This time, Isaac decided to move to Iowa City, shacking up with friends there, while the family returned to Monroe to live with Catherine’s parents. Over the next few years (1859-1862), Isaac bounced around Johnson County and the surrounding area, becoming more and more involved with politics.
Isaac Wetherby and the Anti-Slavery Movement.
At the national level, Abraham Lincoln was making quite the stir, and Isaac, excited to see slavery abolished, threw his support toward the cause that eventually sparked the Civil War. On April 1, 1860, Isaac’s career took a new twist as he discovered a passionate outlet for his artistic abilities. Here’s the account of that fateful night from Marybeth Slonneger’s book…
Throughout Wetherby’s career he would do many “odd jobs,” such as lettering carriages and producing signs for vendors. In 1860, he was asked to create several banners for the Lincoln presidential campaign. While a number of banners were created, only one known specimen remains and now resides in the Putnam Museum in Davenport, Iowa.
Wetherby’s commissions were mostly for portraits and signs, costing anywhere from four dollars and up. The method of payment was almost as varied as the values themselves. Works were paid for with goods, money, and other items for trade. In July of 1860, Isaac had enough money to purchase a small cottage on Market Street in Iowa City. In September, he took his first tintype, a huge breakthrough in reducing production costs. All the while, he continued to build his photography business as he hobnobbed with community and state leaders in the Republican Party. When Lincoln was elected, Wetherby was elated, and with that victory in place, he deepened his roots in Iowa City, bringing Catherine and the family here, where they stayed until daughter Carrie’s death in 1948.
As it turned out, Isaac’s timing and location was right. On July 11, 1862, he successfully opened his new Iowa City gallery, this time on the west side of Clinton Street, just south of University Square.
Business boomed and within a few months, Isaac moved his studio across the street to a third-floor studio above the busy offices of the Iowa Republican. Here, Isaac, and his son, Charley, stayed, doing a brisk business for twelve years.
All in all, the years Wetherby spent running his galleries in Iowa City were his most profitable. Many well-established patrons, such as Governor Samuel J. Kirkwood and others, were photographed or painted by the artist. Yet despite the prestige his collection would gain, Wetherby was, by no means, well-off, resulting in this artistic dreamer’s drive to accomplish more.
This adventuresome spirit obviously led to difficulties between Catherine and Isaac. Wetherby notes in his daybooks that while he was out on one of his many business trips, Catherine went to rival Iowa City photographer John Calkin to have her picture taken! Without a doubt, Isaac’s innate sense of artistry, as well as his never-ending quest for new “sitters” drove him to great success in business, but also produced tension in the family back at home.
By the late 1860’s, his son, Charles C., had taken over much of the day-to-day work at the photography studio, leaving Isaac time to travel and return to his first love, painting. By 1873, and now in poor health, Wetherby’s interest in his Iowa City gallery waned and the need to wander hit him once again. In one of his daybooks he later wrote:
I made money when I ran (the Iowa City) gallery and I have not made anything since I left it. I have lost twelve or thirteen hundred dollars during the panic of 1873, 74, 75, 76. I have just now sold my farm and will start again. I will keep (a gallery) all now in one place where I can see to it myself and trust none.
In the 1890’s, Wetherby fulfilled that pledge, opening a photo-copying business that served as both an art institute and health spa in Rock Valley, located in far northwest Iowa.
Sadly, over these final years, Catherine and Isaac grew apart, with Isaac spending much of his time away from Iowa City. During his last four years of life, he lived in Quenemo, Kansas, working as a janitor in a sanitarium. He died there (date unknown) in 1904, and his body was sent back to Iowa, where he is buried, alongside Catherine (1912) and his daughter, Carrie (1948), in Iowa City’s Oakland Cemetery.
Carrie Wetherby, who lived in Iowa City until her death in 1948, wrote tenderly about her father shortly after his death in 1904:
Father was a man that loved to live. He thoroughly enjoyed life. There was nothing gloomy or sad in his nature, he was very alive in every sense of the word. He looked so nice to us all. Did not look his age, but it seemed so strange to see him. Still, if we could see more life as he saw it I think the world would be brighter for us all. But he lived to a good old age and the orbit of his life has passed out of our sight to shine again in another life. As I stood and looked at him, I thought what a pattern for young men temperate in all things. In full possession of all of his faculties, had his second eye sight. The Dr said his eye sight was perfect, his letters written with as fine a hand as they were 40 years ago. So much for a temperate life. Thank God for that. We had a letter written 15 of Feb in which he said it was a recreation to paint. Could paint so fast. Said he walked a mile every day when it was pleasant. A life fully ripe. I miss him so and always felt I could ask him advice and it would be good that I could depend on it.
The large collection of photographs that Wetherby produced in his years in Iowa City is the definitive look back at our fair city in its earliest days. Thanks to his work, we are able to put faces to the names of Iowa’s founders, as well as the common people on the street.
Wetherby is also the first to photograph such architecturally important sites as the Old Stone Capitol and historic Clinton Street. These photographs are invaluable to an appreciation of Iowa City’s early history.
The website Isaac Wetherby Gallery concludes Isaac’s story this way…
Throughout his life, Wetherby proved he was never a “timid man,” but rather a man who built a life out of his art. Although not now remembered in the way he should be, Wetherby’s memory is strong in any young artist who is dedicated to their craft. Not even the pleasures of a domesticated life swayed Wetherby in his life-long pursuit of art, which took him from the East Coast to the heart of the nation. Wetherby should be remembered as a working man, a man who created his own destiny through his own means, and carved out a national and historic significance that resounds with many artists.
Ruth Irish-Preston, long-time friend of Isaac’s, wrote this in his obituary…
When death called our aged friend it found him surrounded by his artist materials and, despite his four score and five years, busily and successfully plying his brush…We who knew him best – knew his love for little children, his kindliness of heart and his great love of nature.
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.
Wetherby’s Gallery – Paintings, Daguerreotypes, & Ambrotypes of an Artist, Marybeth Slonneger, Hand Press (2006), pp 13-15, 19-20, 23, 34-36, 43, 45-46, 54, 66-67, 73, 75-79, 83, 86-87, 90, 93, 104-105, 108, 153, 172, 174, 177, 182