Throughout the Garfields’ Mentor, Ohio home, many beautiful pieces of art are on view for visitors to enjoy. The elegant Reception Hall is a small gallery in itself, with pieces including portraits of James and Lucretia Garfield, a Japanese temple gong, and a large piece entitled The Old Spring House (Flirtation). One could spend many hours admiring the artistic skill in the home, including that of the family (the tiles around the dining room fireplace, as well as the pencil drawings on the second floor, are the work of Lucretia Garfield and her children). The work of one artist in particular, Caroline Ransom, is especially prolific in the Garfield home, and worth learning more about.
Caroline Ransom was a portrait artist who was also a friend of the Garfields, getting to know them in Washington, D.C. as did several of her contemporaries. Many diary entries, letters, and other primary sources illustrate the closeness of Ransom’s relationship with the family. James and Lucretia, for their part, had interests in the arts throughout their lives. Both attended the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, James was an early regent of the newly established Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., and Lucretia had been a student illustrator at a publication of the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute.
Ransom was a native Ohioan, born in 1826 in Newark, OH. Soon after Caroline’s birth, the family moved and her father established a settlement on the Western Reserve centered on a mill. However, the businesses that her father built had failed by 1864, and the family, now poor, moved to Cleveland. Caroline, in the meantime, had begun pursuing her interest in art in earnest.
On the Western Reserve, though, fine art was difficult to come by. In the 1850s, Ransom had the chance to study with landscape artist Asher B. Durand, who was part of the Hudson River School of painters, in New York. After a few months of study, Durand recommended that Ransom focus on portraits instead—so she began studying with a series of other artists, the first being Thomas Hicks, a portrait and genre artist. While studying with Hicks, Ransom painted a portrait of a Mrs. Goss that is now in the archives of the Cleveland Museum of Art.
By the end of the 1850s, Ransom was spending time in Washington, D.C. as well as Ohio, and had begun to create portraits of politicians. Her portrait of Representative Joshua Giddings was displayed at the National Academy of Design’s 1859 exhibition, next to a painting by artist Daniel Huntington, another of her mentors. The purchase of the Giddings painting marked the first time the federal government had purchased a painting by a female artist. Two of Ransom’s paintings, the one of Representative Giddings as well as one she did of Speaker of the House John W. Taylor, are in the Capitol building to this day (the former is stored in the archives and the latter is part of the Speaker of the House portrait collection).
The Civil War and its aftermath in the 1860s brought Ransom a new outlet for her art, and she began painting portraits of soldiers who had been killed during the conflict and presenting the portraits to their families. Ransom also approached James Garfield, asking him to sit for her so she could paint his portrait. Eventually he did, and the result is a large portrait that is displayed today on the second floor landing of the Garfields’ Mentor home. The painting served as a memorial for the family of the late president, where a vase of fresh flowers was often placed in front of it when the Garfields lived in the home after President Garfield’s assassination.
Another work of Ransom’s, depicting another victim, is displayed in the house to this day: a full-length painting of Saint Roderick. Saint Roderick (San Rodrigo), a Christian priest who lived in Spain during the ninth century, was one of the Martyrs of Córdoba. It is thought that this piece remained in the home after a loan, the collateral of which was the painting, had not been repaid to Lucretia, who had given the money to Caroline Ransom. The painting is a copy of one by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, and was done by Ransom as a means of improving her technique while she was studying masterpieces in Europe.
In addition to James Garfield, Ransom painted several other portraits of Garfield family members that are displayed in the historic house: in the parlor is a portrait of Eliza Ballou Garfield, James’ mother, and in the Winter Bedroom are two portraits of Garfield children who died at a young age: Eliza Arabella (‘Little Trot’) and Edward (‘Neddie’). Ransom also did a painting of Falstaff, a popular character from several of Shakespeare’s plays, which now hangs in the second floor hallway. Supposedly, Garfield remarked to Caroline Ransom that he was unsatisfied with all of the portraits of Falstaff, thus prompting the artist to create her own interpretation. All of these paintings can be viewed on a tour of the home here at James A. Garfield National Historic Site.
The amount and variety, as well as the content, of the artwork in the Garfield household is a testament to the artistic and scholarly inclinations of the family, the many friendships with artists and creative types that the Garfields enjoyed, and the interesting, and often surprising, anecdotes about this remarkable family. As a bold, promising, and talented artist, Caroline Ransom’s close and lasting friendship with the Garfields is no surprise.
-Katelin McArdle, Park Ranger