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Dr. Joseph Mason Dill

Hanna, Robert
Place Made:
Philadelphia Pennsylvania United States of America
Date Made:
oil on canvas
HOA: 38″; WOA: 31 1/2″
Accession Number:
This portrait of Dr. Joseph M. Dill of Edisto Island, South Carolina, is a strong example of the work of Robert Hanna, an itinerant Southern artist.

SITTER: Dr. Joseph Mason Dill (1794-1856) was born in Charleston, South Carolina. By 1820 Dill had married Regina (Alison) Dill (1796-1851) and had established a medical practice in Charleston. Their household included four enslaved individuals. By 1826 the family had moved to Edisto Island.

Dr. Dill probably met the artist Robert Hanna during a trip to Philadelphia in 1826. Hanna recorded in his diary:

“A young physician, a fellow boarder, whose portrait I had taken, offered me a thousand dollars a year & my expenses, to travel with him in South Carolina & paint, he procuring the subjects; or half that sum for half the time. This would probably have been the best for me. I should have been shure of my business & pay if he did not fail me, without the trouble of getting them & had the pleasure of painting without anxiety. But I did not feel willing to subject myself so far to bondage…Previous to this, & with repeated solicitations a lady, Mrs. Gibbs, from Edisto Island, S. Carolina, also sometime a boarder with us, invited me to that place. The encouragements she held out as to my success there were very pleasing…”

The Dill family left Edisto Island for Dallas County, Alabama, around 1836.

ARTIST: Robert Hanna (1789-1854) was born to Quaker parents in Campbell County, Virginia. Hanna’s family left Virginia for Columbiana County, Ohio, in 1801. In 1809 Hanna was apprenticed to the Columbiana County cabinetmaker Jacob Harman, who influenced the young man to abandon Quakerism for the Methodist Church. Following his apprenticeship he spent four years on the circuit as a Methodist preacher traveling in West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. During this time he met Elizabeth Liston, whom he married in 1815 in Pennsylvania. Within a year of his marriage he returned to New Lisbon, Columbiana County, Ohio, where he took up the trade of cabinetmaker and ornamental painter. By 1819 he had settled with his family in Wheeling, West Virginia. The MESDA Craftsman Database has documented “R. Hanna” advertising “Sign Paining and Cabinetmaking… not far from the Methodist meeting house in the Town of Wheeling (West Virginia)” in 1819. Though he had lived in Ohio for much of his life, Hanna now identified himself as a Virginian, as is confirmed by an 1827 advertisement in Columbia, South Carolina, in which he called himself a “Portrait Painter, from Virginia.”

In1826 Hanna determined to pursue a career as a portrait painter. Arriving in Philadelphia that year he found “a decent boarding house… kept by Miss A.M. Robinson, a pious, neat, old maid who took much interest in my success and procured me portraits.” For several months Hanna soaked up the arts scene in Philadelphia and spent much time visiting the studios of that city’s most renowned portrait artists, including Thomas Sully, Bass Otis and John Neagle. Conversations with fellow boarders from South Carolina–probably Dr. Dill and a Mrs. Gibbs–convinced Hanna that he would find patronage if he traveled to South Carolina. Hanna’s invitation to South Carolina resulted in an itinerancy that lasted from 1827 through 1830, ranging through South Carolina, Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee, before eventually returning to his family in West Virginia in January 1831. His life and travels are carefully documented in a series of journals in the collection of the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland, Ohio.

Hanna’s parents probably chose to leave Virginia for Ohio because of Quakerism’s strong views about the evils of slavery. Hanna’s memoirs record that, although he did not approve of the institution of slavery, he did at one point purchase a slave woman, an act which he came to regret. At one point he recounted a rather fantastic incident in which he infiltrated a slave quarter in black-face in an effort to find and recover this servant who had escaped.

Credit Line:
Anne P. and Thomas A. Gray MESDA Purchase Fund