Collections › MESDA Collection › Portrait of Mary Ball Houston

Portrait of Mary Ball Houston

Hart, James
Place Made:
Memphis Tennessee United States of America
Date Made:
Circa 1855
oil on canvas
Accession Number:
ARTIST: The oldest son of Joseph Hart (1771-1851) and Eliza J.L. (Wheeler) Hart (1794-1862), James Hart (1812-1882) was born in Campbell County, Tennessee. Hart painted in Tennessee, Alabama, and Louisiana, and especially in Nashville, Memphis, Huntsville, and New Orleans. On June 27, 1850, he married Mary Battes Locke in Memphis. By the time of the U.S. census he was living in Nashville where he was listed as an artist. In 1855, 1856, and 1860 he was living in Memphis and listed in the city directories as a portrait painter. Hart advertised that his studio was located in the Guyoso Hotel, where Mary (Ball) Houston’s husband, William Houston, was the hotel manager. The 1860 census listed Hart as an artist in Memphis, and he had become a relatively wealthy man with $50,000 in real estate and $90,000 in his personal estate. Based on later census records, Hart and his family may have spent time in Louisiana after the Civil War. James’s brother, Benjamin Hart, was also a noted portrait painter.

SITTER: Born in Caldwell County, Kentucky, Mary (Ball) Houston (1818 – c.1859) was the daughter of Sarah (Edwards) Ball (d.1885) and John H. Ball (1788-1848). By the 1830 census the family had moved to Madison County, Tennessee, and by 1840 they were in neighboring Fayette County, Tennessee. Around 1840, she married William Houston (1802-1872), a Memphis merchant and one-time manager of the Guyoso Hotel. William was a younger brother of the prominent politician, Tennessee and Texas Governor Sam Houston (1773-1863).

The portrait likely dates around 1855 when Houston managed the Guyoso Hotel where James Hart advertised his studio. Built in 1842, the Guyoso was one of the most luxurious hotels along the Mississippi River with a private wharf and a commanding river view. It is possible that the portrait depicts Mary at the hotel with the Mississippi River in the background.

Like his brother Sam Houston, William was pro-Union and left Tennessee shortly before the outbreak of the Civil War. The family moved to Washington, D.C., where William secured a clerkship from President Abraham Lincoln.

Portrait descended from Mary Elinor (Ball) Houston (1818-c.1859) and William Houston (1802-1873) to their daughter Sally Houston Carr (1835-1922). It then passed to her only son, Sam Houston Carr (1865-1934). Then to one of his daughters, Sarita (Carr) Best (1904-1944) or Mary Houston Carr (b.1926), who lived in Florida. The painting was acquired by the donor at a California auction. How and when the portrait left the family and made it to California is the subject on ongoing research.
Credit Line:
Gift of Gordon Fine