Collections › MESDA Collection › Violet Lawson (Henderson) Baird

Violet Lawson (Henderson) Baird

Poindexter, Thomas J.
Place Made:
Rutherford County Tennessee United States of America
Date Made:
wood –canvas, paint –gilt
HOA: 37″__ WOA: 30 3/4″__DOA: 2″
Accession Number:
Oil on canvas three quarter portait of a seated woman. She is wearing a black dress with sloping shoulders and pleating or piping around the shoulders, waist, elbows and wrist. She is wearing white lace cuffs and a white lace collar with a rectangular gold and possibly garnet brooch. Her dark hair is covered by a white lace and peach ribbon cap that ties beneath her chin. She is seated in a red upholsterd chair, and resting her right arm on a table covered with green textile. In her right hand she is holding a book with a red binding with her index finger between the pages.

Portraits of Lemuel Moore Baird (1804-1851) and wife Violet Lawson (Henderson) Baird (1807-1853), by Thomas Poindexter (c.1805-1864), painted 1840, Rutherford County, Tennessee

The portraits of Lemuel and Violet Baird, which document both sitters, the date of their creation (1840), the sitters’ ages (36 and 33) and the artist (T. Poindexter) were unknown to decorative arts scholars before they were sold by Baird descendants living in Bedford County, Tennessee, in 2011. Despite the prominent declaration of authorship by the artist, T. Poindexter, on the back of each portrait, no portrait painter by this name had been identified in previously published works addressing Tennessee’s antebellum portrait artists.

The Kentucky artist James Thomas Poindexter (1832-1891) is well known, but too young to have created the Baird portraits in 1840 when he would have only been eight years of age. Until the discovery of the Baird portraits, just who trained James Thomas Poindexter has been the subject of debate. T. Poindexter, the artist of the Baird portraits, was Thomas Poindexter, the father of the Kentucky artist and most likely the person who introduced James Thomas Poindexter to portraiture.

Thomas Poindexter (c. 1805-1864) was born in Kentucky, most likely in Jessamine County. Although his early training remains a mystery, by the late 1830’s Thomas was advertising in Tennessee newspapers as a portrait artist. These advertisements indicate he worked primarily as an itinerant, setting up a studio for short periods, typically in county seat towns where he could advertise his services and potentially expose his work to a greater number of potential clients.

Significant to the documentation of the Baird portraits, Poindexter placed the following advertisement in the Tennessee Telegraph, published November 21, 1840, in Murfreesboro, the county seat of Rutherford County:


T. P O I N D E X T E R

RESPECTFULLY informs the Ladies and
Gentlemen, of this place, that he has
taken a room for a short time at the Mur-
freesborough Inn where he will with pleasure
wait upon any who desires a correct likeness,
and confidently hopes he will be able to gratify
their wishes.
They are invited to examine his specimens.
Nov. 7, 1840.

Of note is the fact that the advertisement appearing immediately after Poindexter’s was placed by Lemuel M. Baird, who was offering to give away almost 2000 silk trees, an indication that Baird may have been caught up in the silk boom.

Thomas Poindexter is recorded as a resident of Henry County, in West Tennessee in the 1840 census, but was living in Hinds County, Mississippi, by 1850 where he is described as a “portrait artist” in the census. He died in Carroll County, Mississippi.

Lemuel Moore Baird was born September 19, 1804, in Lincoln County, North Carolina, to William D. Baird (1780-1843) and Abigail Martin Baird (1784-1855). The Baird family relocated to Rutherford County, Tennessee, and in April 1812, William and Abigail Baird were among those who established the Murfree Springs Presbyterian Church that would later become the First Presbyterian Church of Murfreesboro. Lemuel Baird is listed as a farmer in the 1850 Census for Rutherford County owning $10,000 in real estate and is recorded as born in Tennessee. He is depicted holding a sheaf of wheat in his portrait which includes a landscape with a split rail fence. More difficult to discern but likely part of the background landscape is the Stones River, which flowed near the Baird farm. He is buried in the Old City Cemetery for Murfreesboro, formerly the burying ground for the First Presbyterian Church. Baird’s tombstone records his birth in Lincoln County, North Carolina.

Violet Lawson Henderson was born September 15, 1807, to William Henderson (1775-1822) and his second wife Mary Gibson (1782-1852) who married in Tennessee in 1805. Violet who like her parents was a member of the First Presbyterian Church of Murfreesboro, married fellow church member Lemuel M. Baird, July 25, 1827. When Violet was widowed she married John D. Alexander, December 1, 1852. Alexander, himself a widower, had been married to Lemuel Baird’s sister.

The Baird family actively supported the First Presbyterian Church organized by Robert Henderson (1764-1834) possibly a relative. Lemuel specified that Violet have $1,000 from his estate principally to establish a permanent fund for the education and support of young men wishing to become ministers of the Presbyterian Church, with the Pastor and Elders of the First Presbyterian Church in Murfreesboro having oversight.

Violet Henderson was born around 1808. On July 25, 1827 she married Lemuel Moore Baird (MESDA acc. 5730.1). In the 1840 and 1850 U.S. Federal Census, she is listed with Lemuel Baird as a slaveholding farmer.
Credit Line:
MESDA Purchase Fund