Artist, author, soldier, and diplomat David Hunter Strother rose to national fame as a correspondent for Harper’s Magazine, writing and illustrating humorous anecdotes under the pseudonym “Porte Crayon.” While his journalistic woodcut illustrations were once widely circulated, today Strother’s finished oil paintings are rare treasures; examples of his canvases are held by the New-York Historical Society and the Walters Art Museum. Born to a politically connected family in Martinsburg, Virginia, Strother suffered childhood physical ailments that barred him from strenuous physical activity. As a result, his parents encouraged young David’s temperament as a free spirit with a bent toward art and writing.
Strother undertook his first formal instruction from the Italian drawing master, Pietro Ancora, in Philadelphia in 1829 and later attended Jefferson College in Cannonsburg, Pennsylvania. In 1836, his artistic potential was recognized by John Gadsby Chapman, who schooled the young man in the principles of draftsmanship. A year later, Chapman encouraged Strother to enroll at New York University, where he studied with Samuel F. B. Morse. Strother then traveled to Europe, arriving in France in December 1840, armed with Chapman’s detailed instructions on how to pursue an artistic education in that country and Italy. It was during this European sojourn, which lasted until the spring of 1843, that Strother inadvertently discovered his calling. A faithful correspondent, Strother penned lengthy, humorous letters to his father back in Martinsburg, who shared them with the local press.
For the decade following his return from Europe, Strother labored to perfect his artistic skills and earn a living. He painted portraits, distributed the Old Masters copies he had made while abroad, and exhibited his works in regional exhibitions. Again, Chapman interceded on his protégé’s behalf, bringing Strother to New York City to learn the craft of wood-engraving and securing employment for him as an illustrator for a variety of New York publications. He also introduced Strother to John Pendleton Kennedy, the author of Swallow Barn, or, A Sojourn in the Old Dominion. Kennedy commissioned Strother to create twenty illustrations for his book’s 1851 revised edition. The success of this partnership and the association with Harper & Brothers publishing company paved the way for Strother’s incarnation as Porte Crayon. His big break came in 1853 when he was befriended by the writer Washington Irving, who encouraged the Harpers to hire Strother to produce illustrated travel and feature articles for their highly popular periodicals. Over the course of his career, Strother contributed over fifty articles to Harper’s publications, becoming, in the process, one of the best paid journalist-artists in the nation.
Writing and sketching as Porte Crayon, Strother’s depictions, both verbal and visual, were consistently infused with gentle satire. It is possible, therefore, to view Mill-boys Racing not only as a scene of rural Virginia, but also as a parody of the highly valued equestrian portraits and action paintings popular in the nineteenth century. The typical visual elements found in equestrian paintings—horses joined in competition, dashing jockeys, and representations of conflict—are evident in Mill-boys Racing. In Strother’s ironic hands, however, these components are turned culturally upside down. Instead of blue-blooded thoroughbreds, the horses are saddle-less draft animals, wearing only the bridles and blinders of their labor. The jockeys are young African American boys, barefoot and haphazardly dressed, sitting upon sacks just filled at the mill in the background. The younger boy in the foreground has dropped his reins and is about to lose his perch from the galloping steed.
An anti-secessionist, Strother was a native of that part of Virginia that withdrew from the commonwealth during the Civil War to become the new state of West Virginia. He served the Union Army as a topographer, participated in some thirty battles, and was promoted to the rank of brigadier general of volunteers. Although he had been an ardent Unionist and waged war against many of his Virginia neighbors, Strother ultimately sought to reconcile with his fellow Virginians, serving in local political office in the state of West Virginia. In 1879, President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed Strother consul general to Mexico, a post he held until 1885. Upon his return from Mexico, Strother retired to Charles Town, West Virginia, where he died in 1888.