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A Vermont native, the artist known as Junius Brutus Stearns was christened Lucius Sawyer, a name he later changed after a falling out with his father who discouraged his artistic aspirations. He first came to public attention around 1838 when he submitted The Millennium for admission to the National Academy of Design. This apocalyptic scene of a child at rest with a lion and lamb, drawn from biblical allusion, caused quite a sensation; by 1840, Stearns was firmly ensconced in the New York art world. Around this time, Stearns began a series of history paintings based on the life of George Washington, many of which were distributed as prints. The popularity of these prints, as well as the mastery of his paintings, cemented Stearns’ stature on the larger American stage. Elected an associate member of the National Academy of Design in 1848 and elevated to full academician one year later, he served as the academy’s recording secretary from 1851 to 1865.

Following a European sojourn in the latter part of the 1840s, Stearns moved beyond Washingtonia. By the late 1850s, he had relaunched himself as a painter of domestic genre paintings, portraits, and sporting pictures focused upon fishing. In this dramatic scene, what appears to be a multi-generational family is gathered about a table in anxious anticipation of a letter’s content. Neither the room’s comfortable furnishings nor presentation of figures suggests a geographical association for the clearly privileged circle. In a darkened recess of the picture plane, the presence of both an African American and a white servant, bearing an elegant silver tea set, further obscures place or allegiance.

Over the years, The Letter has been misattributed to James Reid Lambdin and William Dickinson Washington. Stearns’ authorship was only credited in 2010, following extensive research and the discovery of a signature fragment by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

After the Civil War, Stearns slowly withdrew from the hectic New York art scene and was killed in a carriage accident near his home in Brooklyn in 1885. His work is held by such noted institutions as the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Butler Institute of American Art, and New-York Historical Society.