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.” Over the course of his career, Strother contributed over fifty articles to Harper’s publications, becoming one of the best paid journalist-artists in the country. While his journalistic woodcut illustrations were once widely circulated, today Strother’s finished oil paintings are rare treasures.
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 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, and, later, to travel abroad.
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. 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.
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