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James Berry, Painter

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

In the Illinois State Archives Building in Springfield hang large full-length portraits of George Washington and General Lafayette, painted by an Illinoisan, James Berry, around 1839. The skill with which the portraits are painted has created a small dilemma: should James Berry be praised—or turned in.<--break->Little is known about James Berry, and even less about his training as an artist. He grew up in Vandalia, Illinois, where his father was a bank president. James became circuit clerk of Fayette County when he was 21 and remained so for thirty years.

It was Berry who laid out the cemetery in Vandalia reserved for the burial of members of the Senate, House, and other government officials who died in office.

Around Vandalia, however, Berry became best known for his skill at painting portraits. He appears to have been self-taught, but contemporaries praised his portraits for their taste and harmony of color. Berry’s portraits even hung in the statehouse at Vandalia.

Of all James Berry's paintings, however, the only two that survive are copies he made of another painter's works. In 1839, The State of Illinois commissioned Berry to go to Washington, D.C. to copy the portraits of Washington and Lafayette in the House of Representatives, for use in the State House in Vandalia. His fee was $500.

Apparently, James Berry did an unbelievably professional job of copying the portraits. When he had finished, the doorkeeper of the House of Representatives remarked that he was unable to tell the difference between the originals and Berry's copies.

In fact, James Berry may have been too good. When he returned to Vandalia with the paintings, he confided to a friend that he had brought home the originals instead of his own, leaving his copies back in Washington, D. C.

Berry must have been just kidding, of course. Some art expert must have examined the paintings by now and distinguished the originals from the copies. Still, those portraits on the House walls in Washington are remarkable for their harmony of color.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.