When you have over 40,000 individuals buried in a cemetery, you are bound to have a few that possessed above average artistic ability over their lifetimes. As some of subjects of these “Stories in Stone” articles have left their legacy in the form of hand-signed letters or documents, interesting houses of their own design, advertising memorabilia, mentions in faded newspapers, and their names on various street signs within the city and county, the artists leave their precious work behind—visions that once encompassed their minds, and in some cases, very souls. To name just a few, representatives of this profession and buried here include Helen Smith, David Yontz, Florence Doub and John Ross Key, grandson of the guy with the most famous memorial in the cemetery—sculpted by another artist of renown by the name of Pompeo Coppini.
Among the earliest painters that can be found in Mount Olivet is John Johnston Markell. He was born on June 17th, 1821, the son of Samuel and Amelia Schley Markell. His great-grandfather, John Thomas Schley (1712-1790), was one of Frederick’s first settlers-having built the town’s first house and serving as schoolmaster and choirmaster for the German Reformed Church. An artist in his own right, Schley was a master of Fraktur, a calligraphic hand of the Latin alphabet and any of several blackletter typefaces derived from this hand.
Samuel Markell (1789-1846) was one of three brothers living in Frederick (John and Jacob) at the time of his wedding in 1815. He and wife Amelia would have five children, our subject John Johnston being the third-born in order. These included: William Warren Markell (1816-1839), Thomas Maulsby Markell (1818-1902), John J., Catherine Markell (1827-1907), and Amelia S. Markell (1833-1910). The Markell family resided in the vicinity of S. Market and W. South streets, one time owning the property on the south side of South between Market and present day Broadway Avenue. Marilyn Veek, my amazing research assistant, scoured old land records and found Samuel living at 203 S. Market Street, a location his wife and children would live out their lives as well.
I’m assuming that young John received his education at the Frederick Academy, where his father had been appointed to teach the Introductory School in 1809. In 1827, Mr. Markell would oversee the Third Department, which I'm guessing would denote secondary education. As for artistic talent, Markell was self-taught as a painter. Perhaps he gained inspiration from miniature portraits of his parents painted at the time of their wedding. A depiction of Amelia Schley Markell dates to March 9th, 1815 and was done by the Swiss itinerant artist David Boudon.
John J. Markell was only 17 years old when he painted his first self-portrait in 1838 in Philadelphia. Even at an early age, he clearly knew he was an artist, and holds, in his hand, several brushes to identify himself as an artist. By 1839, at the age of 18, he was found living in Leesburg, Va., and advertising his services as a “Portraits and Landscape Painter.” Markell had embarked upon the life of an itinerant portrait artist, travelling to various locations and offering his unique services to the local population.
A bit of information regarding this profession can be gleaned from a book entitled: A Most Perfect Resemblance at Moderate Prices: The Miniatures of David Boudon by Nancy E. Richards and published by the University of Chicago Press on behalf of the Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum, Inc. The author states that the field of portrait painting in which John J. Markell entered was highly competitive and traditional customers/patrons were those of middle and upper middle class. In the early 19th century of Markell’s era, painters charged $100 for full length portraits, $50 for half-length, and $6 to $20 for miniatures done on ivory, some going on to be encased within a locket. Other services included profile likenesses which could be performed from $6-$8 and silhouettes were a true bargain at just 6 cents each.
John J. Markell’s accomplishments as an artist are especially noteworthy because he only lived to age 23. This, however, also adds to the issue of having only a scarce bit of information on him. Markell left behind at least eleven portraits, seven landscapes, one lithograph and three other paintings to study and enjoy today. For quite some time now, I have been familiar with three vivid local landscape scenes, two depicting major incidents in Frederick’s history. Note: all three works can be found in some form as part of the Heritage Frederick archival collection.
View of Frederick from Prospect Hill
This 1844 landscape piece may look familiar as it was utilized as the cover of an anniversary calendar produced for Frederick’s 250th commemoration back in 1995. John J. Markell painted this scene of the Frederick City skyline looking northeast from a vantage point atop Prospect Hill (and the vicinity of the aptly named Prospect Hall mansion). Rolling farmland and clusters of trees are beautifully portrayed here as storm clouds gather overhead. One can see the picket fence-lined Jefferson Pike starting at the right of the artist’s work and extending into town as it still does today. The one church spire most evident in this work is that of Trinity Chapel of the German Reformed Church. This was home church of Markell’s family going back to the time relatives immigrated here in the mid-1700s.
On March 31st, 1842, a fire broke out near Court House Square on Record Street at the residence of Dr. William Tyler. Burning embers were carried by blustery conditions to other nearby dwellings. One such was the Frederick Academy located directly across the street to the slight northeast of the Tyler residence. Another key building of interest also was affected—the County Courthouse to the southeast. The belfry of the seat of government, which formerly stood on the same footprint as today’s Frederick City Hall, was ignited but thanks to the work of town fire companies and residents participation in bucket brigades, the building was saved. John J. Markell did not let pass the opportunity to paint from memory his eyewitness account of a very scary moment. Apparently this was done in the form of a banner and was in the possession of the Independent Fire Hose Company for many years. Unfortunately, the courthouse would burn to the ground 19 years later, possibly thought to be the work of arsonists with Southern sympathies at the advent of the American Civil War.
Camp Frederick, 1843
A watercolor (that would became a popular lithograph obtained by local residents) by Markell depicts a military encampment that occurred June 6-10th, 1843 on the grounds of the Frederick Barracks, better known to locals as the Hessian Barracks. Today this is the site of the campus of the Maryland School for the Deaf. In the work, Markell skillfully produced images of the varying companies that participated. These included men from Fort McHenry, Hanover, Hagerstown, Sharpsburg and Frederick. It was quite an attraction as throngs of local citizens lined S. Market Street to get a glimpse of the happenings of this major military force assembled. Markell's vantage point for this work would put him at Mount Olivet's front gate, however the cemetery would not come into existence until a decade later.
A more intensive self-portrait of John J. Markell arrived at Heritage Frederick some years ago from California. Former curator and Executive director of the Museum of Frederick County’s history, Heidi Campbell-Shoaf had been eagerly awaiting this treasure to add to the local collection.
In a newsletter article she wrote of the oil portrait:
“Markell painted himself posed with the tools of his trade, an oval artist’s palette and a collection of brushes. He wears the typical male attire for the 1840s, a black frock coat with white shirt and black cravat; a red vest adds a touch of color to his ensemble. His hair, nearly chin-length as was the fashion at the time, flips up ever so slightly at the ends and falls to either side of his left ear.
Stylistically, Markell’s self-portrait is much like his other paintings, confident brush strokes and clear color choice with a minimum of detail in the clothing results in an image that appears somewhat flat to the eye. Though aspects of his art lacks definition, he skillfully executes the 5’oclock shadow shading his chin and cheeks.
The painting we have is signed not once but three times on the back of the canvas as was Markell’s custom to do. Recycling or reusing the canvas is the most likely reason for the multiple signatures. The first reads ‘John J. Markell, Del., Frederick MD, May 10, 1843’ and is crossed out, then ‘Bathing Lady,’ John J. Markell, Del., Frederick MD, August 13, 1843’ is written and also crossed out, finally, “John J. Markell, Del., Frederick MD, February 7, 1844’ remains.”
I was able to peruse the online Art Inventories Catalog database of the Smithsonian’s American Art Museums and found reference listings for many of Markell’s known works. I was interested to see several portraits done of family members including his parents and siblings. (NOTE: I was not able to see any images of these, but hope that I will be contacted in the future by someone who has a Markell piece and finds this story on the internet. I have included a rundown from the database at the very end of this blog.)
John J. Markell would die later that year in 1844 on December 2nd. This apparently occurred in nearby Hagerstown. John was likely buried in the German Reformed Cemetery that once stood at the northwest corner of W. 2nd and Bentz streets. Today this is the site of Memorial Park. He also could have been buried behind Trinity Chapel, as his Schley ancestors were among the founders of the German Reformed congregation here.
Our records show that John J. Markell and his father were re-interred in Mount Olivet in April of 1866. The gravesite is in Area D/Lot 71. The artist’s mother would be laid to rest in this same lot in January, 1870. Siblings including older brother Thomas (d. 1902), who worked as a cashier at a local bank, and sisters Catharine (d. 1907) and Amelia (d. 1910) would join them here too.
The memory of John Johnston Markell is kept alive and well thanks to the fore-mentioned Heritage Frederick. To recognize the work of this young artist, the entity holds an annual contest to encourage local high school students to depict, through art, an aspect of the county’s history. The contest is funded by the John Markell Memorial Art Contest Fund, administered by the Community Foundation of Frederick County, with additional support from the Frederick Art Club. Cash prizes are awarded to three winners.
John Johnston Markell Aug 24, 1838 Oil Painting IAP 7300001
View Near Fishkill Jan 1835 Watercolor IAP 7300002
Men on Horses unknown Watercolor IAP 7300003
Man of the unknown Oil Painting IAP 7300004
Woman of the unknown Oil Painting IAP 7300005
Landscape unknown Oil Painting IAP 7300006
George Markell unknown Oil Painting IAP 7300007
Sophia Schley Markell unknown Oil Painting IAP 7300008
John Johnston Markell Oct 4, 1839 Oil Painting IAP 7300009
Landscape with unknown Oil Painting IAP 73000010
People, Dog and Castle
Landscape with Cows unknown Oil Painting IAP 73000011
St. John Roman 1840 Oil Painting IAP 73000012
John Johnston Markell Feb 7, 1844 Oil Painting IAP 73000013
Jacob Byerly 1843 Oil Painting IAP 73000014
Samuel Markell 1842 Oil Painting IAP 73000015
Mrs. Samuel Markell 1842 Oil Painting IAP 73000016
George Markell unknown Oil Painting IAP 73000018
Sophia Markell unknown Oil Painting IAP 73000019
Jacob Markell February 7, 1839 Oil Painting IAP 73000021
Cupid on a Dolphin January 1, 1839 Oil Painting IAP 73000022
Infant Savior March 1840 Oil Painting IAP 73000023
The Painter’s Sister March 30, 1839 Oil Painting IAP 73000024