Canadian-born Theodore Gegoux a prolific commercial portrait artist
By Boni Shafer
Jefferson County Historical Society
Watertown is well known for its rich manufacturing and industrial history. A rather less known, but equally vibrant facet of the city’s history bespeaks its softer, more creative side. The two sides, while different in nature were never wholly separate as the latter flourished under the patronage of the city’s industry and banking barons.
A number of successful artists have called Jefferson County home, including Harry Tyler, maker of world-renowned woven coverlets, and photographer Herbert Huested who left us a legacy of glass plate negatives showcasing early life in the county. But no list of Jefferson County artists would be complete without Theodore Gegoux, proficient commercial portrait artist.
Mr. Gegoux was Canadian by birth, having been born in St. Louis de Gonzague, Quebec, in 1850. He and his family immigrated to Jefferson County in 1864 and were naturalized in 1876. Mr. Gegoux, who began painting at the age of 23, was largely self-taught without the benefit of formal instruction. However, his natural talent allowed him to build a successful business that supported him for the remainder of his life.
In the summer of 1881 Mr. Gegoux traveled to Paris to study and copy the works of the French Masters. While in France, Mr. Gegoux learned about the use of light in compositions, particularly night scenes for which he became rather well known.
After his return from Europe, Mr. Gegoux set about establishing himself as a commercial portrait artist in Watertown. In 1882, Mr. Gegoux opened his first studio, occupying three adjoining spaces in the old American Arcade, located on the corner of Arsenal Street and Public Square. Some would say that the opening of a commercial space was long overdue, as by 1882 Mr. Gegoux had already completed an astounding 1,300 portraits in a span of 7 years. As Mr. Gegoux’s business grew, he purchased a cottage on Point Vivian, working from his Watertown studio during the year and his cottage during the summer.
Early in his career Mr. Gegoux explored the burgeoning medium of photography which he later abandoned in favor of artists’ crayon and oil pastel. He also completed a number of oil paintings, and occasionally dabbled in water colors. Mr. Gegoux was known for post-mortem portraits- a very Victorian practice. His posthumous portraits were usually executed from photographs and verbal descriptions of the dead, although he would occasionally view the corpse. Very much disliking this type of work, Mr. Gegoux charged higher than his normal rates and encouraged patrons to have portraits done from life while they could still enjoy them.
Mr. Gegoux’s portrait painting business was boosted with the advent of portrait clubs. Late in the nineteenth century, he was completing 25 to 50 portraits per club, at a cost of $12.50 per portrait, approximately $325 each in today’s dollars. With the economic prosperity of the Gilded Age more and more people could afford to have their portraits taken.
Mr. Gegoux and his competitors were quick to satisfy the demand for free hand portraits in Northern New York while also competing with photographers who were firmly establishing themselves in the portrait business. Some of Mr. Gegoux’s more famous subjects included New York Governor Roswell P. Flower, local department store owner Albert Bushnell, publisher Joseph Kimball, and Civil War veteran Colonel Alexander M. Piper.
Always seeking fresh markets for his portraiture, Mr. Gegoux traveled and worked throughout Jefferson- and the surrounding counties. He established a studio in Schenectady which he operated for several years, and his mail order portrait business sent portraits to customers from Brooklyn to Minnesota.
In addition to portraits, Mr. Gegoux is also known for his local landscape compositions. Included in his portfolio is a night scene on the St. Lawrence River outside of Alexandria Bay, Keewaydin Mansion, and images from the Adirondacks- popular destinations in the region that he could then market to the tourists.
Mr. Gegoux continued his work in Watertown until the winter of 1908-09 when he closed his studio and departed for Portland, Ore., via Ohio. He died July 1, 1931, at his home in Downey, Calif. The artist’s body was returned to Watertown and buried in Brookside Cemetery.
The Jefferson County Historical Society has a number of his portraits in its collection.