David Johnson Kennedy

(1816 - 1898)

Railroad agent and amateur painter who produced more than 1,000 watercolors of Philadelphia. The artist was born in Port Mullin, Scotland, worked various jobs, including as a stonecutter, and took a few painting lessons. In 1833, his family emigrated to Ontario, Canada. Two years later, he moved to Philadelphia, and stayed briefly with his married sister. In 1836, he moved again to Nashville, Tennessee, where he worked for a dry goods store and practiced painting, mostly miniatures, in his spare time. But he soon fell ill, and returned to Philadelphia, and then to Canada in 1837. After recovering, he moved back to Philadelphia, where he married Morgianna Corbin, the granddaughter of Benjamin Fay, president of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. His wife's connections found him a job as a clerk in the new office of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad at Broad and Cherry Streets. He worked for the Reading for more than two decades, rising to be a purchasing and general agent. Failing eyesight forced him to retire in 1861, but he continued to paint until his death.

During his half-century of painting, he captured grand houses, railroads, street scenes, and other buildings in and around Philadelphia; of particular note are the pictures he did of the 1876 Centennial Exhibition The paintings are appreciated for their detail, the notes he often left on them, and for "recording an environment that was very rapidly changing during the decades he was observing it."

Today, many of his paintings are held by various Philadelphia-area historical societies. The largest collection, held by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, consists of forty boxes, two folders of indices and inventories, eight volumes and one over-sized folio. Overall, it covers 66 linear feet.

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The David Johnston Kennedy Collection consists of more than 1000 watercolors, drawings, and other pieces, and is housed at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. It is perhaps one of the largest collections of images of Philadelphia. This collection was created between the years 1838 and 1898 the year of Kennedy's death. Most of the collection depict images of locations within the Philadelphia area.

Who was David Johnston Kennedy?

David Johnston Kennedy (1816-1898) was born in Port Mullin, Scotland. While in Scotland, Kennedy worked a variety of jobs including as a stonecutter, before immigrating with his family to Ontario, Canada in 1833. Kennedy was almost completely a self- taught artist. His only formal training came from a few lessons given to him by a local artist named Robert McMeiken just before leaving for Ontario.

Kennedy left Canada for Philadelphia in 1835. While in Canada, Kennedy had spent a few years working for his father. He helped his father to cut stone as well as assisting in farming the family's land. Kennedy never enjoyed either of these jobs, and was therefore eager to explore new territory. Kennedy stayed with his sister in Philadelphia for a short amount of time, but by the spring of 1836 he moved again, this time to Nashville, Tennessee. In Nashville, Kennedy worked for a dry goods store. He still had time to practice his art in his spare time, mostly painting miniatures. Unfortunately, while in Nashville, Kennedy fell ill. He returned to Philadelphia first, but then went back to Canada in 1837.

After regaining his strength, Kennedy returned again to Philadelphia, and soon married Morgianna Corbin, the granddaughter of Benjamin Fay who was the president of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. His new wife was well connected in Philadelphia and by 1839, had managed to find Kennedy a clerkship in the new office of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, which had just opened on Broad and Cherry Streets. Kennedy soon rose to the position of Purchasing and General Agent. Kennedy enjoyed this new life as a businessman and remained with the firm for more than twenty years. However, in his spare time Kennedy still continued to paint. Sometimes, he would show his watercolors at his Steam Power Printing Plant of Baker and Kennedy, which was located at 326 Chestnut Street. However, Kennedy only officially exhibited his work once: two landscape views of Scotland and Ireland at the Artists' Fund Society in 1841.

Kennedy was forced to retire in 1861 due to failing eyesight, but he still continued his career as an artist. He accepted assignments as a draftsman, and spent a great deal of time finishing his watercolor drawings of Philadelphia scenes. He worked on this collection until his death in 1898. Kennedy had once hoped to publish them as a book, which he would title Lights and Shades of Other Days, Reminisces of the Past, but this project was never realized. However, his albums containing his work were given to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

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View painter's work: David Johnson Kennedy (1816-1898)

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