John Stewart Kennedy was born in Scotland on January 4, 1830, educated there, and came to New York in June 1850. He returned to Scotland in 1852, but was back in New York in 1856. He was in banking until 1885, when he officially retired, but used his financial acumen to assist in the financing of American railroads, and devoted time to philanthropic concerns like the building of the New York Public Library. He died on October 31, 1909.
This portrait is about the same size as those of Lord Strathcona which hangs in the offices of the Burlington Northern Railroad, and Lord Mount Stephen which was given away to the Reford Gardens Quebec, both of which were painted in London in 1898, but is evidently slightly smaller as there is a black fillet between the canvas and the frame. Sally King, Curator at BNSF Railway, has confirmed by email in February 2012 that the top, bottom and left side of the painted canvas consistent with the dark background of the portrait are turned back on the stretcher; the right side was unpainted canvas. At some point, presumably, it was cut down slightly too much on three sides to fit the existing frame.
According to the Minnesota Historical Society, Hill paid $1000 for the portrait on 10 February 1901.
However, there may have been a second version of the portrait, which seems likely in view of the existence of a letter from the sitter’s nephew, undated, but written from 54, Park Avenue, New York, in the artist’s papers, which reads:
‘Dear Mr. Muller-Ury.
I hope to have the frame for Mr. Kennedy’s portrait selected within a few days. In the meantime, please accept the enclosed with my very cordial thanks for your excellent work, and,
Truly yours, J. Kennedy Tod.’
Tod and Hill cannot both have paid for the same portrait.
The sitter’s nephew, J. Kennedy Tod, was married to Maria Howard Potter, the niece of Rev. Dr. Henry C. Potter, Rector of Grace Church, who succeeded his uncle, the Right Reverend Horatio Potter, as Bishop of New York. Rev. Potter’s nephew, Edward Clarkson Potter, married Emily Havemeyer, daughter of Theodore Havemeyer.
The head from the portrait is reproduced in Albro Martin’s book, p.137, but the caption says the portrait depicts Kennedy ‘about 60, in the mid-1880s’, which is obviously incorrect.