American Paintings and Sculpture
Artist: Sheldon Peck, 1797–1868
Subject: John Aylsworth

John Aylsworth

ca. 1836

Oil on canvas
2013.97.1b - original wood panel

27 × 40 in. (68.58 × 101.6 cm)
Gift of the sitter’s great-great-grandchildren Elizabeth Ann Kennedy Work and William Aylsworth Kennedy, M.R.E., 1960 , in memory of John Aylsworth ‘s son, grandson, great- granddaughter and their spouses, and purchased with the Friends of American Arts Acquisition Fund

The self-taught artist Sheldon Peck painted this striking portrait of John Aylsworth shortly after he had assumed the role of printer at the weekly Chicago-American—the second newspaper established in that city—for which he later advanced to the position of head operator of the printing press. Looking intently out at the viewer, Aylsworth sits holding a quill pen, as if to take a momentary rest from his writing. A letter from 1836 lies upon the desk, identifying the sitter and his employer. Both Peck and Aylsworth had recently moved to the Chicago area from the East Coast, and both subsequently were involved with abolitionist politics. In the 1850s, Peck’s house served as a stop on the Underground Railroad, sheltering slaves who had fled North seeking freedom.

19th century
Not on view

William Kennedy and Elizabeth Work recently discovered this painting stored behind a bed in their deceased parents’ home in Guilford, CT. The Portrait of John Aylsworth descended in the family; its current owners William and Charlotte Kennedy and Elizabeth and Clyde Work are the great-great grandchildren (and spouses) of the sitter. Several of members of the family are Yale graduates, including William Kennedy and his father, who both graduated from the Divinity School.

This portrait has not left the family nor ever been exhibited. Only when the family took it to an Antique Appraisal Day in Middlebury, VT, near where they live, was it identified as the work of Sheldon Peck. Peck did not sign his work, but his style is distinctive. A decorative motif that reappears throughout his portraits in various forms is a rabbit’s foot design—a long stroke of paint flanked by two shorter ones. The letter opener on the desk in the Portrait of John Aylsworth exhibits this rabbit’s foot pattern


Tanya Pohrt, “A Recently Discovered Treasure: Sheldon Peck’s Portrait of John Aylsworth,” Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin (2014).

“Acquisitions 2014,” (accessed December 1, 2014).

Note: This electronic record was created from historic documentation that does not necessarily reflect the Yale University Art Gallery’s complete or current knowledge about the object. Review and updating of such records is ongoing.