EDITORS’ NOTE: This is part of a new weekly series on the history of our area, offered in partnership with local history societies.
The Trumbull County Historical Society’s 120-piece collection of framed works is a testament to the skill and creativity of local talent.
One particular artist, John Bell, painted many works that survive today. Bell practiced from about 1860 until his death in 1895, building a legacy through the paintings he left behind and the students he mentored.
John Walter Bell was born in Warren in 1846 to Reuben and Betsy Bell. Reuben’s occupation is listed in the 1850 census as plasterer and it is possible that John was able to acquire artistic skills from his father at an early age.
Without any formal training but with a passion for painting, John created mature works very early in life. The 1860 census lists Bell as a painter aged just 15.
The census records are corroborated by a work now hanging in the Morgan History Center. A long portrait of a man in a Civil War captain’s uniform looks down at visitors in the foyer. The man pictured, Captain Charles Harmon, commissioned a portrait, complete in his Union Army uniform, before his death at the Battle of Stone River on December 31, 1862. He was shot by a Confederate sniper and is buried in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Bell made this painting before 1862, which is when he was 15 or 16 years old. This is the earliest known work he produced.
We know that by the age of 16 Bell was a boatswain in the Navy, supervising a ship’s equipment and crew. After the Civil War he studied in Cleveland and New York and became known for his landscape paintings.
During his time in Cleveland he worked with Archibald Willard, the artist who graduated “The spirit of ’76.” With others, Bell and Willard helped organize a group then known as The School of Art, which later morphed into the Cleveland Museum of Art.
From Cleveland he worked in St. Louis and New York City, where some of his work survives today. While in New York, he heard of the death of John Crawford, one of Warren’s first notable artists, whose work survives in local collections today. Bell gave up his New York studio to return to Warren to complete Crawford’s unfinished portraits.
After settling back in Warren, Bell devoted much of his time to training other up-and-coming local talent. His students called him “Old Master”, a term of endearment that no doubt referred to his tech-savvy work.
At a time when younger artists were experimenting with impressionist forms of expression and redefining the constituent “Art,” Bell’s oil and watercolor portraits and landscapes may have earned him a reputation for traditionalism.
Most of Bell’s works that survive today are landscapes, including scenes of the Mahoning River and the Methodist Church of Warren. Bell’s students left their mark on local art, as did their mentor. One in particular, Addison Thomas Millar, born in Bazetta, went on to become one of Trumbull County’s most successful painters.
Millar is now collected by the Smithsonian Institute as well as the Bibliotheque Nationale de France in Paris. The Trumbull County Historical Society owns a collection of eight Millar paintings. Three of John Bell’s works can be seen on guided tours today.
In 2021, Bell’s portrait of Charles Harmon was professionally preserved at the ICA Art Conservation in Cleveland in memory of artist Julia Ann Ruberto.
Reed is the executive director of the Trumbull County Historical Society. For more information, call 330-394-4653, [email protected], or visit the website at www.trumbullcountyhistory.org.