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Full-length portrait by Ellis M. Silvette commissioned by the New York State Chamber of Commerce on the 50th anniversary of the electric light. The painting was unveiled at the Chamber’s annual banquet in 1929. The inventor, shown in the library of his West Orange, New Jersey laboratory, added his mark of approval: “OK TA Edison.” THOMAS A. EDISON.
Painting by Ellis M. Silvette, oil on canvas, 1929. Signed lower left by Edison “OK TA Edison
”; and lower right by the artist: “Ellis M. Silvette /1929 /Copyright by Ellis M. Silvette.
” With plaque reading “Thomas A. Edison / Honorary Member of the Chamber of Commerce /1889-1931 / Painted from life in 1929 by Ellis M. Silvette.” 90 in. x 40 in.
When this portrait of the iconic American inventor was unveiled at the New York State Chamber of Commerce’s annual banquet on November 21, 1929, Edison stood and smiled in acknowledgment as the 600-member audience applauded at length. That year marked the “Golden Jubilee” of the electric light, and the inventor had been feted across the country. In a dedicatory speech, President L.F. Loree noted the wisdom and foresight of the Chamber in having elected Edison an honorary member forty years earlier. The work was hung in a place of honor in the Chamber’s Great Hall, where it remained for decades.
Most portraits of Edison are photographic, but the inventor had been attracted to the technical precision with which artist Ellis M. Silvette approached his work. The painter would make a series of mechanical measurements of the sitter’s head and other physical features, resulting in realistic and remarkably lifelike portraits. His 1927 three-quarter bust image of Edison served as a centerpiece for the October 21, 1929 “Light’s Golden Jubilee” celebration in Dearborn, Michigan, at which Henry Ford dedicated the Thomas Edison Institute (later called Greenfield Village). Silvette painted the present standing portrait from life in May of 1929.
Edison’s persona as a decisive American business leader is illustrated by his signed “OK” on the painting, which he commonly used when approving technical designs, memoranda, and invoices. The brilliantly inventive and yet firmly rational genius evidently held the work of art to the same standard as he did a schematic or a business plan.
Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931) was America’s most prolific and, arguably, most important inventor. His 1,093 patents span the fields of electricity, printing, telecommunications, and motion picture and sound recordings, as well as myriad other technologies. Even more, the editors of The Papers of Thomas Edison laud his broadening of “the notion of invention to encompass what we now call innovation: invention, research, development, and commercialization. Edison’s role as an innovator is evident not only in his two major laboratories at Menlo Park and West Orange in New Jersey but in more than 300 companies formed worldwide to manufacture and market his inventions… including some 200 Edison illuminating companies.” (http://edison.rutgers.edu/biogrphy.htm)
Ellis Meyer Silvette (1876-1940), a native of Pennsylvania, studied art in Pittsburgh before attending the Royal Academy at Munich, where he trained under noted German realist Franz von Lenbach. Silvette settled in Richmond, Virginia, where he became a respected portraitist. He is best known for his series of life portraits of Thomas Edison, including the present example. Four others are at the Edison National Historic Site; a fifth (current whereabouts are unknown) was owned by the artist’s son David, also a painter.
Chamber of Commerce of the State of New York, Supplement to the Catalogue of Portraits in the Chamber of Commerce of the State of New York… (NY: The Chamber of Commerce, 1941), 247, pp. 9, 17 (includes a reproduction of the painting, no. 247, and confirms that Edison “personally signed” the portrait).
William F. Engelmann, “Portrait Sculpture” in Photogrammetric Engineering, 22, p. 366.
John Winthrop Hammond, “The Edison Pioneers” in The Mentor, 16 (June 1928): 5, pp. 3-11.
“Light’s Golden Jubilee Honors Thomas Edison and Dedicates a Museum,” The Henry Ford Museum, http://ophelia.sdsu.edu:8080/henryford_org/03-23-2014/exhibits/pic/2004/october.asp.html
“N.Y. State Chamber of Commerce 161st Dinner,”Brooklyn Life and Activities of Long Island Society, Nov. 30, 1929.
“The One Hundred and Sixty-first Annual Banquet,” Chamber of Commerce of the State of New York Monthly Bulletin, 21 (Nov. 1929): 4, pp. 169-198 (includes a reproduction of the painting).
Catalog of American Portraits, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian database
Alexander Wilbourne Weddell, Portraiture in the Virginia Historical Society (Virginia Historical Society, 1945).
Barbara A. Yocum, The House at Glenmont: Edison National Historic Site, West Orange, New Jersey (U.S. Department of the Interior, 1998).
Ellis M. Silvette> New York Chamber of Commerce > Donaldson Lufkin Jenrette > Credit Suisse > Present owner.