On the third floor landing, just outside the door to the curator’s office, hangs a very unusual portrait: Mr. John Sneed.
Nearly all of the Filson visitors who reach the third floor, without fail, pause to marvel at this unusual image of the elderly man. Perhaps it’s his no-nonsense expression that captures the imagination? Sneed was 100 years old when he sat for this portrait. Who wouldn’t be cranky at having to sit still for long stretches at such an age! Perhaps it’s the starkness and honesty of his old age that compels the viewer? There are few comparisons for Sneed’s portrait in American 19th-century portraiture, as historical portraiture of elderly people is rare.
John Sneed was born in 1755 Albemarle, Co., Virginia where his father worked as Thomas Jefferson's first teacher. At the age of 14, Sneed was said to have been employed as Thomas Jefferson’s personal secretary. In February 1778 he enlisted in the army and fought in the Revolutionary War, serving until January 1782. During the Battle of Guilford, Sneed was taken prisoner and did not return to his regiment until after the Battle of Eutaw, some six months later. Sneed married Sarah Johnson; together they settled in Boyle County and had ten children. Family tradition asserts that Sneed was so frugal that he was known to walk from his home in Danville all the way to Lexington to collect his veteran's pension several times a year. He did this even in his elderly years, as opposed to paying for a carriage or a courier service. At the age of 100, Sneed passed away in 1855, only a few months after this portrait was painted by an unknown artist.