Shedding Light on the Family Tree: Augustine Clement ~ Inheriting a Creative Spirit

The fifth in a series of posts about my family tree.
Inspired by Amy Johnson Crow’s 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks

Prompt: Branching Out


Within every family there’s something beyond blood that binds them ~ you know, things that “run in the family.” For good or ill it could be a particular political view; the doctrines and dogma of a certain religion or philosophy; or maybe even a keen prowess leading to participation in sports or military duty. It could be a combination. Creativity is another common thread and this is where my family lives, for beyond anything else, we must create.

From musicians to writers; visual artists (drawing, painting, photography) to those who work with crafts and needlework, a rich creative sap has been an essential nutrient in the flourishing of our family tree. We cannot thrive without it. For some members of the family a trained and disciplined talent has even provided an income for putting food on the table. I can think of several family members who, within the past two generations, have engaged their creative talents in this way. Still, this is something to explore under a separate prompt.

For now the burning question is how far back do we go to find the first documented evidence of an artist in the family tree?

The earliest reference so far belongs to our ancestor, my 11th great grandfather, Augustine Clement, (b. ca 1603, Reading, Berkshire, England; d. 1 October, 1674, Dorchester, Suffolk, Massachusetts Bay Colony), a trained painter/stainer considered by many as the “Father of American Painting.”

We are descended through his daughter, Elizabeth (1633-1687) who married William Sumner (1628-1675). Their fifth great grandson, Thomas Hunt Sumner (1791-1880), married Margaret Springer (1800-1862), daughter of Lt. Col. Daniel Springer (1764-1826), famously of Butler’s Rangers, and Ruth Fairchild (1763-1856), of another loyalist family. By this time the family was established in the hamlet of Delaware, a loyalist settlement in Upper Canada (present-day London, Ontario). Thomas and Margaret’s daughter, Ruth (b. 1825; d. unknown), married William D. Crouse (b. 1817; d. unknown) thought to be Pennsylvania Dutch, and their daughter, Mary Jane (1850-1932) married Henry Belton (1846-1931) whose family are believed to be part of the Pratt’s Hollow, NY, contingent who came up to Delaware. The Beltons demonstrated a wealth of talent as seasoned musicians, seamstresses, artists and craftsmen. Their musically-inclined oldest daughter, Mary Lewis (1881-1966) married rough and tumble Steve McDonall (1877-1949), a talented musician of Irish descent, and their second son, Stanley Lewis McDonall, my grandfather (1909-1978), who could play any instrument you put in his hand and loved to paint, married a Scottish songbird and artist, Alice Isabel Gordon (1916-1994). Their only child, my mother Lois Jeanette McDonall, (1939 and still going strong as a voice and piano teacher) enjoyed a successful opera career on the international stage. (See Shedding Light on the Family Tree: A Magical Connection made by Music)

Augustine Clement

And so, who was Augustine Clement?

An article by Henry Adams in The Magazine Antiques dated September 3, 2021, offers insight into several painted works of prominent early New Englanders ~ a portrait of Dr. John Clark, physician and founder of Rhode Island among them ~ attributed to Augustine Clement and his son, Samuel. The following excerpt provides an introduction and some background. (The complete article is available through a link at the end of this post.)

Portrait of John Clark probably by Augustine Clement (c. 1600–1674), c. 1664. Inscribed “ÆTATIS.+ SUÆ—” and “66 + ANNO 1664” at left and right of the sitter’s head. Oil on canvas, 34 1/8 by 27 1⁄4 inches. Harvard University, Boston, Massachusetts, Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine, Center for the History of Medicine. Source: Freake Out! The Magazine Antiques, 3 September 2021

Clement was born in England, probably around 1600. In his youth he was apprenticed for eight years to a decorative painter, Jonathan Miller, of Reading, England, and afterwards served four more years of apprenticeship with Edward Newman of Eton. After completing his term, Clement returned to Reading, where he worked as decorative and heraldic painter, and engaged in a lawsuit to prevent an interloper in town, James Semour, from making “drawings” and “drawn works.” In 1635 Clement left England for America, settling in Dorchester, where he is listed in various documents both as a painter and painter-stainer.

Clement is the only seventeenth-century Boston painter who is described in documents in a way that makes it clear that he was not simply a house painter but was trained through a system of apprenticeship to do figure and portrait work. From the documentary evidence, his training was at a level above any other painter in New England. In addition, documents directly link Augustine Clement with the Dr. John Clark, the subject of the earliest of the paintings from the Freake workshop. On the 20th of March 1652 Clement bought land in Boston (he is described as a “painter” in the deed), and the documents stated that Clement’s land was bounded on the north by the house and land of John Clarke. Given that Augustus Clements was a skilled painter (in fact, the only fully trained painter in Boston) and that he lived next door to John Clarke it seems likely that he was the painter of the John Clarke portrait–and thus the earliest known painter to practice his livelihood in this country.

What about the portrait of Mrs. Freake, as well as the other portraits from around 1670?

It is tempting to attribute them to Augustine Clements, as has sometimes been done in the past, but unfortunately there are two problems. First, Augustus died on October 1, 1674, the very month in which the portrait of Mrs. Freake was repainted. If Augustus was an old man on his deathbed it seems unlikely that he could have been busy repainting the portraits of Mr. and Mrs. Freake. Moreover, as has already been indicated, the Freake portraits, and most of the other paintings of this group seem to be more skillfully painted than the portrait of Dr. Clark, the painting most convincingly ascribed to Augustine Clement, and their brushwork seems more refined and delicate. Yet they also possess striking affinities with the Clark portrait, in their handling of form and in their materials.

How can we explain this? Fortunately, there is a simple solution to this problem. Augustine had a son Samuel who was also a painter, according to the testimony of contemporary documents. In an indenture for a land sale, drawn on June 21, 1695, shortly after his death, he is described as “Painter Stainer”; and an inventory of his estate taken on December 25, 1678 mentions that his “dwelling House in Boston, with Wharfe and Warehouse” contained “colouring Stuffe for painting” valued at 5 pounds.32 This is apparently the only instance in seventeenth century New England in which a father and son are both identified in documents as painters.

We can go on to conjecture that the paintings of this group, as has already been hinted, might well have been the product of a family workshop. Since Samuel surely learned his trade from his father, it’s not surprising that all the paintings of the group show a similar canon of proportion and similar materials. But differences within the group are apparent suggesting that two hands were at work. The execution of Mrs. Freake and Baby Mary, for example, is more refined than that of the portrait of Dr. John Clarke. The brushwork is finer, the execution feels superior, and there is more attention to intricate details such as lace and ribbons. What’s more, the paintings of the Gibbs and Mason children show a somewhat tentative effort to move away from late medieval techniques and to master the principles of Renaissance perspective, which isn’t evident in the Clarke portrait.

Excerpt from “Freake Out!” by Henry Adams, 3 September 2021, The Magazine Antiques

I love becoming acquainted with these family history nuggets. Being able to integrate the “Father of American Painting” into our artistic lineage feels like reclaiming something lost that can feed our own artistic souls. Of course, given the extent of the creative spirit in our family I’m curious to uncover the earliest reference to music, for the beautiful meshing of notes and harmonies in our family is, indeed, one potent mix of soul-nourishing sap. ❦

Stay tuned for a review of modern-day family talent.

Further reading:

Freake Out! by Henry Adams, 3 September 2021, The Magazine Antiques

A Study in Early Boston Portrait Attributions: Augustine Clement, Painter/Stainer of Reading, Berkshire and Massachusetts Bay by Sidney M. Gold, January-March 1968, Old-Time New England ~ A Quarterly Magazine Devoted to the Ancient Buildings, Household Furnishings, Domestic Arts, Manner and Customs and Minor Antiquities of the NewEngland People ~ Bulletin of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities. Presented by Historic New England.

Notable descendants of Augustine Clement:

Lou Hoover, First Lady to U.S. President Herbert Hoover; Winston Churchill, British Prime Minister; U.S. President George H. W. Bush and sons; Brian, Dennis and Carl Wilson, co-founders, The Beach Boys; Mike Love, co-founder, The Beach Boys; Alan Ladd, actor, to name a few. Source:

6 thoughts on “Shedding Light on the Family Tree: Augustine Clement ~ Inheriting a Creative Spirit

  1. I also have the surname Clement/Clements in Colonial Massachusetts in my tree, but my immigrant ancestors were Robert Clement and Elizabeth Fawne who settled in Haverhill, Essex, Massachusetts. There is only one famous relation descended from just from this Clement line, but if you go a few generations down the female line is Greenleaf, and there are many famous and historical relations from the Greenleaf lines. It’s so COOL that your ancestor was a painter with so much known of him!

    1. Part of the fun of genealogical research, of course, is discovering these interesting people. As I and my cousin continue our search we meet ancestors and find supporting documents that help to tell their stories, stories that form the foundation of our own lives. Once we have an understanding of how we’re impacted by these stories we can make informed decisions about how we wish to interact with them. Are they an uplifting part of our narrative or do they undermine us? Finding someone like Augustus Clement is inspiring. Of course, he was not perfect, but his talents left a positive impression on his world and beyond, and that is what I wish to do through my own. … Thank you for stopping by and taking the time to leave a comment. Have fun on this journey with your ancestors. 🙏😊

    1. Something to ponder, for sure. I would imagine it’s a balance of both. For instance, it was evident from an early age that my mother had a talent, and a strong desire, to sing. To pursue her chosen career path in opera, however, she had to enlist the expertise and knowledge of others who had already walked that path. It has been my experience that people who excel in a particular area, be it in art, sports, science, etc. first display a talent and then enhance and support that talent by connecting with those who can help. … Thanks for reading and leaving a comment. 🙏😊

  2. I only recently discovered that Augustine Cement is my 12th great-grandfather, also through his daughter, Elizabeth, then a line of male Sumners until Abigail Sumner (1752-1821) married William Kibbe. I had never heard of him, and I am glad I found your website. I will need to take some time to digest the information here. The question of whether people inherit “talents” might never be truly answered, but I have found that certain artistic talents show up repeatedly in varied lines of my ancestors and their descendants. I have found that many of my ancestors and distant relations were/are athletes, writers, actors, and musicians of some renown. There were/are also quite a few politicians and several military figures in my various lines. The entry for August Clement on lists many of his “famous” descendants and is typical of what I have found while researching my family’s ancestry. The gene pool in New England in the 1600s was very small, so repeated marriage between families was common, which you could argue concentrated the DNA passed from one generation to another, but proving that premise… I will be visiting this website again soon! Thanks for taking the time to post about August Clement.

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