Monday, October 7, 2013

Nicholas Matthews Mixed Whiskey and Fine Art

At a time when most whiskey men fancied the kind of large paintings of nudes that typically hung behind the bar of many saloons,  Nicholas Martin Matthews of Baltimore amassed a collection of fine art that became the subject of major national attention.  Just how he was motivated to collecting and why he ultimately sold off his paintings still remain something of a mystery.

Like a number of other Maryland distillers and liquor distributors, Matthews was from an old and distinguished family.  One of his ancestors, through his mother, had been a member of the Maryland House of Delegates and then the governor of the state.   Born in 1858 to Thomas and Rebecca Martin Matthews,  the 1870 census found Nicholas a school boy of 12 years living on a large Talbot County plantation owned by his 85-year-old maternal grandfather,  Nicholas Martin, after whom he had been named.   His father Thomas was operating the farm together with several resident field hands.  Also in the household was his mother’s brother, John Martin, a school teacher, and two of his pupils.   It is highly possible that young Nicholas was home schooled.

An only child, Matthews likely was the ultimate inheritor of the plantation, which may have provided the financial backing for his opening a wholesale liquor establishment in Baltimore in 1888.  As is shown by his elaborate “art nouveau” letterhead, the company initially was located at 128 Calvert Street, a major commercial avenue.  His headquarters, as seen in an illustration, was an imposing four-story frame building.

By this time Nicholas was married. In 1882 he wed Bessie Vanderveer Matthews, who had been born in Alabama and was slightly older than he.   They would have a family of three girls,  Eleanor (Nellie), born in 1883;  Bessie, 1885; and Lucie, 1889.  The 1900 census found the Matthews family living at 154 Fryer Street.   Nicholas’ occupation was given as “liquor dealer.”

By this time,  Matthews had moved his company to larger quarters at 110-112  East Pratt Street.   He would remain there from 1900 until 1904.  By this time his Altamont Pure Rye would be firmly established as a Maryland brand name, with major outlets in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere around the mid-Atlantic.  He advertised his whiskey with the illustration of a very well-dressed gentleman exclaiming as he took a sip, “Ah! That flavor.”  Jim Bready, the guru of Baltimore whiskey, noted that a visitor arriving at the city by steamer was greeted by a huge sign that read “Altamont Pure Rye,  Finest American Whiskey.”

Matthews packaged his liquor largely in glass bottles with an embossed logo on them, as seen here.  Like other whiskey men, he also provided saloons that stocked Altamont Rye with fancy engraved and etched back-of-the-bar bottles.   He also issued an etched shot glass with “Altamont Whiskey” etched into the glass and, for bartenders, an unusual folding corkscrew advertising his whiskey.
Matthews suffered a costly but temporary setback in 1904 when the Great Baltimore Fire swept over his neighborhood.  N. M. Matthews & Co. was among the 41 distilling and wholesale liquor houses that suffered damage.  Despite the losing all his records and stored whiskey, Matthews quickly relocated his business down the street to  34 East Pratt.  He stayed at that location until 1909, making a final move to 17 East Lombard Street in 1910.

Throughout this entire period,  Matthews was buying fine art at a furious pace.  It is unclear whether he came by this passion as a result of his upbringing in an educated and possibly art-interested family, or was encouraged by his wife, Bessie, who may also have come from an aristocratic background.  It is evident, however, that a substantial part  of the wealth he was accruing from his whiskey sales he was plowing into buying fine paintings. Matthews bought both old and modern masters, both European and American.  His tastes went to oils and acrylics, most of them small to moderate size,  and subject matter that ranged from landscapes to genre paintings.  There were several portraits.  Nudes seem to have been absent among Matthews’ purchases.
Although Matthews was said to have had a particular eye for Dutch painters, he also held a significant number of French artists of the Barbizon School,  a group that emphasized painting outdoors directly from nature.  Among the French, he owned paintings by such famous artists as Gustave Courbet and Theodore Gericault and lesser lights as Diaz de la Pena,  Rosa Bonheur and Jean Ferdinand Chaigneau.   The Baltimorean’s holdings also included the Spaniard Ribera, the Italian Canaletto and Englishmen Constable and Romney.  It is a wonder how Matthews was able to collect so many European masterworks in seemingly so a short time.

His collection also included paintings by such well known American artists as Thomas Cole,  William Hartnett,  Albert Bierstadt,  William Trost Richards and Arthur Quartley, the last a close comrade of Winslow Homer.   Shown here is a painting in Matthews’ collection by the noted American landscape artist,  George Inness.   It is entitled, “The Juniata River near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.”   Note the several cows at the river.   Matthews, apparently drawing on his childhood on the farm, frequently bought paintings that included cattle.

As he was collecting, a member of his family was making news.  His oldest daughter Nellie at a dance had met a young Naval Academy appointee named Reed Marquette Fawell  and they had fallen in love.   As a young ensign Fawell had been assign as the skipper of the gunboat “Samar” in Hong Kong.  In 1908  Nellie personally saw President Theodore Roosevelt to ask him to transfer her fianc√© to the United States.  When Roosevelt refused, she made the 15,000 mile trip to the Orient and the couple were married.  The romance made headlines across America.

The 1910 census recorded Matthews, age 51, living in a mansion at 1312 Eutaw Place, his occupation given as “dealer - liquor.   Living with him are his his wife, Bessie.  Nellie, her husband apparently still deployed in Asia, is living with them as are his other two daughters.  One imagines his house filled with fine art.

Two years later in 1912, however, Matthews’ wholesale liquor business was terminated abruptly and Altamont Maryland Rye disappeared as a brand.  Two years later all or most of  his art collection was put up for auction.  The paintings going “under the hammer” numbered a whopping 134.   Shown here is the front page of the sales catalogue.  It depicted a painting by a Belgian artist, Frans Synders (1579-1657) entitled “The King is Dead - Long Live the King.”  The picture is a humorous rendition of a disparate group of birds all presumably celebrating after reading a parchment proclamation of the king’s demise posted on a stump.

Before the paintings in the Matthews Collection went on sale, they were exhibited at the American Art Galleries in New York City.   There they drew national attention.   The “Collector and Art Critic”  magazine chose to feature them as part of its “American Private Art Collections” series.  A journal critic commented on the attractive manner in which the galley had lighted the Baltimorean’s collection.   A New York Times writer was impressed with the many paintings of birds and animals. 

The auction took place on February 17, 1914, held in the Grand Ballroom of Gotham’s prestigious Plaza Hotel.  Many of America’s leading art collectors or their representatives were present to vie for Matthews’ collection.  The press reported the prices being paid.  “Mount Shasta, Calif”  by W. Keith sold for $1,400, “Still Life and Landscape by Jan Weenix was hammered down for $1,140,  and “Dogs Attacking Stags,” by Frans Snyders, fetched $1,000 -- big money for that era.

Why did Matthews’ business shut down and why was the art collection sold?  One 1914 news article referred to Nicholas as “the late N.M. Matthew.”  That might offer one solid clue to the sudden change in activity.   A major online genealogy site, however, says Matthews died in 1930.  Yet another site lists the date of his demise as “unknown.”  Below in a comment, a descendent has confirmed the 1930 date and kindly added some details about this fascinating whiskey man.


  1. Jack Sullivan -thanks for your very informative and written Article on Nickolas Martin Matthews. I am his great grandson - he died in 1930 for sure. His father came originally from Georgetown and and his family came originally from Calvert County Md. His mothers family built on oldest house now standing in Talbot County Md. build around 1660. I also own a place nearby in Talbot County, Md. Reed Marquette Fawell 111

  2. Dear Reed: Thanks for your additional information and the confirmation that Nickolas Matthews died in 1930. I do not like to have those things hanging. Your great grandfather was an extraordinary individual, particularly for his artistic taste. Jack

  3. Jack - I'll soon provide more information on his wife Bessie Vandeveer from Ala but whose family was also in the liquor business in Kentucky. Reed

  4. Nicholas and Bessie were married 10 Jul 1882 in Montgomery Co. Alabama. It appears that they divorced some time between 1910 and 1920. Perhaps the divorce caused NIcholas to have to close his business and to sell off his art. According to his will, Nicholas died 8 Apr 1930. He left a portrait of himself by Waldmar F. DIetrich to his daughter, Nellie. There was no mention of any other art pieces. He left the bulk of his estate to his two oldest daughters, Nellie and Bessie - without any mention of his youngest daughter Lucie. According to her will, Bessie died 8 Apr 1938. She left the bulk of her estate in trust to her two youngest daughters, Bessie and Lucie. Nellie received the sole sum of five dollars.