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Examiner
  • Finally his portrait hangs in the mansion he built

  • Mr. and Mrs. Harvey Merrick Vaile are together again at the historic Victorian Vaile Mansion the frontier business tycoon built for his wife in 1881 at 1500 N. Liberty St., Independence.

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  • Mr. and Mrs. Harvey Merrick Vaile are together again at the historic Victorian Vaile Mansion the frontier business tycoon built for his wife in 1881 at 1500 N. Liberty St., Independence.
    Since 1991, a 24-by-30-inch oil portrait of Sophia Cecelia Vaile has hung alone on the north wall of the second-floor master bedroom in the 30-room mansion, built of hand-pressed red brick and partially trimmed with white limestone.
    Absent all those years was her husband. But not anymore.
    Thanks to a same-size portrait painted by Independence artist Muriel Winn Luedeman, Mrs. Vaile has been reunited with her husband. Now they are side by side for the first time. Muriel also painted Mrs. Vaile’s portrait nearly two decades ago.
    The Vaile Historical Society, caretakers of the stately mansion – recognized as one of the finest examples of Second Empire Victorian architecture in the country – unveiled the portrait on Nov. 21 at an appreciation party for volunteers and those who decorated the mansion for Christmas. It was hung the next day in the bedroom, where it will be permanently displayed.
    “We tried to make it a companion piece and harmonious with the other (portrait),” says Muriel. “We wanted to display them together as much as possible.”
    Though both portraits are inside a 4-inch wide gilt frame, the frames are “different but look nice together,” Muriel says, describing Mrs. Vaile’s  frame as “more elaborate and floral-like,” and Mr. Vaile’s as  “more subdued,” but with a “Victorian flavor.”
    You must be wondering why it took so many years to obtain a portrait of Mr. Vaile, who died on June 4, 1894, after suffering a stroke about two weeks earlier. He was 63.
    The truth is the Vaile Victorian Society did not possess a photograph of the Vermont native, who was an entrepreneur, cattleman, dirt farmer, journalist, lawyer and politician. Neither did the Society know what he looked like.
    And furthermore, the Society came up empty-handed in its extensive search for some kind of a photo of Mr. Vaile.
    That is, until a woman from southern Missouri attended the Society’s 2009 Strawberry Festival and introduced herself to Jean Kimball, a Vaile tour guide, as Ann Roberts-Sottter, a descendant of Amanda Vaile Elwell, a sister of Harvey Vaile. Jean is currently Society president.
    “So, after the tour, Jean talked with her, and (Ann) said she had a family photo with Harvey Vaile, his two brothers and three sisters, says Lennie Wyre in a joint interview with the artist. Lennie is a member of the Society’s Advisory Board and a past president.
    “That’s how we got started,” Lennie says of the treasured photograph the Vaile relative mailed to the Society.
    With the long-sought picture in hand, the Society contacted Muriel, informing her it had a picture of Mr. Vaile . They asked her if she could do his portrait.
    Page 2 of 3 - Accepting the challenge, Muriel drew a canvas sketch of Mr. Vaile from the family photo, took it to the Society’s January membership meeting, gave them a proposal and discussed what they wanted in the portrait.
    Selecting an appropriate background wouldn’t be an easy thing to do, since the brown-tone family photograph didn’t have a background.
    “There was no environment they were set in,” she says of the Vaile family. “It was just people sitting and standing in a group.”
    With the membership desiring Mr. Vaile placed in an environment, Muriel was challenged to create that environment.
    With the Pink Room as the environment, “I put him standing in front of the marble fireplace, so I had to complete his body form,” she says, explaining part of his body was not visible in the photo, because his elbows were obscured by those standing and sitting in front of him.
    Muriel solved the problem by having Jean Kimball’s husband, Gary, model for her. After taking photos of that, Muriel had someone pose in a suit so she could see how his elbows and suit folds were going to be so his attire would look authentic.
    In the portrait, Mr. Vaile is standing in front of a fireplace, with his back toward a period mirror above the fireplace mantel. The mirror reflected the back of his head and the  pictures on the opposite wall.
    Reflecting on the portrait – a three-quarter view of Mr. Vail from his hips up – Lennie Wyre says Muriel livened up the environment by putting the subject in a charcoal-gray suit.
    “And with the mirror and fireplace, she gave it just enough light so that it’s not glary nor brash, but soft and gives just the right feeling.”
    Sporting white hair and a white beard, and dressed In his dark suit, with a gold watch fob, Muriel says the portrait makes the elderly gentleman look like a person who would have built the Vaile.
    “He looks distinguished. He looks like a successful businessman, and, he was, she asserts, then adds: “He had a very nice presence about him, I think.”
    Having spent approximately 200 hours spread over six or seven months on the portrait, Muriel became very close to the man she was painting.
    “There was this craving – this desire – to have known more about him and what he was like as a person,” she says. “I don’t have any spiritual intuition ... but there were all these wonderful questions about what kind of a man he really was.”
    Asked what question she would have like to have asked the man who gave Independence “this monument house and put many wonderful things in it,” she gave a hearty laugh. Then, after a long pause and a few “ahs,” “ums” and “wells,” she replies: “I do wonder why he put that suggestive lady on the (bedroom) ceiling.”
    Page 3 of 3 - Because of her 31 years as an artist at Hallmark Cards  and her portrait training under Harry Fredman and Kande White, Muriel says she was up to the challenge of painting the man she came to admire.
    Her biggest challenge, though, was getting the facial features – particularly the eyes – just right.
    Noting that getting the facial features perfect was probably the most important thing she had to reach and achieve.
    “And I really went in and dived into that,” she recalls,  “because once I got everything sketched in and I started working, that is what I went to first – the face – particularly the eyes.
    But there were other challenges, like making the mantel look believable.
    “Believe it or not, the thing I spent a lot of time on after (the face) was the mantel on the fireplace,” she says, “because it is very geometric, and if you don’t get the angles right, it doesn’t look like it was hand-carved very precisely ... it has no depth and it doesn’t look believable.”
    Reflecting on what it means to the Society to have Mr. Vaile’s portrait, Lennie  responds: “It just seems proper to have a portrait of the man who is responsible for building this beautiful mansion. It is important to us, since we have Mrs. Vaile – which is very nice – and his portrait completes the history of the house.”
    The portrait can be viewed at the Vaile now through Dec. 30 during the annual Christmas tour. For more information, call 816-325-7430.

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