CHARLESTON, W.Va. - A gift made in the will of a West Virginia University alumna has helped shed new light on the life and work of an artist who played an important role in the state's formative years.
Louise Amelia Robinson, who received her bachelor's degree in history from WVU in 1944, left $100,000 to the West Virginia and Regional History Center, a part of the university's library system.
The gift was intended to facilitate the acquisition and preservation of items important to the state's history, and the center has used a portion of the money to acquire a sketchbook containing the work of artist Joesph Diss Debar from an auction house.
The book's numerous sketches and completed drawings have rekindled interest in the artist and the role he played in the state's early history.
Diss Debar, a French immigrant and classically educated intellectual, was appointed as the state's first commissioner of immigration, but he also was commissioned by the Legislature to design the two-sided Great State Seal that still is used today.
Center Director John Cuthbert called the sketchbook a timely treasure, as its contents directly relate to the state's creation and development.
Cuthbert said its pages help to tell the story of the people, places and events of 19th century West Virginia, as well the fascinating life of Diss Debar himself.
"This is a hitherto unknown primary resource documenting the antebellum and early statehood era. We get to see it through the eyes of someone who played a key role in the state's formation," he said.
Although his impact on the nation's 35th state is immeasurable, Cuthbert said Diss Debar's legacy has been previously overlooked. However interesting the sketchbook may be, it tells only part of the story.
Newspaper accounts and other records reveal a previously untold chapter of the state's past.
According to articles in the archives of the state Division of Culture and History, Diss Debar was born in Alsace, France in 1817.
He was educated in classical literature, philosophy and the sciences. His education also included the study of numerous languages including French, German, English, Spanish, Italian, Latin and Greek.
At the time lessons in art and drawing were part of a classical education. Although Diss Debar received training and drew throughout his life, he is considered little more than an amateur artist.
As a young man he fell in love with Clara Levassor, but her father, Eugene, objected to a marriage because Diss Debar was 13 years her senior. To break up the couple, Eugene moved his family to America.
Diss Debar soon followed his sweetheart, crossing the Atlantic aboard the steamship Britannia. During the crossing he passed the time by sketching his fellow passengers, one of whom was British novelist Charles Dickens.
The archives indicate Diss Debar found Clara and her family living along the banks of the Ohio River in the recently settled trading community of Parkersburg.
The couple was married in Marietta in 1847 despite Eugene's continued objections. Diss Debar was 30, and his bride was just 17.
The couple made their home on what is now Twelfth Street in Parkersburg, where they were reportedly well liked by the city's residents.