Alfred Thomas Agate

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Alfred Thomas Agate was a noted American artist and painter who was born in Sparta, New York.

By the time Agate was 19, he had devoted his life to art and studied early with his brother who was a portrait and historical artist.

Agate’s talent was in his detail. Early on, he was described as “brilliant” due largely to his capabilities of dealing with the most elaborate details in drawing landscapes, botanicals, portraits, and scientific illustrations. His landscape sketches were known to be masterful.

Agate joined the United States Exploring Expedition of 1838 under the leadership of Lt. Charles Wilkes, who very quickly developed a large admiration for his work. Wilkes immediately appointed Agate as the designated portrait and botanical artist of the expedition.

According to the Smithsonian Institution, Agate contributed more than half (173 of 342) of the sketches and paintings reproduced as lithographs illustrating the five volumes of Wilkes narratives.

Agate was held in such high regard by his peers that the distinguished botanist Asa Gray, head of the Harvard botanists who used Agate's drawings and the expedition's specimens for the botanical reports, named a new genus (and species) of violet after him; Agatea violaris. And Wilkes named both the Agate Passage in Puget Sound and Agate Island in the Fijis after the artist.

Agate lived in Washington, D.C. from 1842 onward, but unfortunately his health suffered severely from the expedition and he died on January 5, 1846 at the young age of 34.

On Agate's death, the drawings passed to his widow, Elizabeth Hill Kennedy Agate, who later married Dr. William J. C. Du Hamel of Washington, D.C. In 1926, one of her daughters from this marriage, Elizabeth A. Du Hamel, sold them to the Naval Historical Foundation. The Naval Historical Foundation donated Agate's artwork to the Navy Art Collection in 1998. The Naval Historical Foundation in Washington D.C. today owns the Alfred T. Agate Collection of artworks numbering 188 drawings, oils, and lithographic proofs, all from the United States Exploring Expedition.