Born September 1, 1792, Conway, Mass. Died Boston, April 1, 1866.
During his almost fifty-year career, which began in the frontier towns of Kentucky, Missouri, and Ohio and peaked in Boston in the 1830s, Chester Harding painted more than a thousand portraits. Two small still lifes are his only known work in another genre.1 Although he was chiefly based in Boston, he painted in various American cities and in Great Britain. To build and enhance his reputation, Harding sought out a variety of eminent figures, in America and abroad, as his subjects. But he also depicted members of his family and produced self-portraits. His style typically emphasized straightforwardness over flattery; the impact of the new medium of photography was one of the factors that led him to intensify the accuracy of his likenesses. Harding also did much to support local artists, renting out exhibition and studio space in his gallery and helping fund an art academy in Boston.
Much of what is known about Harding comes from the artist himself. Late in life, at the urging of his children and friends and with the help of his daughter Margaret Eliot White, he compiled an autobiographical sketch. Privately published soon after his death as My Egotistigraphy, it contained annotations by Margaret. He wrote it, he noted in the preface, with the hope that "some of my young readers may find encouragement in the difficulties I have overcome, and the success which has followed my perseverance."2 In this memoir, as during his career, the self-taught Hardingwhile not claiming to be a prodigyreadily promoted the story of his rise from an impoverished rural New England childhood to become a leading painter of distinguished individuals both in America and abroad.
Born in 1792, Chester Harding was the fourth of twelve children of Abiel (17561849) and Olive Smith Harding. The father, who worked in a distillery and was an unsuccessful amateur inventor, could not support his large family. "We were very poor, and were often in need of the necessaries of life," Harding recalled. "At the age of twelve, I was hired out at six dollars a month, to a Mr. Graves, in Hatfield[, Massachusetts] . . . . I lived with him for two years. I went to school in the winter and learned to read enough to read the Bible."3 Around 1806, the Hardings moved to western New York State. There the young man helped his family clear land for a log house, briefly served as a drummer boy early in the War of 1812, and found work as a peddler.4
After 1812, Harding lived with his younger brother Horace (1794about 1857) in Caledonia, New York, working on the house of a mill owner there. His tasks included making various pieces of furniture and painting part of the dwelling. In 1815 he married Caroline Woodruff (17941845); the first of their ten children, named after her mother, was born the following year.5 In an attempt to pay his mounting debts, Harding became a tavernerwith little success. He fled Caledonia for Pittsburgh to escape creditors and imprisonment. After earning some money as a housepainter, he brought his wife and daughter there by flatboat and worked as a sign painter. It was in Pittsburgh that Harding saw portraits for the first time, done by an itinerant sign, ornamental, and portrait painter named Nelson. Hoping that the artist would share his technique, Harding hired Nelson to paint likenesses of himself and his wife. Unfortunately, Nelson refused to instruct him. Yet Harding was inspired enough to attempt a portrait of his wife on his own (location unknown).6
He continued trying his hand at this new endeavor, growing "more and more fond of head-painting. I now regarded sign-painting merely as a necessity."7 Before long, Horace, now living in Paris, Kentucky, beckoned his brother to join him there. He was working as a chair maker and, like Chester, was attempting to make portraits. Horace encouraged him by reporting that Matthew Jouett (17881827), a painter in nearby Lexington who had recently studied with Gilbert Stuart, was getting fifty dollars per portrait. Around 1817, Harding moved to Paris and there "began my career as a professional artist."8 For the first time, he earned money easily. "I took a room," he wrote, "and painted the portrait of a very popular young man, and made a decided hit. In six months from that time, I had painted nearly one hundred portraits, at twenty-five dollars a head."9 By 1819, Harding was confident enough to tackle a large group portrait, The John Speed Smith Family (J. B. Speed Art Museum, Louisville, Kentucky).
He saved up enough money to travel to Philadelphia for two months in 1819 and see the works of leading artists, such as Thomas Sully. Harding spent much of his time at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, drawing and studying the portraits there. He later recalled that although the experience opened his eyes to the merits of other artists, "it took away much of my self-satisfaction. My own pictures did not look as well to my own eye as they did before I left Paris."10
Returning to Kentucky, Harding found that business had dried up and so decided to seek commissions in a new place. Early in 1820, he moved on to the quickly growing city of Cincinnati, placing an advertisement in the Liberty Hall and Cincinnati Gazette: "C. Harding tenders his professional services in the Art of Painting to the citizens of Cincinnati and its vicinity, he has established himself in No. 32, Main street, opposite the F & M Bank, where specimens of his skill may be seen."11 But his luck did not improve. After waiting a few weeks in vain for work, he left with his family for the long trip by flatboat and steamboat to St. Louis.12 Harding arrived in the burgeoning Mississippi River city armed with a letter of introduction to the former explorer William Clark (17701838), who was now governor of Missouri Territory. Clark soon hired him to paint his portrait (1820, Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis).13 And in June, the artist received another high-profile commission, a portrait of the elderly Daniel Boone (Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston); this was followed by several replicas.14 Before long, Harding was working steadily. While in St. Louis, he increased his price to forty dollars per portrait and purchased a lot of land for "five hundred dollars worth in pictures."15 He spent part of the fall of 1820 painting in Franklin, Missouri, two hundred miles away, returning to St. Louis by the end of the year.16
In 1821 Harding returned to Caledonia to repay his debts. Temporarily settling his family near his parents, he spent the winter of 182122 in Washington, D.C.17 There he made many valuable contacts and landed commissions, including a portrait of Judge Solomon Sibley (about 182122, Detroit Historical Museum).18 Returning north, Harding stopped in Philadelphia and left portraits of Senator James S. Barbour of Virginia and Mr. Trimble, Member of Congress, from Kentucky (both 1822, locations unknown) to be included in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts annual exhibition in May 1823.19
Hardings stay in Washington had a lasting impact on his career. Among the highly placed individuals he met in the capital was a Massachusetts senator, E. H. Mills, who invited him to spend the summer of 1822 in Northampton. His patrons in Northampton encouraged him to paint in Boston. Thereafter, although he continued to travel, Boston would be his permanent base of operations.20
During the early 1800s, Gilbert Stuart,who arrived in Boston in 1805 and remained there until his death twenty-three years later, dominated the local portrait market. The aging Stuart was still preeminent in the early 1820s, when Harding made his appearance. Nonetheless, the artist from the West quickly became popular and even entered into a kind of rivalry with the elder painter.
In his memoir, Harding proudly recalled his rapid rise in Boston:
Although Harding was not exaggerating his success, Stuart still set the local standard. For instance, in the spring of 1823, the Bostonian Jane Francis Tuckerman reported to her sister-in-law Elizabeth Tuckerman Salisbury on "the likenesses of my Brother and Sister Henry taken by HardingI like them much; my husband thinks them excellent, but that Stuart would have made them handsomer pictures."22 Despite the competition between the young artist and the senior one, Harding later credited Stuart with having exerted a strong influence on his work.23
By midsummer 1823, according to Hardings later reckoning, he had painted about eighty portraits and had more clients waiting.24 Yet like other American artists before him, he knew he would benefit from study abroad. On August 1, having settled his family in a Northampton boardinghouse, he departed for what would prove to be a three-year sojourn. Harding painted portraits in England and Scotland, his sitters including Americans traveling abroad and British royalty. He also spent time in Ireland and France.25 Harding met artists such as Gilbert Stuart Newton (17941835) and Charles R. Leslie (17941859), who took him to galleries and private collections as well as to plays and operas. He particularly admired the portraits of Sir Anthony van Dyck (15991641) and Sir Thomas Lawrence (17691830). Harding met Lawrence (then serving as president of the Royal Academy), who critiqued his work.26
In England, Harding was something of a curiosity. His origins in "the wilds of Kentucky" were played up in a September 1824 article on North American artists in the London periodical Somerset House Gazette.27 As Harding himself later acknowledged, "there was something novel, perhaps, in my history that contributed more to my unheard-of success than any merit I possessed as a painter. The fact of a mans coming from the backwoods of America, entirely uneducated, to paint even a tolerable portrait, was enough to excite some interest."28 Yet along with the curiosity was recognition of quality. Although the writer of the Somerset House Gazette article criticized Hardings drawing, compositions, and drapery, he commented that "there is a very visible improvement in his late works."29
Indeed, his work was well enough regarded to be included in exhibitions of the Royal Society of British Artists and the Royal Academy.30 With each show, Hardings confidence grew. "My own portraits do not look as well as I thought they would," he confessed in his journal on the opening day of the 1824 Royal Academy exhibition. "On going into the room, I wished there was to be another exhibition immediately, that I might shun the defects in my next that I saw so plainly in these."31 Yet of his works included in the 1825 Royal Academy display he wrote, "I was happy to think that they were among the best, not the worst, class in the exhibition."32
For a time, Harding seriously considered settling in Glasgow, having lined up a number of commissions there. In April 1825 he sent for his family. But after the Hardings arrived, the people who had promised to sit for the artist changed their minds. A general downturn in the British economy also seriously hurt his prospects. In the summer of 1826, he decided to return to Boston. The Hardings sailed for home on September 1.36
On his return, Harding recognized that he would be called upon "to fill the expectations of the connoisseurs and patrons of art." But he had little need to worry.37 Commissions began pouring in again, and he was able to raise his price from fifty to one hundred dollars per portrait.38 Local writers thought the time abroad had had a positive impact on his work. "His style has lost much of its early stiffness and constraint," observed a critic in the April 1827 issue of the Boston Lyceum, "and his portraits look more like animated beings."39 And Henry Harris Tuckerman, who had posed for the artist before his stay in England, voiced his undiminished admiration:
In addition, by the end of the 1820s, Harding had few competitors. His old rival, Gilbert Stuart, died in 1828. James Frothingham (17861864) moved to Brooklyn in 1826, and Francis Alexander (18001880) was just a newcomer to Boston.
Harding and his family settled in Springfield in 1830, but he maintained a studio in Boston, located at 22 School Street. He also continued traveling for work, painting in Albany, Baltimore, Cincinnati, New Orleans, Richmond, St. Louis, and Washington, D.C.41
Throughout his career, Harding sought out distinguished individuals as sitters, recognizing the importance of such commissions to his reputation. Sometimes he was even willing to lower his rates, as he did for the full-length portrait of U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall he painted for the Boston Athenaeum in 1830.42 He also exhibited portraits of prominent men as a means of attracting new sitters.43 In addition, Harding used eminent friends to help him open the doors to valuable commissions. For example, before his 1846 return visit to England, he obtained a warm letter of introduction from Harvard president Edward Everett to Lord Aberdeen that enabled him to secure Aberdeen as a sitter (1847, Harvard University Portrait Collection, Cambridge, Massachusetts).44
Harding devoted much time to helping his fellow artists find better places to study, work, exhibit, and sell their art. The first effort he made in Boston on their behalf was a plea to the Boston Athenaeum, which had been founded in 1807 as a library, reading room, and museum. On January 30, 1827, he wrote to George Ticknor of the Athenaeum about the limitations of studying the institutions collection of plaster casts and other sculpture, which was then displayed in various rooms, and asked that all the pieces be put together in a space better suited for drawing.
Although the results of Hardings plea are not known, it is certain that throughout the 1830s he and others in the local artistic community chafed against the Athenaeum; they were especially bothered that its annual exhibitions included more work by artists from New York, Philadelphia, and Europe than by local talents. In December 1841, Harding chaired a meeting that led to the establishment of the Boston Artists Association, an art academy that took as its models such organizations as the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia and the National Academy of Design in New York. Its goals included the forming of a school that offered classes in drawing and the fine arts and the creation of annual exhibitions. Harding, who had organized art auctions and exhibitions and, since 1832, had rented out studio space to artists, readily offered his premises to the new association.50 Its first exhibition, in the spring of 1842, was mounted in a space in his School Street studio that was known as Hardings Gallery. Also, the associations classes met there until 1846.51
The artists wife died in 1845. The next year, he returned to England and the Continent. Harding stayed nine months, revisiting London and Glasgow and seeing Paris twice. He painted portraits and fished for salmon.52 After he returned home, his portrait commissions decreased.53 They continued dwindling as the years passed. "I dont think I shall take a room in Boston," Harding wrote his daughter from Springfield in January 1865, "tho I have one or two pictures that I could paint yet I doubt my ability to paint satisfactorily to myself. I have been a long time on the Stage and I dont want to lessen the little reputation I have by any feeble efforts of age."54
Chester Harding died on April 1, 1866. Several days earlier in Springfield, he had finished a portrait of the Union Army general William Tecumseh Sherman (Union League Club of New York) that he had begun in St. Louis during the winter. He then headed off for a fishing trip on Cape Cod. But he caught cold en route and did not travel farther than Boston, where he worsened and succumbed.55 His obituary in the Springfield Daily Republican declared that as a portraitist, "he was one of the very first in point of excellence, that America has ever produced; and in his time, he was the first without dispute. Few of the old families of Boston are without a choice specimen of his skill and many of our public men of the last generation sat before his easel." The artist was buried alongside his wife in Springfield Cemetery, a parklike burial ground that he had helped design in the 1840s.56
2. Harding 1866, v. Two subsequent editions of Hardings autobiography were published, under the title A Sketch of Chester Harding, Artist, Drawn by His Own Hand, in 1890 and 1929. Margaret Eliot White added some new information to the 1890 edition; the latter version contained additional annotations by the artists grandson
W. P. G. Harding. The book was last reprinted in 1970. See Harding 1890, Harding 1929, and Harding 1970.
For Margarets editing, see Chester Harding, Springfield, to Maggie [Margaret Eliot Harding White], January 2, 1865, Washburn Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston (hereafter cited as MHS), vol. 19, p. 23. Harding also showed a copy of his manuscript to the librarian and editor Charles Folsom (17941872). Chester Harding, Boston, to Charles Folsom, March 28, , Folsom Mss., Rare Books and Manuscripts, Boston Public Library.
3. Harding 1866, 1011.
4. Ibid., 1221.
5. Lipton 1985, 14, 123.
6. Harding 1866, 2226.
7. Ibid., 28.
8. Ibid., 31.
9. Ibid., 3132.
10. Ibid., 3334.
11. Liberty Hall and Cincinnati Gazette, February 4, 1820; Harding 1866, 34.
12. Hardings first advertisement appeared in the May 6, 1820, issue of the St. Louis Enquirer.
13. Harding 1866, 35.
14. For the other finished Boone portraits and replicas, see Harding 1866, 3536, and Lipton 1984. An advertisement for the proposed engraving of the Boone portrait appeared in the September 30, 1820, issue of the St. Louis Enquirer. According to McDermott, an advertisement for the finished engraving of Boone ran in the Missouri Gazette beginning on October 11, 1820 (1951, 5758).
15. Harding 1866, 40, 41.
16. McDermott 1951, 58.
17. McDermott 1955, 39395; Harding 1866, 4243.
18. Lipton 1985, 17.
19. The two portraits were included in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts annual exhibitions through 1827. For these and other Harding submissions to the academy, see Rutledge 1955, 91.
20. Harding 1866, 4344.
21. Ibid., 45.
22. Jane Francis Tuckerman, Boston, to Elizabeth Tuckerman Salisbury, Worcester, April 10, 1823, Salisbury Family Papers, American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts (hereafter cited as SFP, AAS), box 21, folder 1. When Elizabeth and her husband, Stephen Salisbury I, chose an artist to paint his portrait in July 1823, they turned to Stuart. However, she and her son Stephen II sat to Harding in August 1829.
23. Harding 1866, 62. Hardings 1823 bust portraits George Hallett and Mrs. George Hallett (both Art Institute of Chicago), which show a softening of his early linear style and a sharper focus on the faces, reflect Stuarts influence. Lipton 1985, 6263. Later in his career, he completed portraits that Stuart had not finished and made copies of others. See, for example, Park 1926, I, cat. no. 240, and II, cat. no 857; and Oliver 1988, 8384, 9899.
24. Harding 1866, 45. Hardings claim that he had painted eighty portraits before leaving for England is supported by a letter Henry Harris Tuckerman wrote to his nephew Stephen Salisbury II in February 1823: "[Harding] has already taken upwards of 40 faces & has engaged 40 moremoreover he has arranged to leave this country . . . & says all his time will be occupied but I am sure I could squeeze your name into the lists." Henry H. Tuckerman, Boston, to Stephen Salisbury II, Boston, February 6, 1823, SFP, AAS, box 21, folder 1.
25. For more about his 182326 trip abroad, see Lipton 1984a and Harding 1866, 47, 1004, 10714. Excerpts from the travel journal Harding kept to send to his wife are included in My Egotistigraphy.
26. About his second visit to Sir Thomas Lawrences studio, on September 13, 1823, Harding wrote, "As much pleased as on the first visit. His women are angels, but his men are not so faultless by any means." Harding 1866, 55, 62.
27. North American Artists 1824b, 376.
28. Harding 1866, 8586.
29. North American Artists 1824b, 376.
30. Johnson 1975, 203; Lipton 1984a, 1385.
31. Harding 1866, 8081.
32. Ibid., 127.
33. Ibid., 80.
34. Lipton 1985, 7072. In England, Harding for the first time employed a crossed-arm pose, in Loammi Baldwin (1823, private collection) and James Sheridan Knowles (1825, private collection). Lawrence had used a similar pose in four portraits of Arthur Wellesley, First Duke of Wellington (about 1814, The Marquess of Londonderry), (about 181516, Wellington Museum, Apsley House, London), (about 1820, private collection), (about 1824, Wellington College, Berkshire). The latter likeness was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1825. These paintings are illustrated in Garlick 1989, 27980. It is also possible that Harding saw this pose in the work of Gilbert Stuart, who used it in portraits such as The Skater (Portrait of William Grant) (1782, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.).
35. See the elaborate hats in Lawrences portraits Maria Carolina, Duchesse de Berri, (1825, Musée National du Château de Versailles); Princess Mary, Duchess of Gloucester, (1824, Her Majesty The Queen, Windsor Castle); Mrs. Hart Hart Davis (after 1820, private collection); and Lady Caroline Stewart (probably 1825, private collection). These are illustrated in Garlick 1989, 80, 195, 206, 269.
36. Harding 1866, 86, 124, 13032.
37. Ibid., 136; Backlin-Landman 1971, 197.
38. Harding 1866, 13637.
39. Table Talk 1827, 218.
40. Henry Harris Tuckerman, Boston, to Elizabeth Tuckerman Salisbury, Worcester, August 16, 1829, SFP, AAS, box 23, folder 4.
41. Lipton 1985, 26.
42. Chester Harding, Washington, D.C., to F. C. Gray, Boston, January 15, 1830, Boston Athenaeum Letters, B.A. 22.1 (180787), vol. 6, p. 9.
Early in his career, Harding became enamoured of phrenology, the then-popular pseudoscience rooted in the belief that character traits could be discerned through the study of skull shape. For more on phrenology, see Davies 1955 and Colbert 1997. "He is a full believer and convert to the doctrine," Christopher Columbus Baldwin, librarian of Worcesters American Antiquarian Society, noted in his diary in 1831, "and has taken the dimensions of all the most distinguished heads in the country, such as the members of the Supreme Court of the U.S., Daniel Websters, &c. The largest head is that of Judge Marshall, & the next is that of Mr. Webster." Baldwin Diary, 97. Colbert suggested that the artists interest in phrenology led him to increase the proportions of his sitters heads (1997, 155). The larger the head, phrenology proponents believed, the greater the talent and intelligence. Harding once told his student Sophia Peabody that in order to be a great painter, an artist needed a large head. "He had great faith in large headsit was well his own was so large he said." Sophia Peabody diary, July 22, 1830, Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.
43. For instance, on October 8, 1829, while Harding was in Richmond, Virginia, to paint the former U.S. presidents James Madison and James Monroe, a notice appeared in the Richmond Compiler, inviting "readers who have a taste for the Fine Arts to visit the painting room of Mr. Harding just below the Coffee Room. They will see there the portraits of many of the distinguished men of the nation." As quoted in Lipton 1985, 29.
44. Edward Everett, Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Lord Aberdeen, November 20, 1846, Letterbooks of Edward Everett, Edward Everett Papers, P no. 349 (27), MHS. Everett had been Americas ambassador to Great Britain from 1841 to 1845.
45. Of Harding, the obituarist for the Boston Post wrote: "He copied no man, and he flattered no man. He aimed in the practice of his art to be truthful, accurate, and just." As quoted in Harding 1866, 184.
46. Harding wrote in his travel journal on February 27, 1825, that the Duke of Hamilton was "much pleased with the flattery in the last picture, as he is with my improvement. There is not a human being on earth who is not susceptible of flattery; and he who flatters most, in this great city, will do the most judicious thing." Harding 1866, 117.
47. Harding painted at least seventeen portraits of Webster. Otto 1999, 9192. For his 1827 portrait of Mrs. Webster (Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston), see Backlin-Landman 1971, 19899.
48. Chester Harding, Boston, to Judge Joseph Story, Salem, August 4, 1828, Joseph Story Papers (17971857), MHS, reel 2, P-424. Harding also planned to use the robe to help him finish his portrait of U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall (1828, Harvard Law School, Cambridge, Massachusetts).
49. Chester Harding, Boston, to George Ticknor, Boston, January 30, 1827, Boston Athenaeum Letters, B.A. 22.1 (180787), vol. 4, p. 61.
Harding also was a teacher himself. Among his known pupils of the 1830s, in addition to his brother Spencer, were Henry Kirke Brown (18141866), William Elwell (18101881), Abel Nichols (18151850), and Sophia Peabody (18111871). Lipton 1985, 2627, 9596. Peabody saw Harding as a generous teacher. "He told me to ask him any questions I chose for he had no secrets," she wrote. Peabody diary, July 22, 1830.
50. Lipton 1985, 33; advertisement for an exhibition at Hardings Gallery, School Street, Boston Courier, May 9, 1833.
51. Lipton 1983. In 1845 the Boston Artists Association agreed to begin holding its annual exhibitions in conjunction with those of the Boston Athenaeum. Six years later, the association merged with an independent group of Bostonians who were not artists to form the New England Art Union; Harding sat on its board of directors. Unfortunately, the Art Union was short-lived.
52. Harding 1866, 14849, 164, 166.
53. Ibid., 169.
54. Chester Harding, Springfield, to Maggie [Margaret Eliot Harding White], January 2, 1865.
55. Harding 1866, 17475.
56. Lipton 1985, 27, 39; Harding 1866, 177, 181, 182.