Thomas Ball

(3 June 1819 - 11 December 1911)

He was born in Charlestown, Massachusetts, to Thomas Ball, a house and sign painter and Elizabeth Wyer Hall. His father died when he was twelve. After several odd jobs to help support his family he spent three years working at the Boston Museum, which he later described as a "place of amusement" rather than an art museum. There he entertained the visitors by drawing portraits, playing the violin, and singing, and repaired mechanical toys. He then became an apprentice for the museum wood-carver Abel Brown. He taught himself oil painting by copying prints and casts in the studio of the museum superintendent.


Ball was an accomplished musician and from his teenage years worked as a paid singer in Boston churches. He performed as an unpaid soloist with the Handel and Haydn Society beginning in 1846, and with that organization sang the title role in the first United States performance of Mendelssohn's "Elijah", and the baritone solos in Rossini's "Moses in Egypt". On a visit to Boston years later he performed the baritone role in Boston's first performance of Beethoven's "Ninth Symphony" with the Germania Orchestra on April 2, 1853.


As commissions started to come in he moved from studio to studio until he settled in a studio in Tremont Row where he remained for twelve years. There he painted several religious pictures and a portrait of Cornelia Wells (Walter) Richards, editor of the Boston Evening Transcript. He then turned his attention to sculpture.


His earliest work was a bust of Jenny Lind, whom he saw on her 1850 tour of the United States. Copies of his Lind work and his bust of Daniel Webster sold widely before being widely copied by others. His work includes many early cabinet busts of musicians. His first statue of a figure was a two-foot high statue of Daniel Webster, on which he worked from photographs and engravings until he managed to see him pass his studio shortly before his death.

At thirty-five he went to Florence for study. Except for an interval of work in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1857–1865, he remained there until 1897, as a member of an artistic colony that included Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Hiram Powers. The notables he met in Europe included Franz Liszt, whom he met at the Vatican in 1865, and of whom he produced a portrait bust.

He made it a practice never to attend the unveiling of any of his public works. Once in Boston he managed to avoid receiving the invitation to the ceremonial dedication of his statue of Gov. Andrew and instead went to see the work later, viewing it from different approaches. He later wrote: "It was a mean thing to do. I am ashamed of it now; but I could not bring myself to stand on that platform and face the multitude." Dartmouth College awarded him an honorary degree of Master of Arts.

When he returned to America he lived in Montclair, New Jersey, while keeping a studio in New York City. In 1880, Ball published an autobiographical volume, My Threescore Years, which he updated in 1890, as My Three Score Years and Ten. Ball died at the Montclair home of his daughter, Eliza Chickering Ball, and son-in-law, sculptor William Couper.

My threescore years and ten: an autobiography (1891) div
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View painter's art: Thomas Ball (1819-1911) [new window view]