Nelson Cook

(8 October 1808 - 28 July 1892)

American portraitist and "occasional poet"; Cook was born in Malta, New York in 1808, one of nine children of furniture maker Joseph Cook and Mary Ann Tolman, originally from Wallingford, Connecticut. He moved to Toronto Canada around 1830, where he worked as an agent for his brother Ransom, and took up painting. He returned to New York in 1840 and settled in Saratoga Springs.

Cook was a self-taught artist and painted over 100 portraits, including many prominent people from Canada, Saratoga Springs and elsewhere. Much of his work is in private collections. Nelson Cook was married to Esther Feeeman and had one daughter, Marion, born in Canada. He died in Saratoga Springs in 1892 and is believed to be buried in Greenridge Cemetery.

Nelson Cook (rarely, Cooke, seen esp in Canada) was the son of furniture-maker Joseph Cookand Mary Ann Tolman (Tallman?); the parents moved to the Ballston Spa/Malta area of Saratoga County around 1800 from Wallingford. Cook's birthdate given here is derived from his death certificate, which, instead of indicating his birthdate, lists his age at death as 83y, 9m, 20d. This date is generally supported by census data. A number of sources report Cook's year of birth as 1817, but his death certificate, census data, and the logic of his career confirm the earlier year; the 1817 date may derive from an incorrect obituary entry in the Rochester Chronicle, 30 July 1892, and others.

Nelson was one of nine children: Ransom, Marcus, Andre, Mary Ann, Truman, and Julia, with Henry and Joseph dying young. We know little about the artist's early years, nothing of his schooling. For seven years, however, probably in the 1820s, Nelson was apprenticed to his brother Ransom (1794-1881), who was to become a well-known prison reformer and self-described "machinist and manufacturer." Ransom made furniture during his early years in Saratoga, and Nelson may have developed his interest and skill in painting by doing craft work, including stenciling, for a number of years in his brother's furniture shop. For example, Ransom's business apparently provided Saratoga establishments, including the United States Hotel and Congress Hall, with stenciled rocking chairs and servingware treated by a varnishing process known as "japanning"; records show Nelson assisted with this work. Decades of correspondence between Nelson and the better-known Ransom provide a great deal of the information we have about the painter; Ransom, who became wealthy through the invention, manufacture and distribution of hardware items ("bits and augers," etc.), would provide moral and financial support for his younger brother (and, apparently, for other family members) throughout much of their lives.

It was probably in 1832, that Cook left the Saratoga area for Canada, where he spent some seven years as an itinerant painter and business agent for brother Ransom, accompanied as far as we can tell by wife Esther. What little we know of this period is derived from conjecture from his portraits and from four letters to Ransom, now in the Library of Congress. He apparently spent time in Kingston, Upper Canada (Ontario), then perhaps in or near Cornwall on the St. Lawrence River [see Barnabas Dickinson and family, Parrit Blaisdell and Mrs. Blaisdell] before traveling downriver to Quebec City in Lower Canada [see Robert McVicar and Mrs. McVicar]. Eventually he settled in Toronto (called York until 1834) and may have purchased as many as 400 acres of land [letter, 2 Feb 1837]. There Cook painted subjects from prints (actors, classical works, etc.; see As a Portraitist) and individuals and families of both modest and more affluent circumstances. "My prospects are fair," he wrote to Ransom in 1837, "orders for portraits increase." Indeed, despite personal problems and political turmoil during the artist's years in Canada, his portraiture reflects steady improvement; the increasing sophistication of his technique is evident in the five years between Emily Dickinson (1832), and John Rolph (1837). In 1834, in the first exhibition sponsored by "The Society of Artists and Amateurs" of Toronto, Cook was among 18 artists -- including pioneers of Canadian art Paul Kane and James Hamilton -- who displayed 196 works.

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Additional Sources: American Art Gallery