Chester Harding

(1 September 1792 - 1 April 1866)

Harding was born at Conway, Massachusetts. Brought up in the wilderness of New York state, he was a lad of robust physique, standing over 6 feet 3 inches. His family removed to Caledonia, New York, when he was fourteen years old, and he was early thrown upon his own resources for support, his initial trade being that of a turner. In the War of 1812, he marched as a drummer with the militia to the St Lawrence. He became subsequently chairmaker, peddler, inn-keeper, and house-painter, painting signs in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He worked at this latter occupation a year, when acquaintance with a traveling portrait painter led him to attempt that art. Having succeeded in producing a crude portrait of his wife, he devoted himself enthusiastically to the profession.

He painted several other portraits at Pittsburg, and then went to Paris, Kentucky, where he finished 100 portraits in six months at $25 each. He made enough money to take him to the schools at the Philadelphia Academy of Design. He then established himself in St. Louis, and eventually went on the road as an itinerant portrait painter. In August 1823, he went to England and set up a studio in London, and spent three years in studying and painting. He met with great success, painting royalty and the nobility, and, despite the lackings of an early education and social experience, he became a favourite in all circles.

On his return to the United States in 1826, he settled in Boston, initially residing in Beacon Hill, Boston, Massachusetts, in what became known as the Chester Harding House, a National Historic Landmark which now houses the Boston Bar Association. He stayed there until 1830. In 1843, he went to England again, and afterward resided in Springfield, Massachusetts, spending his winters frequently in St. Louis or in some of the southern cities. In 1828 he was elected into the National Academy of Design as an Honorary Academician.

He painted portraits of many of the prominent men and women of his time. Among the people who sat for him were James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, John Marshall, Nicholas Brown, Jr., Dudley Leavitt Pickman, Charles Carroll, William Wirt, Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, Washington Allston, the Dukes of Norfolk, Hamilton, and Sussex, Samuel Rogers, and Sir Archibald Allison. His last work was a portrait of Gen. William T. Sherman. His portrait of Daniel Webster went to the Bar Association of New York, and that of John Randolph to the Corcoran Gallery at Washington, D.C. He wrote My Egotistography, which was privately printed.

Wikipedia; Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography, 1892
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Chester Harding was born in Conway, Massachusetts, the fourth child of Abiel nd Olive Smith Harding. In 1802 the family moved to New York State, where Harding and his brother Horace became cabinetmakers and decorative painters in Caledonia. He married Caroline Woodruff in 1815; and though industrious, he failed in his efforts to support his family, incurred sufficient debt to face the threat of prison, and fled downriver on a flatboat to Pittsburgh and then on to Kentucky, in 1818 at the invitation of his brother Horace, also an artist. Harding's daughter, Ophelia, was born in Paris, Kentucky. Chester Harding was resident in Paris until 1821, using this location as a base from which he made trips to Cincinnati in 1820 and to Missouri later in that year, at which time he painted Daniel Boone. He worked as an itenerant in Madison County, Kentucky, 1819, where he painted his monumental portrait of the Speed Smith family and other kin of General Green Clay. During this period in Kentucky he is thought to have become an acquaintance of Matthew Harris Jouett, with whom he exchanged works. Harding spent the winter of 1821-1822 in Washington D.C., making important contacts, which led to a commission to paint members of the extended family of Senator E. H. Mills of Northhampton, Massachusetts. His work there was so successful that he moved on to Boston, where he attracted favorable comments from Gilbert Stuart. In 1823 he sailed to England, where he painted the portrait of the Duke of Sussex, a brother of King George IV. He then moved to Scotland, where his family joined him in 1825. They returned to Boston in 1826, settling in Springfield, Massachusetts, at 7 Chesnut Street, which became their permanent home. Harding also maintained a studio on School Street in Boston until 1846; thereafter he stayed in the Tremont House, a hotel. Harding became on of the most successful portraitists in America, painting several figures of note, including President James Monroe, Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, Daniel Webster, Washington Allston, and Charles Carroll, the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence. Through extended family ties he continued to work as an itinerant in the South, with excursions to Richmond, Virginia, and New Orleans in 1841, as well as return trips to Kentucky in 1828 and 1833, and as the guest of Hugh Innes Brent of Paris, 1814, 1838, and 1842. During this last visit he most likely painted Frances Bibb Burnley. His wife, Caroline died in 1845. In mourning, Harding returned to London in 1846, where he stayed for nine months, during which time he painted Lord Aberdeen and the poet Samuel Rogers. Upon his return he spent the winter of 1848 in Washington, painting a full-length portrait of Henry Clay. After 1850 his activity slowed, although he did paint all his children and grandchildren, some of his finest work. Harding's family was deeply divided by the Civil War. Two sons, Cheste and Edward, fought for the Union, and two others, Horace and James, for the Confederacy.



I wish to outline for American readers the history of an American artist who died last year, full of days and honors. It is a history which records how circumstances became as clay in the grasp of genius and resolution, and great results were developed from the most untoward beginnings.

Never, perhaps, were beginnings more untoward than the early years of Chester Harding. He was born in 1792, in Conway, a little town high up among the hills of Franklin County, Massachusetts. Identified during his boyhood with the fortunes of a family struggling hard for bare subsistence, with an unpractical and thriftless father, and a noble, but overworked and care-worn mother, as soon as he was able to be of use he set to work to earn his own living, as "hired boy," at six dollars a month, with a farmer of the neighborhood. This, however, was a taste of riches and independence compared with the life before and after. When Harding was fourteen, his father removed with all his family to Western New York. This was an undertaking of no small magnitude. Their new home was an unbroken wilderness, a week's toilsome journey from New England, where, after clearing the ground and building a rude log-cabin, Harding and his two elder brothers made flag-bottomed chairs for their neighbors, procuring by this means pork, flour, and potatoes, which were the dainties of the backwoods, while his father and the other children labored in the forest. The usual course of a settler's life was broken in upon by the war of 1812, and Harding shared fully in the excitement this occasioned. He entered the army as a drummer, and had a thorough experience of the pleasures and pains of military life.

Sickness reduced him almost to the grave, and when, on recovering, he obtained his discharge from the ranks, he nearly perished with cold and hunger in attempting to reach his home. Here he remained for the next six months, employed in drum-making with his brother.

The energy which had not yet acquired a specific direction was beginning to manifest itself in restlessness under the routine of his daily life, and readiness to embark in any enterprise that promised deliverance from it. A proposal to undertake the agency for a new spinning-head was eagerly accepted, and, having "contrived to get a horse and wagon, with five or six dollars in money, besides a quantity of essences, such as peppermint, tansy, wintergreen, etc.," Harding set off for Connecticut, with golden dreams of fortune. If he did not realize these, he gained in his expedition some money and more experience, and thought it on the whole a profitable journey.

At this point love came in to complicate the situation. The account which Harding has left of his courtship is too graphic not to be given in his own words. "I happened," he says, "to meet with Caroline Woodruff, a lovely girl of twenty, with handsome, dark eyes, fine brunette complexion, and of an amiable disposition. I fell in love with her at first sight. I can remember the dress she wore at our first meeting as well as I do those beautiful eyes. It was a dark crimson woollen dress, with a neat little frill about the neck. I saw but little of her; for the family soon moved to a distance of forty or fifty miles. Though she was absent, however, her image was implanted too deeply in my heart to be forgotten. It haunted me day and night. At length I took the resolution to go to see her; which was at once carried out. I set out on foot, found her, and proposed, and was bid to wait awhile for my answer. I went again, in the same way, and this time had the happiness to be accepted; and three weeks after she became my wife, and accompanied me to my home."

A little anecdote in regard to his marriage is characteristic. February 15, 1815, had been appointed for the wedding-day. On the afternoon previous the bride was making her last preparations; the guests were invited, the wedding-gloves and sash sent for, and the wedding-cake in the oven, when Harding drove up to the door and announced that he wanted to be married that day, as the snow was melting too fast for their journey home to be delayed twenty-four hours longer. So they were married the day beforehand. Mrs. Harding was accustomed to say, "It has been the day beforehand ever since."

Scarcely had the happy pair reached Caledonia, N. Y., where Harding was then living, when he was sued for debt. Much embarrassed in his business, which was then chair-making, he concluded to try tavern-keeping, but with no improvement in his fortunes. Matters at length became desperate. Imprisonment for debt seemed inevitable, and the thought of it was so horrible to him, that as a last resort he determined to leave his family, and look for employment in some safer locality. He quitted home in the night, travelled on foot to the Alleghany River, and as soon as practicable worked his way on a raft down to Pittsburg. There the prospect was not very encouraging, but Harding at length got a few jobs of house-painting, and with his small savings returned to Caledonia for his wife and child, with whom he again made the wearisome journey, but with better heart than before, perhaps with some presentiment of brighter days at hand.

Their home at Pittsburg was humble enough. "All our availables," Harding says, "consisted of one bed and a chest of clothing and some cooking-utensils; so that we had little labor in getting settled down." For his household goods he had previously rented a "ten-footer" with two rooms in it. But now all his money was gone; he could get no more work as a house-painter. Had he brought his family so far only to starve, instead of feeding them? So deep was their poverty at this time, that a half-loaf of bread lent by a kind neighbor, and a piece of beef-steak obtained on credit, made them a luxurious meal, which was remembered with thankfulness in after years of plenty.

There was an opening for a signpainter in Pittsburg, and Harding eagerly accepted this means of supplying his pressing wants. But he had no funds to procure the materials he needed, and was forced to resort for money to the kind neighbor from whom he had borrowed bread. He was successful in this new business, and followed it a year. About this time a portrait-painter, "of the primitive sort," happened to show to Harding some specimens of his work, which opened to the struggling sign-painter a new world of thought and desire. Though he could ill afford the expense, he had his own and his wife's pictures painted, and was lost in admiration of the artist's skill. Day and night the thought of this wonderful art possessed him. An unconquerable longing to try his own powers in this new direction made him haunt the studio of the artist, who would give him no hint of his method, nor even allow Harding to see him work. At length, with a board, and such colors as he used in his trade, Harding began a portrait of his wife, and, to his own astonishment, "made a thing that looked like her." He was frantic with joy at the result. He painted several other portraits, and the occupation became so engrossing as to interfere seriously with his regular business. Nelson, the portrait-painter, whose pictures had given the first impulse to this newly discovered faculty, was still disposed to be unfriendly. He ridiculed Harding's efforts, and told him it was sheer nonsense to attempt portrait-painting at his time of life. To the dejection which his criticisms occasioned was, however, opposed the admiration of others who probably had more sincerity, if less knowledge of art; and Harding's love of painting was now too strong to admit of his being easily discouraged. Hearing from his brother, who had removed to Paris, Kentucky, that an artist in Lexington was receiving fifty dollars a head for portraits, he resolved, with his accustomed suddenness, to establish himself in Paris, and arrived there with funds, as usual, low, but with a good stock of hope and courage, and a conviction that he had at last found his true vocation. In six months from that time, he had painted nearly a hundred portraits at twenty-five dollars apiece. "The first twenty-five I took," he writes, years afterward, "rather disturbed the equanimity of my conscience. It did not seem to me that the portrait was intrinsically worth that money; now I know it was not."

A two months' visit to Philadelphia produced wholesome criticism of his own attainments, and a still more eager ambition to excel. His own pictures lost something of their attraction for him, and he appreciated better the merits of those which he had previously undervalued. These two months of thoughtful study did more for him than years have done for many. The quick insight of genius penetrated at once the secrets which to mere talent unfold themselves but slowly. There was no longer any doubt about Harding's ultimate success, though he was yet far from reaching it. Other long and weary struggles with poverty had to be endured before he could work at leisure and without anxiety.

St. Louis offered a more favorable location for a rising artist than Kentucky, then embarrassed by financial troubles, and thither Harding went. There Fortune, at last, began to give him golden gifts, and with them came new aspira- tions. The artist-longing for Europe awakened in him, and he resolved to gratify it. But first he had a duty to perform. He went back to Caledonia, the scene of so many of his struggles and failures, paid all his debts, and visited his aged parents. Although proud of his success, his practical friends were far from satisfied with the profession he had chosen. His grandfather said to him one day, very seriously: "Chester, I want to speak to you about your present mode of life. I think it is very little better than swindling, to charge forty dollars for one of those effigies. Now, I want you to give up this course of living, and settle down on a farm, and become a respectable man."

Harding, however, held firmly to his project of studying in Europe. He had taken passage in the ill-fated Albion; his trunk was packed, and he was about to set out, when his mother made a last effort to detain him. She represented to him the helpless condition of his wife and children in case he should never return, and urged him to put off his journey till he had made a home for them, and could leave them comfortably provided for in the event of his death. Her reasoning prevailed. The very next day Harding purchased a farm of one hundred and fifty acres, and, having made a contract for a house to be built upon it, he started for Washington, leaving his family for the winter with his father and mother. The season at Washington was a successful one for him. It was his first introduction into what is called good society. The plain man was modest almost to bashfulness in the circle to which his genius had introduced him; but his good sense, simplicity, and kindliness made him everywhere a welcome guest, and attracted to him friendship, as his pictures brought him fame. While spending a part of the next summer at Northampton, Mass., Harding was warmly urged to establish himself in Boston. He did so, early in 1823, and succeeded beyond his highest expectations. Sitters flocked to his studio, in such numbers that he had to keep a book for them to register their names. Probably no other American artist ever enjoyed so great popularity. Gilbert Stuart, in Harding's own estimation the greatest portrait-painter this country ever produced, then in his prime, was idle half that winter. He used to ask his friends, "How rages the Harding fever?"

But popularity did not intoxicate the artist. He viewed it chiefly as a means of hastening the accomplishment of his long-cherished purpose, and though, after having painted eighty portraits, he had a still greater number of applicants awaiting their turn, he decided to go to Europe at once. He reached London in the autumn of 1823, and directly began his studies. Leslie met him cordially. He received encouragement and commendation from Sir Thomas Lawrence, and through the influence of his fellow-countryman, Mr. Hunter, obtained a commission to paint the portrait of his Royal Highness, the Duke of Sussex, which was, of course, the best introduction to general favor. Among the other celebrities who sat to him, either during this visit to England or a subsequent one, were the Duke of Hamilton, the Duke of Norfolk, Alison the historian, and Samuel Rogers. Harding remained abroad three years.

The latter part of Chester Harding's life is but a repetition of successes in his profession. His portraits of Daniel Webster are acknowledged to be among the best ever painted. The one in the Boston Athenasum is perhaps a fair example of his style. A characteristic of his portraits was their suggestiveness. They seem to give us, not only the prominent expression of the countenance at the moment, but the possibilities of its expression in other moods. Hints of temperament and character lurk in the fine lines which Nature draws upon the living face; the more observable features really have but little part in the changing play of the countenance. And in Harding's portraits the chief excellence is their thorough comprehension of the subject, their representation of the man, and not simply of the conformation of his features at a particular period.

In his private life, Harding was, to the last, simple-hearted, unostentatious, and genial. His friendships were as tender as a woman's, and as enduring as his life. With Webster he enjoyed an intimacy of many years, and some of his happiest hours were spent in the unrestrained intercourse of Webster's family circle.

He was fond of relating the following anecdote: "I had a few bottles of old Scotch whiskey, such as Wilson and Scott have immortalized under the name of 'mountain dew.' This beverage is always used with hot water and sugar. I put a bottle of this whiskey into my overcoat-pocket, one day when I was going to dine with Mr. Webster; but I thought, before presenting it to him, I would see who was in the drawing-room. I put the bottle on the entry table, walked into the drawing-room, and, seeing none but the familiar party, said, 'I have taken the liberty to bring a Scotch gentleman to partake of your hospitality to-day.' 'I am most happy, sir,' was the reply. I walked back to the entry, and pointed to the bottle. 'O,' said he, 'that is the gentleman that bathes in hot water.' "

As the years went on, and Harding's children, one by one, settled in homes of their own, his faithful and dearly beloved wife, the sharer of his varied fortunes, having died in 1845, He divided his time between attention to his profession, visits to these new homes, where he was always welcomed most gladly, and his favorite recreation of fishing. The last winter of his life was spent in St. Louis, and here he painted his last picture, the portrait of General Sherman. His hand had not lost its cunning. The portrait is one of his best. March 27, 1866, he started for Cape Cod, his favorite resort for fishing at that season. Stopping for a few days, on his way, at Boston, he complained of slight illness, and, almost before his danger was realized by those around him, he sank away to death. This was on April ist. Harding had loved Boston better than any other spot where he had rested in his wanderings. "I feel," he says, "that I owe more to it than to any other place; more of my professional life has been spent in that city than anywhere else; and it is around it that my most grateful recollections cluster." His tall, patriarchal form was familiar to Bostonians. During the later years of his life he wore a full beard, which, with his hair, was silvery white, and a short time before his death he sat to an artist for a head of St. Peter. The artists of Boston publicly acknowledged their loss of "a genial companion, and a noble and generous rival." A later age may estimate more truly the value of his works; but the lesson of his life is for this country and for to-day.

The Atlantic Monthly Volume 0019 Issue 114 (April 1867)

View painter's art: Chester Harding (1792-1866)

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