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Charles Loring Elliott, Portrait Painter
The outstanding portrait painter of the United States in the mid-nineteenth century was an entirely American artist. Although many of his contemporaries had studied abroad, Charles Loring Elliott never left his native land. At the height of his career, he was hailed as the successor to Gilbert Stuart. Today, an impressive number of his paintings hang in leading museums but, except for art specialists, his work is not as well known to the general public as it should be.
A prolific artist, he painted more than seven hundred portraits of prominent men and women of his time. One of his pictures is occasionally found in a country antique shop and is a real discovery. This happened with the unsigned oval portrait of the genial gentleman . The artist's signature in the lower corner had evidently disappeared when the canvas was later remounted as an oval. So superior was it to the average Victorian portrait and inscribed on the back "Portrait of Charles H. Brown of Boston," it demanded attention.
Identifying the artist was quite simple. Several standard books on American art show a number of Elliott portraits with the same firm drawing, natural likeness, and clear colors, making it certain that this was by the same brush. One art critic has observed that "although Elliott is sometimes overlooked, he was one of the most brilliant analysts of character among American artists."
He was born in Scipio, near Auburn, New York, in 1812. As a small boy, he showed his artistic bent by drawing horses in motion. His father, an architect, gave him no encouragement and put him to work as a clerk in a Syracuse store when his school days were over. But by 1834 Charles was studying art in New York. His first teacher was John Trumbull then an old man of eighty, who advised him to concentrate on architecture. He then studied briefly under John Quidor, did some book illustrations, and returned to central New York where he was an itinerant artist for ten years.
During that time, he continued studying. A portrait by Gilbert Stuart was his model and inspiration, and his self-training was so thorough that in 1845 he returned to New York City and opened a studio. His portrait of John Ericson, the inventor, won him high praise and, the next year, four other portraits in the National Academy exhibition established his reputation. Financiers, art patrons, and leading writers were all eager to sit for him. Among them was Matthew Vassar, Poughkeepsie brewer, later to found the college that bears his name. Another was Fletcher Harper, the publisher. His portrait was sent to the Paris International Exposition of 1855 as the best example of American portrait painting.
Until his death in 1868, Elliott had as many portrait commissions as he could undertake. Although Stuart had died before Elliott began his studies, the latter was essentially his pupil. Thus, he evolved his own style of painting affable portraits which were dominated by the artist's masterly insight into the character and personality of the sitter.