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“One of the Primitive Sort”: Chester Harding Becomes an Artist in the Early 19th-Century Countryside

Farming was not the only occupation in early nineteenth-century rural America. Many young entrepreneurs were able to take advantage of the countryside’s increasing commercial activity and growing consumer desires by taking to the road to work. Chester Harding, born in Conway, Massachusetts, survived by working in a variety of country crafts as he related in his 1866 autobiography My Egotistigraphy. His early skill in painting signs led to his painting faces, and he grew more expert in portraiture as he practiced on his business patrons, providing them with a rare likeness to display in their homes. Initially far more artisan than artist, Harding, unlike most of his fellow itinerant and self-taught colleagues, ended up one of the most renowned academic artists in antebellum America.


Chester Harding:

Early in the fall of this year I embarked in a new business. A mechanic had invented and patented spinning-head, which was thought to be a great improvement upon the old plan. I accepted an offer he made me to sell the patent in the State of Connecticut! The only thing in the way of my making a fortune was the want of capital. However, ‘Where there’s a will, there’s a way.’ I soon contrived to get a horse and wagon, and five or six dollars in money, besides a quan-tity of essences, such as peppermint, tansy, wintergreen, etc. With this fit-out I launched forth into the wide world in pursuit of fortune. There is no period in the history of a young man which awakens so many of the finer feelings of his nature as that when he leaves his home, and for the first time assumes the position and responsibility of an independent man. All the joyful recollections of that home he is about to leave, no mat-ter how humble it is, rush with overwhelming force upon his susceptible heart. I started with all the firm-ness and resolution I could call to my aid; yet if my mother could have looked into my eyes, she would have seen them filled with big tears. I jumped into my wagon, whipped up my horse, and was soon out of sight of what, at that moment, seemed all the world to me.

I managed, in view of my small stock of money, to get along without drawing largely upon it. I often bar-tered my essences for a night’s entertainment, and was going on swimmingly, until I came to a small town on the banks of the Mohawk. I stopped to bait my horse; and, as I was about to start, a man with a bundle of clothing in his hand wanted to get a ride as far as the next town, for which he would give me twenty-five cents. I, of course, was glad to avail myself of his offer. We had traveled perhaps a mile, when we over-took two men by the roadside, in violent dispute about a pack of cards. One was very drunk. My new friend proposed that we should stop and inquire into the rights of the case: so I pulled up. The drunken man was contending that he had won a quarter of a dollar of the other; whereupon he proceeded to show us how it was done. He had bet that the top card was the jack of clubs, and was willing to bet again that the top card was the jack of clubs; at the same time showing, as if by accident, that it was on the bottom of the pack. My friend bet him a quarter that it was not on the top, and won. He fixed his cards again very clumsily, as he was very drunk. I bet, and won. I bet a half next time; so did my friend: we lost. We now accused him of having two jacks in the pack, and my friend examined the pack, but found only one; and that he managed to drop into the bottom of the wagon, and covered it with his foot. The cards were again shuffled. We had no scruples about betting on a certainty, as it was to get our money back, so we each bet a dollar, but lost. In some mys-terious manner the card had been taken from under the foot. There was nothing to be done but to bear this loss as well as I could; and we started on, very sad. My companion had lost every cent he had in the world. He had a loaded whip, worth two or three dollars, that he urged me to buy. In pity for the poor fellow I gave him his price, when he suddenly recollected that he had left something at the tavern, and must go back. He soon overtook the two worthies we had just left, and all three joined in a hearty laugh. My eyes were instantly opened. I clenched my new whip, determined to go back and thrash the scoundrels; but as they were three to one, I finally thought better of it. I firmly believe that, if I had gone back, I should have killed one of them at least with my loaded whip. I traveled on, not much in love with myself. I bore the loss of the money better than I did the way in which it was lost. This lesson has never been forgotten. I finally reached Con-necticut, the field of my future operations. I returned with more money than I started with, and had a surplus of fifty or sixty wooden clocks and several watches, which I had taken for the patent in different parts of the State.

Near the close of the war, my brother (younger than myself) and I went into the cabinet and chair manu-factory in Caledonia, a small town in Livingston County, New York.

At this juncture [1816] I happened to meet with Caro-line 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 crim-son, woolen dress, with a neat little frill about the neck. I saw but little of her, for her family soon moved to a distance, 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 a while 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. We had hardly reached it before I was sued for a small debt, which I could not meet: in short, business was not very nourishing, and we were much embar-rassed.

To relieve myself I went into an entirely new busi-ness that of tavern-keeping. Here I paid off some old debts by making new ones. Matters, however, did not improve: on the contrary, creditors grew more clamorous and threatening. Nothing could strike me with more horror than the thought of being shut up in Batavia jail. At that time the barbarous practice of imprison-ment for debt was in full force. My mind was made up. On Saturday night I took leave of my wife and child, and left for the headwaters of the Allegheny River. As soon as the river opened I took passage on a raft, and worked my way down to Pittsburgh. Here I was at a loss what to do. Times were hard; and, besides, I was not a good enough mechanic to get employment at the only trade I knew anything of. I finally got a job at house painting; but I felt lonely and unhappy. As soon as I had saved a few dollars I started for my wife and child. I walked over mountains and through wild forests, with no guide but the blazed trees. Bears, wolves, deer, and turkeys I met so often that I would hardly turn around to look at them. At last I reached the settlement within a few miles of Caledonia. Here I halted till night, thinking it safer to travel by moon-light than in broad day. As it grew dark I started, tired and foot-sore. I saw a horse grazing in the road, and the thought struck me that he could ease my weary limbs. I succeeded in catching and mounting him; and, by means of my staff or walking-stick, I steered him to the street of Caledonia. I then turned him on his way home, and bade him good-night. I remained in close conceal-ment three or four days, and, when all was ready, started again for the headwaters of the Allegheny, but not alone: this time my wife and child were with me. We experienced many hardships on our way, but no-thing of particular interest occurred. At Oleans Point we embarked upon a raft, with a comfortable shanty on board, and in a week floated down the river to Pitts-burgh. Before I had left Pittsburgh, I had rented a ten-footer, with two rooms in it; so we went directly there. All our availables consisted of one bed, and a chest of clothing, and some cooking utensils, so that we had little labor in getting settled down.

But now all my money was gone, and how to get more was the question. I could find no work as a house painter, and what to do I did not know. I would walk about the town, and return to find my wife in tears though she always had a smile for me. I went into the market the next morning, though for what purpose I could hardly tell, for I had not one cent of money. At last I ventured to ask the price of a beefsteak. I had the impudence to say to the man that I should like that piece very much, but that I had no change with me. To my great surprise he said I could take it, and pay for it the next time I came. As I had made the acquaint-ance of Mr. Sands, a barber who occupied the twin part of the house I was in, I went to his wife, and asked her to loan me half a loaf of bread, which she did cheerfully. If we went hungry that day it was not because we had not enough to eat, and that, too, with an honest ap-petite.

There was an opening just now for a sign painter. I had talked with Neighbor Sands upon the subject of my becoming one. He approved the plan, and was the means of my getting an order. A Mr. W. H. Wetherell wanted a sign painted in gold letters on both sides, so as to project it into the street. I agreed to do it; but where was the stock of gold paint and board to come from? I went into Neighbor Sands‘ half a dozen times for the purpose of asking him to lend me the money to procure the materials, and as often my heart failed me. At last I made a grand effort, and said, ’Neighbor Sands, I wish you would lend me twenty dollars for a few days, as I have no money by me that is current.‘ ’Certainly, with pleasure.' I could hardly believe it real. I took the money, and hurried into my room, and threw it into my wife’s lap. She was frightened, fearing I had ob-tained it by some unlawful means. The first use I made of it was to go to the market, to pay the credulous butcher; and to buy some vegetables, tea, sugar, and some other little luxuries. I got my sign-board made, bought my gold leaf, paints, etc.; went to a printer, and got some very large impressions of the alphabet; and, having in my chair-making experience learned the art of gilding, I soon had my sign finished, and paid back my neighbor his money. He never knew that I was not flush of money; but his kindness I never forgot. I was at once established as a sign painter, and followed that trade for a year.

About this time [1818] I fell in with a portrait painter by the name of Nelson one of the primitive sort. He was a sign, ornamental, and portrait painter. He had for his sign a copy of the ‘Infant Artists’ of Sir Joshua Reynolds, with this inscription, ‘Sign, Orna-mental, and Portrait Painting executed on the shortest notice, with neatness and dispatch.’ It was in his sanctum that I first conceived the idea of painting heads. I saw his portraits, and was enamored at once. I got him to paint me and my wife, and thought the pictures perfection. He would not let me see him paint, nor would he give me the least idea how the thing was done. I took the pictures home, and pondered on them, and wondered how it was possible for a man to produce such wonders of art. At length my admiration began to yield to an ambition to do the same thing. I thought of it by day, and dreamed of it by night, until I was stimulated to make an attempt at painting myself. I got a board; and, with such colors as I had for use in my trade, I began a portrait of my wife. I made a thing that looked like her. The moment I saw the likeness I became frantic with delight: it was like the discovery of a new sense; I could think of nothing else. From that time sign painting became odious, and was much neglected.

I next painted a razeed portrait of an Englishman who was a journeyman baker, for which I received five dollars. He sent it to his mother in London. I also painted portraits of the man and his wife with whom I boarded, and for which I received, on account, twelve dollars each. This was in the winter season: the river was closed, and there was but little to be done in sign painting.

I shall always remember the friendship of an Irish apothecary, who, at this period of my history, encour-aged me in my attempts at portrait painting, and allowed me to buy any material I needed, on credit, from his paint and drug store. I had been painting a second picture of my wife, and asked Nelson the painter to come and see it. He declared it to be no more like my wife than like him, and said further that it was utter nonsense for me to try to paint portraits at my time of life: he had been ten years in learning the trade. To receive such a lecture, and such utter condemnation of my work, when I expected encouragement and ap-proval, was truly disheartening. He left me; and I was still sitting before the picture, in great dejection, when my friend the doctor came in. He instantly exclaimed, with much apparent delight, ‘That’s good; first-rate, a capital likeness,’ etc. I then repeated what Nelson had just said. He replied that it was sheer envy; that he never painted half so good a head, and never would. The tide of hope began to flow again, and I grew more and more fond of head painting. I now regarded sign painting merely as a necessity, while my whole soul was wrapped up in my new love, and I neglected my trade so much that I was kept pretty short of money. I re-sorted to every means to eke out a living. I sometimes played the clarionet for a tight-rope dancer, and on market-days would play at the window of the museum to attract the crowd to the exhibition. For each of these performances I would get a dollar.

I was strictly temperate in my habits, and seldom spent a sixpence for anything that we did not actually need.... Up to this time I had never read any book but the Bible, and could only read that with difficulty. My wife, who had received a comparatively good education and had once taught school, borrowed of one of the neighbors ‘The Children of the Abbey,’ a popular novel of that day. I was rather opposed to her reading it, as I had been taught to believe by my mother that cards and novels were the chief instruments of the Devil in seducing mortals from the paths of virtue. However her desire to read it was too strong to be overcome by any objections I could raise, so I had to yield; but I insisted upon her reading it aloud. One dark and rainy day she commenced the reading. She read on till bedtime, and then proposed to leave the rest of the story until the next day; but I was altogether too eager to hear how the next chapter ended to consent to that. She was persuaded to read the next chapter, and the next, and the next. In short, I kept her reading all night, and gave her no rest until the novel was finished. The first novel I ever read myself was ‘ Rob Roy.’ I could only read it understandingly by reading it aloud, and to this day I often find myself whispering the words in the daily newspaper.

My brother Horace, the chair-maker, was established in Paris, Kentucky. He wrote to me that he was painting portraits, and that there was a painter in Lexington who was receiving fifty dollars a head. This price seemed fabulous to me; but I began to think seriously of trying my fortune in Kentucky. I soon settled upon the idea, and acted at once.

Winding up my affairs in Pittsburgh, I found that I had just money enough to take me down the river. I knew a barber, by the name of Jarvis, who was going to Lexington, and I proposed to join him in the purchase of a large skiff. He agreed to it; and we fitted it up with a sort of awning or tent, and embarked, with our wives and children. Sometimes we rowed our craft; but oftener we let her float as she pleased, while we gave ourselves up to music. He, as well as I, played the clarionet; and we had much enjoyment on our voyage. We arrived in Paris with funds rather low, but, as my brother was well known there, I found no difficulty on that score.

Here I began my career as a professional artist. I took a room, 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. The first twenty-five took 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...

Here it was that I mingled for the first time with the tip-top of society. I went at once, on my arrival in the town, to the first-class hotel. I found unspeakable embarrassment at the table, with so many fine young gentlemen, all so elegantly dressed, with ruffled shirts, rings on their white and delicate fingers, and diamond pins in their bosoms. They, no doubt, thought me very clownish, as I undoubtedly was. I found little respect paid me by them, until I began to attract the attention of their masters. I soon became a sort of lion, and grew very popular among these clerks, especially after I was so far advanced in the ways of society as to take my morning juleps.

Up to this time I had thought little of the profession, so far as its honors were concerned. Indeed, it had never occurred to me that it was more honorable or profita-ble than sign painting. I now began to entertain more elevated ideas of the art, and to desire some means of improvement. Finding myself in funds sufficient to visit Philadelphia, I did so, and spent two months in that city, devoting my time entirely to drawing in the Academy, and studying the best pictures, practicing at the same time with the brush. I would sometimes feel a good deal discouraged as I looked at the works of older artists. I saw the labor it would cost me to emulate them, working, as I should, under great disadvantages. Then again, when I had painted a picture successfully, my spirits would rise, and I would resolve that I could and would overcome every obstacle. One good effect of my visit to Philadelphia was to open my eyes to the merits of the works of other artists, though 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. I had thought then that my pictures were far ahead of Mr. Jewitt’s, the painter my brother had written me about, who received such unheard-of prices, and who really was a good artist. My estimation of them was very different now: I found they were so superior to mine that their excellence had been beyond my capacity of appreciation.

Source: Chester Harding, My Egotistigraphy (Cambridge, Mass., J. Wilson, 1866), 10–25.