Chester Harding (1792-1866)

Chester Harding (1792-1866)

Chester Harding did not always aspire to be an artist and probably never thought he would find success and recognition as one of America’s best known portrait painters.  He was born in Conway, Massachusetts and was the fourth of twelve children.  In 1806 the family moved to Madison County, New York.  The Harding's were extremely poor and Chester was sent to work when he was twelve years old.  Over the years he held a variety of jobs including, chairmaking, cabinetmaking, tavern keeping as well as serving as a soldier in The War of 1812.  In order to evade his creditors he set out for Pittsburgh leaving behind his new wife Caroline Woodruff and their baby. In Pittsburgh he procured work as a house painter and months later returned to New York for his family.  The Harding’s returned to Pittsburgh where Chester opened a small business as a sign-painter, which soon became quite successful. 

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Harding’s introduction to portrait painting came from an itinerant portrait painter who painted a likeness of his wife. He was so enamored with the artist’s ability that he attempted his own portrait, which was so much like his wife that he became “frantic with delight.”  Soon he was painting the portraits of many locals.

Over the next several years he traveled throughout the east and mid-west in search of portrait commissions. In 1819 he spent two months in Philadelphia where he was given the opportunity to take formal instruction at the Philadelphia Academy of the Fine Arts. 

By 1823 he was at the height of his career and living in Boston where he rented a studio and exhibition hall open to the public.  People stood in line to see his work and waited anxiously for Harding to add their names to his long list of portrait commissions.  He is said to have created eighty-three portraits in Boston in 1823.

That year he left Boston to go to Europe for two years, where he toured mainly in England and Scotland visiting museums, painting portraits, and working to improve his skills as a painter.  He returned to Boston in 1826 and found that he was still very much in demand.  During this period he painted the portraits of notable Americans including Presidents John Quincy Adams, Munroe and Madison, renowned artist Washington Allston, and the Supreme Court Justices.

Although he never took up landscape painting Harding is reported to have spent much of his later years exploring the Adirondacks and the White Mountains with artists Francis Alexander, Alvan Fisher and Thomas Doughty.  Harding died in Boston at the age of eighty-three.

References: See Leah Lipton, Family Connections: Portraits by Chester Harding (1792-1866) (Framingham, MA: Danforth Museum of Art, 1981).; Unidentified Clipping, Vose Gallery Archives.

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