Last modified: Thursday, February 25, 2010
About Thomas Chambers
Until recently, little was known about Thomas Chambers' life and work, and even now he remains an elusive figure.
Because signed and dated paintings by Chambers are few and documents scarce, scholars have tracked his career through U.S. census data and entries in various city directories. New research suggests that Chambers was born in 1808 in Whitby, England, to a merchant sailor father and a laundress mother. It is believed that he learned to paint from his older brother, George (1803-1842) -- a self-taught artist who advanced from painting trunks and buckets to ship portraits, theatrical scenery, panoramas and eventually, "fine art" marine paintings for the King William IV and the Royal Academy. Thomas may well have tagged along on these endeavors, as their influence is evident in the signature style he later developed.
Chambers left London for New Orleans in 1832 to pursue his painting career. He was in New York two years later and listed himself in city directories and newspaper advertisements as a marine, landscape and "fancy" painter from 1834 to 1840.
Over the next two decades, he worked in Baltimore, Boston, Albany and New York. While his prolific output suggests a strong base of patrons, Chambers lived on the fringe of academic art communities and did not exhibit with any official art organizations of his time. He did, however, sell his works at auction, as evidenced by a recently recovered Newport, Rhode Island, auction list from 1845. Chambers disappeared from American city directories and census records after 1866; evidently, he returned to Whitby, penniless and disabled, as suggested by the newly-discovered record of his death in the city's poorhouse in 1869.
As an artist, Chambers was obscure in his own day and was likely frowned upon for his connection to sign and decorative painting and for his habit of working from print sources. His imaginative style was further eclipsed by the mid-19th-century passion for realism and his newly built market for inexpensive popular art was revolutionized by chromolithography.
Long consigned to barns and attics, his work was rediscovered in the 1930s when American folk art caught the attention of modern artists and antique collectors. Chambers' distinctive hand was identified by name in 1942 when collectors uncovered a signed painting, The Constitution and the Guerrière (c. 1840-50). The same year, an exhibition at the Macbeth Gallery in New York heralded the arrival of "T. Chambers, First American Modern," and highlighted Chambers' use of color, pattern, and decorative design that appealed to many 20th-century curators and collectors.
"Thomas Chambers," the first gathering of the artist's work since 1942, revisits the perspective of champions of American folk art who recognized the roots of national culture and modernism in the work of Chambers and his contemporaries. The course of Chambers' critical fortunes, from popular or lowbrow status to highbrow acclaim a century later provides a window into American cultural history.