Charles Loring Elliot, the son of an architect and building contractor, was born in Scipio, New York, in 1812. After brief stints as a store clerk in nearby Syracuse and as an apprentice to his father, he succeeded in convincing his family to allow him to go to New York City in 1829 to become a painter. For a short time he worked under the tutelage of John Trumbull, but when this arrangement proved unsatisfactory, he spent six months in the studio of John Quidor. At the conclusion of his short period of study, he left the city and worked for the next ten years as an itinerant portrait artist in central and western New York State, particularly the town of Skaneateles. He also experimented with literary genre and landscape painting at this time.
Elliott returned to New York City in 1839. With his election as an associate member of the National Academy of Design in 1845, he became a frequent and copious exhibitor of portraits at that organization's Annuals. (The only sour note in his usually genial relationship with members of the Academy came in 1860, when he was accused, while in an intoxicated state, of cutting one of his pictures from its frame as it hung in the yearly exhibition. A subsequent apology from Elliott seems to have smoothed any ruffled feathers.)
Although he engaged in occasional travel in the Northeast region, his career was almost exclusively centered in New York; the death of his friend Henry Inman in 1846 made him the undisputed favored portraitist of that metropolis. Throughout the next several decades, his likenesses (more often of men than women) remained consistently popular. In general, his work was based on a meticulous observation of individual physical characteristics and a firm belief in an unfailing naturalism. Indeed, he is known to have worked directly from daguerreotypes later in his career.
As was normal for an artist of his stature, Elliott was a member of both the Sketch Club and the Century Association in New York. He chose to live across the river, however, in Hoboken, New Jersey. Shortly before his death in 1868, he made the decision to move to Albany, for largely unexplained reasons. When he died there (possibly of brain cancer) several months later, his body was returned to New York, where his artist-friends organized an impressive funeral cortege, a ceremonial lying-in-state at the National Academy, and a memorial exhibition of some three dozen of his portraits to honor his achievements. At least one writer was even moved to suggest an Elliott monument in Central Park, but this seems never to have progressed beyond the initial proposal. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published, or to be published, in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
"The Lessons of Art: Charles L. Elliott, the American Portrait-Painter." Knickerbocker 36 (July 1850): 84-86.
Tuckerman 1867, 300-305.
Thorpe, T. B. Reminiscences of Charles L. Elliott, Artist. New York, 1868.
Bolton, Theodore. "Charles Loring Elliott, An Account of his life and Work" and "A Catalogue of The Portraits painted by Charles Loring Elliott (1812-1868)." The Art Quarterly 5 (Winter 1942): 59-96.
Schmidt, Philip F. "Charles Loring Elliott (1812-1868): American Portrait Painter." M.A. thesis, University of Minnesota, 1955.
Harding, Jonathon P. "Charles Loring Elliott." In An American Collection: Paintings and Sculpture from the National Academy of Design. Exh. cat. National Academy of Design, travelling exhibition. New York, 1989: 42.
Kelly, Franklin, with Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr., Deborah Chotner, and John Davis. American Paintings of the Nineteenth Century, Part I. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1996: 220-221.