Milton W. Hopkins, the son of Hezekiah and Eunice Hubbell Hopkins, was born on 1 August 1789 in Harwinton, Connecticut. In 1800 the family moved to Clinton, New York. In 1807 he returned to Connecticut, soon marrying Abigail Pollard of Guilford, with whom he had a child. After Abigail's death in 1817, he wed Almira Adkins and moved to Evans Mill, New York. The births of nine children followed. His occupation during the late teens and early twenties is unknown, but his acquisition of several acres of land suggests he may have farmed.
By September 1824, when he advertised in the Newport (New York) Patriot, Hopkins was engaged in house and sign painting, gilding, glazing, chair-making, and selling painting supplies. The previous year he and his family had moved to Newport, renamed Albion in 1826. For a short time in 1828 he served as captain on an Albion canal boat, but by December of that year he was in Richmond, Virginia. His advertisement in the Richmond Constitutional Whig on 16 December 1828 indicates that he was an instructor of women in Poonah, or theorem painting, and it is probable that he also assisted a Miss Turner, who ran an academy for drawing, penmanship, "Music, Painting on Velvet, Wood and Paper, and Fancy Work."
Hopkins returned to Albion in the fall of 1829, and in 1833 he advertised his services as both a teacher and a portrait painter. Although Hopkins may have painted portraits before 1833, no earlier works have been discovered. The first documented portrait, depicting an unidentified man, dates from that year.
Later in 1836 Hopkins moved to Ohio--first to Cleveland, but shortly thereafter to a farm he purchased in Williamsburg, near Cincinnati. He took up his brush again, painting a portrait of Margaret Place Baker of Cincinnati, which is not documented but closely resembles his slightly earlier inscribed portraits. Within the next two years Hopkins was apparently exposed to academic portraiture. The results can be seen in a pair of peculiar likenesses of Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin Connell, dated 1838, which show greater sophisticaton in the heads but have Hopkins' usual flatly painted bodies, in this case much too small for the head size.
An advertisement of 23 April 1839 in The Ohio Statesman indicates that Hopkins had set up a studio in Columbus, but in the early 1840s he apparently painted portraits in Jackson, Mississippi, and elsewhere in the South. His latest inscribed work, Mrs. R. Hinton and Her Daughters Josephine and Mary Ellen, dates from 1841. Although the inscription provides the sitters' name, their place of residence has not been determined. Hopkins returned to Cincinnati by 1843 and placed an advertisement in the Cincinnati business directory. He died of pneumonia the following year.
Hopkins came into contact with numerous potential clients for portraiture. He was among those Masons who rejected the organization for its clandestine activities and became embroiled in the anti-Masonic controversies of the 1820s. Throughout his life, Hopkins was actively involved in the affairs of the Presbyterian church, another potential source of patronage. An outspoken man of strong convictions, he assisted in the Underground Railroad and participated in the temperance movement. His persistent advertising and contact with successful and influential people of his time lead to the hope that more works will resurface. There remains much confusion between the portraiture of Hopkins and that of the better known painter Noah North (1809-1880), who was active in the same geographic areas of New York State and Ohio during the same years. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published, or to be published, in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Oak, Jacqueline. "American Folk Portraits in the Collection of Sybil and Arthur B. Kern." Antiques 122 (September 1982): 564-570.
D'Ambrosio and Emans 1987, 99-102.
Oak, Jacqueline. Face to Face: M. W. Hopkins and Noah North. Exh. cat. Museum of Our National Heritage, Lexington, Massachusetts, 1988.
Chotner, Deborah, with contributions by Julie Aronson, Sarah D. Cash, and Laurie Weitzenkorn. American Naive Paintings. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1992: 206-207.