George Fuller was born in 1822 on his father's farm in Deerfield, Massachusetts. He probably received artistic encouragement from his aunt, uncle, and half-brother, all of whom were painters. Initially, however, he worked for a short time as a clerk in Boston and spent several years (1837-1839) on a railroad surveying expedition in Illinois and Ohio. Returning home, he attended three terms at the Deerfield Academy before moving to Boston in 1840 to launch his career as an artist.
After a short, unfruitful experimentation with the daguerreotype process, Fuller became an itinerant portrait painter, traveling in upstate New York with his half-brother and aunt. In 1842 he spent several months studying in Albany with sculptor Henry Kirke Brown, a friend from Deerfield whom he had met on the surveying trip. When Brown left for Italy, Fuller returned to Massachusetts, joining the Boston Artists' Association in 1843. For the next five years he executed portrait commissions, dividing his time between Boston and the interior of the state. He then moved to New York City, where he registered in the antique school of the National Academy of Design in 1848. He became an associate member of the Academy in 1853.
His years in New York and Brooklyn (to which he moved by 1852) were interrupted by occasional summer trips to Deerfield and three excursions to the southern states, where he sought portrait work and made a series of genre sketches, with particular attention to the slave population. At the time, his circle of New York friends included adherents to the American Pre-Raphaelite movement, but aside from a characteristic carefulness of execution, his work does not seem to have been greatly influenced by Ruskinian precepts. Fuller's hitherto undistinguished career came to a halt, however, when his father died in 1859. The artist decided to move to Deerfield to manage the family farm, but he first took a six-month tour of Europe in 1860. Upon his return, he married Agnes Gordon Higginson and settled down to raise cranberries and tobacco.
Fuller intended his farming career to be short, but he ended by remaining at Deerfield for fifteen years, painting little and exhibiting only infrequently. In 1875, however, the price of tobacco fell and he was forced to declare bankruptcy. Fuller's "second" career began the next year, when he exhibited a group of paintings in Boston in an effort to recoup his financial losses. Many of the works were sold, and by the time of his second one-person show in 1877 he was hailed as a visionary wonder, emerging from years of rural anonymity to become a force in a new school of poetic, ruminant painting having little to do with his previous straightforward naturalism. Fuller's new canvases took as their subjects idealized female figures (particularly young girls), bleak rural landscapes, and vaguely historical Puritan themes.
Fuller's surprising success was not limited to Boston. Beginning in 1878 he sent pictures to New York annually. While his reception at the National Academy was unenthusiastic, the younger members of the Society of American Artists greeted him as one of their own, and he was soon elected to their membership. Eventually he was able to buy back the Deerfield property from a relative, although he never returned to active farming. He continued to spend his summers there but took to passing his winters in Boston, or nearby on the coast. He died at his winter home in Brookline, Massachusetts, in 1884. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published, or to be published, in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Millet, Josiah B., ed. George Fuller: His Life and Works. Boston, 1886.
Robb, David M., Jr. "George Fuller, American Barbizon Painter: A Study of his Life, Times and Works." B.A. thesis, Princeton University, 1959.
Burns, Sarah Lea. "The Poetic Mode in American Painting: George Fuller and Thomas Dewing." Ph.D. dissertation, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1979.
Burns, Sarah. "A Study of the Life and Poetic Vision of George Fuller." AAJ 13 (August 1981): 11-37.
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: 235-236.