One of the few mid-nineteenth-century painters to pursue a dual career in art and business, Francis Edmonds managed to become an influential figure in the interrelated spheres of banking, politics, and culture in New York City. Edmonds was born in 1806 into a large family in Hudson, New York, where he received a Quaker education and early artistic encouragement from William Dunlap, an associate of his father and occasional guest in the house. Dunlap and another itinerant painter introduced the boy to outdoor sketching, but when an anticipated apprenticeship with an engraver proved to be too costly, it was decided that he would follow his uncle into the banking business.
In 1823 Edmonds became a clerk in the Tradesmen's Bank of New York City, where the assumption of his new duties forced him to put art studies aside for several years. The opening of the schools of the National Academy of Design in 1826, however, prompted a renewed effort, and he registered as a student of the antique from 1827 to 1830. His first finished oil painting, Hudibras Capturing the Fiddler (present location unknown) was accepted in the 1829 Academy Annual; it secured him membership as an associate. Once again, though, his artistic career was interrupted by the demands of the banking trade. Appointed cashier of the Hudson River Bank, Edmonds left New York for his native city, where he married Martha Norman, a local resident. Although he returned to New York City in 1832 with a new position at the Leather Manufacturers' Bank, it would be another few years before he again found time for his painting.
Eventually seeking instruction from William Page, he began to work up new compositions for submission to the National Academy. An Edmonds painting first appeared again at an Academy Annual in 1836, although it was exhibited under an assumed name, supposedly because its author feared the condescension of his business colleagues, who would have frowned upon such artistic interests. Soon, however, his activity within the New York art world increased considerably, and he took on leadership roles in the National Academy, the Apollo Association (later, the American Art Union), the Sketch Club, the New-York Gallery of the Fine Arts, the Century Club, and the Artists' Fund Society. With the exception of 1841, when he was traveling throughout Europe following the death of his wife and his own subsequent nervous breakdown, he customarily produced several genre paintings annually, despite his full-time work as a banker. These were usually humorous, based on a literary theme, and executed in a manner derived from seventeenth-century Dutch or contemporary English sources.
Artists' organizations prized Edmonds' involvement because of his business acumen and his extensive network of contacts with individuals capable of providing significant financial patronage. In addition to his banking interests, for example, he served as a director of several railroad and insurance corporations and was active in the Democratic party. In 1854 he was appointed New York City Chamberlain, a position of political patronage that entrusted him with considerable control of municipal funds. This increasing prominence, however, apparently backfired when Edmonds was publicly accused of embezzlement a year later. Although he was never legally charged with criminal activities, the informal accusation was enough to prompt his resignation from his financial positions. Thereafter, he devoted much of the remainder of his life to developing a bank-note engraving company, improving his country estate in Bronxville, New York, and raising his large family (he had remarried after returning from Europe). His genre painting, which continued throughout this period, shifted in later years toward rural themes, a likely reflection of his increasing remove from day-to-day affairs in New York City. He died at his estate in 1863. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Mann, Maybelle. Francis William Edmonds. Exh. cat. International Exhibitions Foundation, travelling exhibition. Washington, D.C., 1975.
Mann, Maybelle. Francis William Edmonds: Mammon and Art. New York, 1977.
Edmonds, Francis W. "'The Leading Incidents & Dates of My Life': An Autobiographical Essay by Francis W. Edmonds." AAJ 13 (Autumn 1981): 5-10.
Clark, H. Nichols B. Francis W. Edmonds: American Master in the Dutch Tradition. Exh. cat. Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas; New-York Historical Society, New York. Washington, D.C., 1988.
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: 189-190.