Chester Harding was born in 1792 in Conway, Massachusetts, the fourth of 12 children whose father, an unsuccessful inventor, experienced some difficulty in providing for his numerous offspring. Harding thus spent several years in the household of an aunt, and at age 12 he was hired out to help with the support of his family. When he was 14, his parents decided to move to the relatively unsettled area of Monroe County, New York. There he dabbled in a variety of trades--including drum-making, cabinetry, and tavern-keeping--without much success.
Shortly after his marriage to Caroline Woodruff in 1815, he was forced to leave New York State because of mounting debts. His young family then joined him in Pittsburgh, where he began painting houses. Around 1818 he was introduced to portraiture by an itinerant artist named Nelson. Largely self-taught, he achieved some success before moving to Kentucky, where a brother was already engaged in the portrait trade. There he felt the influence of Matthew Jouett, a slightly older artist working in the manner of Gilbert Stuart. Over the next few years Harding painted in Kentucky, Ohio, Missouri, and Washington, D.C., traveling to Philadelphia for two months of study at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts during the winter of 1819-1820. Business was good, and he received particular notoriety for a likeness of the 90-year-old Daniel Boone, which was engraved by several printmakers.
In 1823 Harding spent six months in Boston, where he received an astounding reception and more commissions than he could carry out. He later admitted that his success was due largely to his reputation as an untaught "primitive" from the frontier, a mythic status upon which he would capitalize for several years to come. Despite his good fortune, he moved his family that year to Northampton, Massachusetts, in preparation for his anticipated trip to Europe.
Harding soon left for London, where he met artists Charles Robert Leslie and Sir Thomas Lawrence and temporarily adapted his tight, finished style to the looser brushwork then in fashion in Britain. He met with extremely good fortune in England, Scotland, and Ireland. Taken by his plain mannerisms and humble origins, aristocrats with a democratic bent--and even members of the royal family--commissioned their likenesses from him. Pleased with his popularity, Harding made the decision to settle in Glasgow and sent for his family to join him there. Soon after they arrived, however, he was forced to abandon his plans and return to Boston in 1826 after a British financial panic destroyed his business.
For the rest of his life, Harding's career was centered in Boston, although he made his home in Springfield, Massachusetts, beginning in 1830. He became an important and visible force in the Boston art world, largely through his ownership of a studio building that was the site of many important exhibitions. Much of each year was also spent on the road, executing portraits in New York, Louisiana, Kentucky, and points in between. In all, he is thought to have painted over 1000 portraits. After the death of his wife in 1845, he made a second, nine-month visit to Europe. Thereafter he painted less, though never giving up his brushes entirely. His interests late in life gravitated toward landscape architecture and fishing. He died in Boston in 1866. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Dunlap, William. A History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States. 2 vols. 1834: 2:289-295.
Harding, Chester. A Sketch of Chester Harding, Artist, Drawn by his own Hand. Edited by Margaret E. White. New ed. Boston, 1929.
Lipton, Leah. A Truthful Likeness: Chester Harding and His Portraits. Exh. cat. National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.; J. B. Speed Art Museum, Louisville, Kentucky. Washington, D.C., 1985.
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: 243-244.