Thomas Bayley Lawson was born in Newburyport, Massachusetts, on January 13, 1807. After serving as an apprentice in a local dry goods store as a young man, he opened his own shop in 1828, which proved unsuccessful. Little is known regarding Lawson's early artistic training or even what led him to pursue a career as a painter. His first portrait was apparently a copy after a work by Thomas Sully (1783-1872). He moved to New York in 1831 and enrolled in drawing classes at the National Academy of Design, which he attended twice a week for six months. In April 1832 Lawson relocated to Philadelphia, but in October of the same year he returned to Newburyport.
Lawson established an active business in Newburyport, painting portraits of the city's professional class, miniatures, and copies after portraits by other well-known artists. In 1837-38 he made a nine-month trip to Mobile, Alabama, and Pensacola, Florida, where he found many commissions and earned some $2,000. He returned to Newburyport in August 1838 and in December was married. Four years later he moved to Lowell, a prosperous mill town at the junction of the Merrimack and Concord Rivers, where he would remain for the rest of his life.
In 1844 a group of Lowell citizens who were members of the Whig Party financed a trip for Lawson to Washington to paint the famous orator and politician Daniel Webster. The resulting portrait became the artist's most famous work and he created more than twenty replicas of it. In the following years Lawson's portrait business thrived, and he painted the leading businessmen and politicians of Lowell and prominent citizens of other New England towns and cities. Apparently extremely well-read and personally engaging, Lawson enjoyed considerable prominence in his community. He died in Lowell on 4 June 1888. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
"Thomas B. Lawson: Death of a Venerable Artist, at His Home in Lowell." Newburyport Daily Herald, 6 June 1888.
Currier, John T. The History of Newburyport, Massachusetts, 1764-1906. 1906. Facsimile edition. Somersworth, New Hampshire, 1977: 352-353.
Coburn, Frederick W. Thomas Bayley Lawson: Portrait Painter of Newburyport and Lowell. Salem, Massachusetts, 1947.
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: 415.