The literary genre painter John Quidor was an enigmatic figure whose career is extremely difficult to trace. Born in 1801 in Tappan, New Jersey, he moved to New York City in 1811. He was apprenticed to the portraitist John Wesley Jarvis from 1818 until 1822, when he successfully sued his teacher for not complying with the terms of his contract. Henry Inman was one of his fellow pupils. In 1823 Quidor began to speculate in Illinois real estate, and he lived there sporadically throughout his life.
His name first appeared in the New York City Directory in 1827, where he was listed as a portrait painter. Probably unable to compete with Jarvis, Inman, and Morse in that field, Quidor specialized in genre scenes derived from the novels of James Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving. He began to exhibit at the National Academy of Design in 1828, and he exhibited a painting at the Boston Athenaeum in 1833. Charles Loring Elliott and Thomas Bangs Thorpe became his pupils around 1830; the latter wrote the only contemporary description of Quidor's studio. In 1834 Dunlap mentioned that Quidor "had painted several fancy subjects with cleverness...His principal employment in New York, has been painting devices for fire engines, and works of that description." Between approximately 1843 and 1849 he is known to have painted a series of seven large Biblical scenes for a Methodist minister, now lost, in exchange for a farm in Adams County, Illinois, that he never obtained. He was not listed in the New York Directory between 1837 and 1850, and appears to have lived in the West during the late 1840s. Quidor returned to New York in 1851 and resumed painting. In 1868 he retired to his eldest daughter's home in Jersey City Heights, New Jersey, where he died in 1881.
Although Quidor failed to achieve professional success during his lifetime, after John I. H. Baur's 1942 retrospective exhibition of his work at the Brooklyn Museum he came to be regarded as one of America's foremost literary painters. Because of his vivid, imaginative, and idiosyncratic interpretations, most historians regard Quidor as a "visionary eccentric" who was the direct precursor of Ryder and Blakelock. Quidor represented his literary subjects with great fidelity to their original texts. His work bears a strong similarity to seventeenth century Dutch or Flemish genre prints, and the British caricature tradition of Hogarth, Gillray, Cruikshank, and Rowlandson. Previously thought to have been a uniquely independent and innovative painter, it is now known that Quidor drew heavily on engraved sources for the compositions of his early paintings, and that these influences were thoroughly assimilated into his later work. His mature style is characterized by its warm tonality, exuberant composition, and exaggerated linearism. During the middle 1850s his technique began to change, culminating in the thinly painted indistinct forms, restricted colors, and calligraphic brushwork typical of his late work. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Baur, John I.H. John Quidor 1801-1881. Exh. cat. Brooklyn Museum, New York, 1942.
Sokol, David M. "John Quidor, Literary Painter." The American Art Journal 2 (Spring 1970): 60-73.
Sokol, David M. John Quidor, Painter of American Legend. Exh. cat. Wichita Art Museum, Kansas, 1973.
Torchia, Robert Wilson, with Deborah Chotner and Ellen G. Miles. American Paintings of the Nineteenth Century, Part II. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1998: 80-81.