The portraitist Frederick Randolph Spencer was born June 7, 1806 in Lennox, New York, one of four children of the lawyer and first postmaster of Canastota, General Ichabod Smith Spencer (1780-1857), and Mary Pierson Spencer (1785-1865). He evinced an early interest for art, and at the age of fifteen saw an exhibition of portraits by Ezra Ames at Albany. In 1822 he saw in Utica some biblical scenes by William Dunlap, from whom he received some informal instruction. In 1825 Spencer went to New York City and drew from the casts at the American Academy of the Fine Arts, where he studied under John Trumbull. By 1827 he had returned to his family's home in Canastota and commenced painting portraits.
After periods of professional activity in Albany and Utica, he returned to New York City in 1831 and became a successful portraitist who painted many of New York's prominent citizens. In 1834 Dunlap reported that Spencer "has been in constant employment to the present time, and with increasing reputation." He became an academician of the American Academy in 1832, and served on its board directors from 1833 to 1835. He became an associate member of the National Academy of Design in 1837, a full academician in 1846, and corresponding secretary of the organization from 1849 to 1850, when he refused reelection in order to dedicate himself to painting. In 1858 the artist retired to upstate New York; he evidently experienced some marital difficulties at that time because his wife, without apparent justification, accused him of insanity and remained in New York City. Spencer died at Wampsville on April 3, 1875.
Spencer painted in an extremely smooth, linear style characterized by a high degree of finish; his later works appear almost photographic. A provincial portraitist who specialized in conventional and literal likenesses, Spencer also painted genre and literary subjects. [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: 2:436.
Goodrich, Laurence B. "A Little-noted aspect of Spencer's art." Antiques 90 (September 1966): 361-363.
Crosier, Susan C. A Retrospective Exhibition of the Work of Frederick R. Spencer 1806-1875. Exh. cat. The Oneida Historical Society, Utica, New York, 1969 (cat. by Susan C. Crosier).
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: 129.