The portraitist Samuel Lovett Waldo was born April 6, 1783, in Windham, Connecticut, one of eight children born to farmer Zacheus Waldo and his wife Esther Stevens Waldo. At the age of sixteen he went to Hartford and took drawing lessons from an obscure painter named Joseph Steward. He set up a studio there in 1803, but found few clients and supplemented his income by painting signs. After a brief stay in Litchfield he proceeded to Charleston, South Carolina, and remained there for three years. In 1806 he went to study art in England, where he introduced himself to Benjamin West and John Singleton Copley, and shared lodgings with Charles Bird King. Waldo returned to America in 1809 and settled permanently in New York. The artist's unusual character study Old Pat, the Independent Beggar (1819, The Boston Athenaeum) attracted considerable attention and was engraved by Asher B. Durand. In 1820 he established a successful partnership sharing portrait commissions with a former pupil William Jewett. The exact nature of their collaboration is unknown; some historians have speculated that Waldo painted the heads and hands, and Jewett was responsible for the costumes, accessories, and backgrounds, while others have dismissed the theory as untenable.
Waldo served on the board of directors at the American Academy of the Fine Arts from 1817 until 1828, and in 1826 he was one of the founding members of the National Academy of Design, of which he became an associate in 1847. He died in New York on February 16, 1861. One of the most successful and competent portraitists active in New York during the first quarter of the nineteenth century, Waldo was a businesslike, conservative painter who produced sober, literal likenesses that seldom achieved profound insights into his clients' personalities. There is some justification for critics who have dismissed him as a "commercial face painter" who was "competent but never inspired." Unlike many American artists who shared a similar origin, he transcended his humble beginnings and successfully assimilated the British painterly style to which he had been exposed at the Royal Academy. Waldo's esteem for this tradition is evidenced by the fact that he initiated a subscription at the National Academy to commission Thomas Lawrence to paint a full length portrait of Benjamin West, "That artists might see what constituted a work of art in that branch of painting." [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published, or to be published, in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
"Artist Biography: Samuel L. Waldo." The Crayon 8 (May 1861): 98-100.
Dunlap, William. A History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States. 2 vols. 1834: 2:205-208.
DAB, 1943, 19:333-334.
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: 223-224.