From the time of his youth in France and later in England, the artist's father Thomas Simon Rimmer (d. 1852) believed himself to be the younger son of Louis XVI and rightful heir to the throne of France after the death of his older brother in 1789. Although the validity of Thomas' claims cannot be verified, three generations of the Rimmer family carried on this belief. William Rimmer's supposed royal heritage provided the source for many of his most powerful and imaginative works of art with recurring themes and motifs of Promethean hubris, exile, thwarted ambition, confrontation, gladiators, and soldiers.
Born in Liverpool in 1816, William Rimmer arrived in America in 1818 and never returned to Europe. Brought up in poverty, he spent most of his life eking out a living for himself and his large family and was virtually unknown as an artist until the age of forty-five. He was essentially self-taught in most of his diverse activities, including composing music. A learned anatomist, Rimmer practiced medicine in the Boston area from the late 1840s to the early 1860s, and, through his study of art anatomy, he fashioned a personal grammar of form in which the male nude became a metaphor for themes of heroic struggle. In addition to lecturing on art anatomy in Boston, New York, Providence, New Haven, and other East coast cities during the 1860s and 1870s, he served as director of the School of Design for Women at Cooper Union in New York from the autumn of 1866 to the early autumn of 1870. He published two highly illustrated and important books--Elements of Design (1864) and Art Anatomy (1877)--and taught several of the next generation's major artists, notably John La Farge (1835-1910) and Daniel Chester French (1850-1931). Rimmer's art and writings also evince his awareness of contemporary scientific and pseudo-scientific areas of investigation, including photography, physiognomy, phrenology, typology, comparative anatomy, and Darwinian thought. His books and teaching earned him many admirers, the sculptors Gutzon Borglum (1867-1941) and Leonard Baskin (b. 1922) among the most enthusiastic of the twentieth century.
Only about two-thirds of Rimmer's approximately 600 known works have been traced, and the quality of most of those that survive is high. Fewer than a quarter of his works were commissioned, and he was not well paid even for such works as his only surviving public monument, the granite statue of Alexander Hamilton (1865) on Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, and the eighty-one drawings for Art Anatomy (1876, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). His statuette of Seated Man ('Despair') of 1831 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) was reputed to be the first nude sculpture in America. With Head of a Woman (c. 1859, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.) and Bust of Saint Stephen, Rimmer was probably the first American sculptor to create granite carvings for purposes other than strictly utilitarian. He died in South Milford, Massachusetts in 1879.
Rimmer was once seen as an enigmatic and isolated artist, but scholars are increasingly placing him within his own times, while recognizing his special achievements. Although an amateur in many respects, he was the most gifted sculptor of his generation in America, a painter of compelling and evocative images, a powerful and imaginative draughtsman, and an important teacher. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Bartlett, Truman H. The Art Life of William Rimmer: Sculptor, Painter, and Physician. Boston, 1882. Reprinted 1890, Boston and New York, and Cambridge. Reprinted, with slight corrections, 1970, New York.
Kirstein, Lincoln. "Who Was Dr. Rimmer?" Town and Country xcviii (1946): 72-73.
Kirstein, Lincoln. William Rimmer: 1816-1879. Exh. cat. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1946.
Weidman, Jeffrey. "William Rimmer: Creative Imagination and Daemonic Power." In The Art Institute of Chicago Centennial Lectures: Museum Studies 10. Chicago, 1983.
Weidman, Jeffrey. In William Rimmer: A Yankee Michelangelo. Exh. cat. Brockton Art Museum, Massachusetts. Hanover, New Hampshire, 1985.
Weidman, Jeffrey. "William Rimmer." In Dictionary of Art 1996, 26:401-402.
Weidman, Jeffrey. "William Rimmer." In American Paintings from the Detroit Institute of Arts, Volume II: Works by Artists Born 1816-1847. New York, 1997: 196-205.
Butler, Ruth, and Suzanne Glover Lindsay, with Alison Luchs, Douglas Lewis, Cynthia J. Mills, and Jeffrey Weidman. European Sculpture of the Nineteenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 2000: 440.