Born on a modest farm in Woburn, Massachusetts, Benjamin Thompson used his intelligence and ambition to earn an English knighthood, a royal title, and fellowships in the prestigious Royal Society of London and the Institute of France. As a young man, he studied medicine in his native Woburn, as well as Boston, and taught school in Concord, New Hampshire. However, Thompson's Loyalist sympathies forced him to leave America for England in 1775. In London he held an array of civil and military appointments. In recognition of his service, Thompson was knighted by King George III.
At the conclusion of the American Revolution, Thompson left the employment of the British monarch and entered the service of the Elector of Bavaria. Here, too, he occupied a variety of posts and is best remembered for his reform of the laws governing the poor. The elector awarded Thompson the title of Count Rumford of the Holy Roman Empire. Thompson spent his later years at Auteuil, near Paris.
A pioneer physicist, Thompson is known for his experiments on heat and light and for his inventions of heating and cooking stoves. His research earned him fellowships in both the Royal Society of London and the Institute of France. Thompson was also an amateur artist, and may have created this pen and wash drawing Harpsichord Recital at Count Rumford's, Concord, New Hampshire years later from memory. This would account for such incongruities as the fanciful chairs and the burning coal in the fireplace, a fuel not used in America at that time.
[This is an excerpt from the interactive companion program to the videodisc American Art from the National Gallery of Art. Produced by the Department of Education Resources, this teaching resource is one of the Gallery's free-loan educational programs.]