John Hilling was born in England in 1822 and arrived in America by the early 1840s, when he settled in the coastal town of Bath, Maine. He married his first wife, Jane (last name unknown), before 1844 and fathered at least three children, two of whom died in early childhood.
Hill resided in Bath until he enlisted as a private in the Civil War infantry on 11 March 1864. He soon rose to sergeant, but received an injury to his spine and was honorably discharged on 12 December of the same year. He suffered from "spinal disease" for the rest of his life.
Hilling returned to Bath after military service and advertised as a "house, sign, and fancy painter, grainer and paper hanger." He moved to Charlestown, Massachusetts, sometime prior to his wife's death on 1 December 1873, and the following April he married Annie Hubbard, widow of Oliver Hubbard. Hilling is listed in Boston directories from 1874 through 1877 as a Charlestown decorative painter. Sometime in the following few years, he returned to the Maine shore and settled in Wells. The only mention of his activities in Wells dates from 1886, when a friend wrote on his pension application, "I find Mr. Hilling can only do the easy part of his business (painting) and very often can do nothing." Hilling died in Wells on 14 August 1894, and was buried in Bath.
Although Hilling left Bath after the war, he always regarded it as his home and took a special interest in the town's historic events. His work as an artist is recorded only in contemporary articles praising his paintings of the 1854 demolition and burning of Bath's Old South Church, of which the National Gallery's Burning of Old South Church, Bath, Maine (1958.9.7) is one. No signed paintings have been found. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Hilling, John. "Reminiscences." Bath Daily Times, 16 January 1890: 2.
Obituary of John Hilling. Bath Daily Times, 15 August 1894.
Chotner, Deborah, with contributions by Julie Aronson, Sarah D. Cash, and Laurie Weitzenkorn. American Naive Paintings. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1992: 198.