An itinerant painter who at various times was also a poet, linguist, composer, musician, music teacher, sculptor, and draftsman, Charles Granger was born on 13 June 1812 in Saco, Maine, a town just south of Portland where the Saco River meets the Atlantic. He was the son of Daniel Granger and Mary Jordan.
Granger's artistic career began about 1830, after he had returned to Saco from two-and-a-half years attending West Point. He then began to teach himself to play the piano and organ and to draw and paint. After filling a studio with plaster casts, including those of "a Venus, a Hercules Farnese, and a fighting gladiator," Granger secluded himself in Saco for almost two years in order to learn the art of drawing. Although this behavior was considered eccentric by the Saco townspeople, in 1835 the artist was commissioned by the town to make decorative inscriptions and transparencies in preparation for the visit of the Marquis de Lafayette. Perhaps with the money earned from this commission, Granger traveled in the same year to New York City, where he executed his first known painting.
Though Granger seldom signed and dated his works, a few other pieces appearing to date from this early period are known. These include very primitive portraits of relatives and fairly accomplished landscape drawings and watercolors of the Saco area. He also executed some genre scenes, in which he repeatedly drew on a figural repertoire that included various Saco residents and a Christ-like figure. Only a small fraction of Granger's total output is known, however. An inventory in the Kettelle biography includes only about forty-one located works, whereas an account in one of Granger's sketchbooks states that between 1832 and 1845 he executed between 187 and 250 oil paintings as well as two sculptures, various poems, musical compositions, and so forth.
Little else is known of Granger's life before he married Mary Eaton (1811-1888) of neighboring Kennebunkport in the summer of 1839. Only a few months later, Granger left his bride to embark on a three-year trip to seek further instruction in painting and to establish contact with artists and clients. After brief stopovers in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Newburyport and Boston, Massachusetts, and New York City, Granger paid more extended visits to Philadelphia, Baltimore, Hagerstown, Maryland, and Washington. His travels are well documented in his diaries and letters.
In Philadelphia, Granger visited artists' studios and galleries and admired American and European works in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. He recorded being most impressed by the works of Thomas Sully and Rembrandt Peale. After meeting Peale, however, Granger felt certain that he could not compete with such talent and decided to travel further south.
Upon arriving in Baltimore in early 1840, Granger received his first few portrait commissions and also painted some miniatures, landscapes, and copies. However, by March 1840 his fortunes had failed, and he departed for Hagerstown, where he diversified his occupations in order better to support himself, and his wife in Maine. In addition to painting he taught art, tuned pianos, led a church choir, trained a band, and made banners for the 1840 Presidential election. By November 1841 Granger had arrived in Washington, where he studied the paintings in the Library of Congress (then located within the Capitol building), and where he also studied literature and languages.
When he finally returned to Saco in the fall of 1842, Granger once again tried to make a living as a painter, but commissions remained few since the townspeople continued to frown on what they considered to be his unusual behavior. With Mary, he then visited relatives in Old Town, Maine, in 1843 and in Boston in 1844-1845, hoping to find more welcoming prospects. He found little business but did take advantage of the growing market for prints in Boston by publishing a set of etchings after three of his drawings. By his return to Maine in February 1845, Granger had two children to support and had to relinquish the full-time pursuit of painting. Though he did have a few commissions for portraits that summer, he soon turned to teaching, performing, and composing music (he had compositions published in Boston), writing poetry, studying languages and making translations, and hunting.
In 1847 the Grangers finally settled into their own house in Saco, and a third child was born. Still viewed with disdain by his neighbors, about this time Granger drafted a defense of himself and his life's pursuits, in which he included a summary of his work from 1832 to 1845. His diaries reveal little of his activities between this time and the mid-1860s, though he did return to Boston for a short period in 1858 and had a lithograph published by J. H. Bufford, Boston, in 1860. In 1865, Granger was commissioned by the town of Saco to paint several portraits to hang in the newly built town hall--one of Judge Ether Shepley of Saco, another of Abraham Lincoln, and a third of George Washington. Also about this time he was commissioned by the state of Maine to copy the Gilbert Stuart portrait of General Henry Knox.
In 1866, Granger helped found the York Institute, a society of natural history. He was a member of the board of directors, and around 1870 he was commissioned by the Institute to paint a portrait of John James Audubon, which he copied after a painting by Henry Inman. He delivered papers at the Institute on such diverse subjects as ventriloquism and the destruction of forests. Granger continued to paint until late in his life, executing "flower pieces" (now unlocated) and portraits which were often copied from daguerreotypes. He died in Saco on 8 September 1893 after a number of illnesses. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Kettelle, Martha Chadbourne. Aloft on Butterflies' Wings: The Story of the Artist Charles Henry Granger and His Family. Paoli, Pennsylvania, 1976.
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: 152-153.