The artist I am featuring today is an American, born in New York State and was considered to be one of the major artists of Buffalo’s first golden age in the mid 1800s. He is Thomas LeClear who is recognized for his beautifully crafted depiction of children.
Thomas LeClear was born in the village of Candor, near Owego, in upstate New York on March 11th 1818. Even at a young age LeClear showed and interest and aptitude in painting. In Henry T. Tuckerman’s Book of the Artists, which was first published in 1867, he regaled how LeClear, at the tender age of twelve, completed a painting of Saint Matthew, which was so admired by his neighbours that they were willing to pay him two and a half dollars for copies. In 1832, at the age of thirteen, his family moved to Ontario, Canada, and a few years later LeClear became an itinerant portrait artist and decorative painter in upstate New York and travelling as far west as Green Bay, Wisconsin. In 1834 he went to Goodrich, a town on the shores of Lake Huron, where he took up a commission to decorate panels on a steamboat under the guidance of its owner. The finished paintings pleased the owner but were not what LeClear had wanted to paint as he had hoped to depict scenes from American history. LeClear left Goodrich and moved to Norfolk in the state of New York situated close to the St Lawrence Seaway. He remained there for two years carrying out portrait commissions and when the money from the sale of them dried up he would do any manual job that was on offer but slowly but surely his money was fast running out. He moved on to Green Bay but there was no work for him in that city so he decided to head south to New York
In 1839 LeClear moved to New York City. According to Tuckerman’s biography of LeClear. The young artist arrived in the city in a poor financial state but still had enough to open a studio at 1271 Broadway which he would later share with Albert Bierstadt. LeClear had said that the seven years of wandering, looking for work, were the darkest period of his life. He reportedly studied for several years with Henry Inman, an American portrait, genre, and landscape painter, who was at that time, reckoned to be one of the city’s leading artists. By 1847 , still a year short of his thirtieth birthday, LeClear had gained a reputation as a talented painter and had gained substantial recognition for his work. He began exhibiting at the National Academy of Design in 1845, and in the next few years several of his genre paintings were acquired by the American Art Union.
The year was 1847 and LeClear had arrived in Buffalo, New York. He reckoned, with Buffalo now a very busy commercial port, there would be many possibilities for a successful career. His calculations proved correct. In short order he became an important member of Buffalo’s art community and acquired many wealthy local patrons. He was a founding member of the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy which later became the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. LeClear served on its board for many years. In addition to portraits, he also produced a substantial number of genre paintings. Many of the latter were street life scenes, in which children were featured in whimsical situations. In the early 1860s LeClear moved back to New York City. where he was elected to full membership in the National Academy of Design in 1863. Within a decade of his return to the city, he was believed to be one of the most prominent portrait painters on the East Coast.
In the spring of 1861, Ulysses S Grant looked unlikely to be remembered for his greatness. He had resigned his army captain’s commission in 1854, and was struggling to survive financially as a humble clerk. This was all to change with the outbreak of the Civil War. He reenlisted in the army, and soon worked his way up through the ranks becoming a general. By war’s end, he was commander of all Union land forces and, as the chief architect of the South’s defeat, had become one of the country’s heroes. His popularity led him to be elected as US President in 1868. Grant posed for this portrait shortly after he returned from a triumphant world tour following his presidency. Thomas LeClear painted two versions. This one was originally owned by Grant himself, while the second one became part of the White House collection.
President U.S. Grant was painted in a number of portraits by Thomas Le Clear, for whom the former president sat in New York in 1879, two years after the end of his presidency. The sitting led to three portraits, two of which are in the White House whilst the other hangs in the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution. This small bust portrait was not purchased by the government until the 20th century, and was produced by the painter in 1880.
Buffalo Newsboy was painted by LeClear in 1853 whilst living in Buffalo and twenty years after history’s first paperboy. The story goes that the publisher of The New York Sun had placed an advert for newspaper hawkers stipulating that only “steady men” should apply. A ten-year-old boy, Barney Flaherty, asked to be considered and he was hired on September 4th, 1833 which is why that date is national newsboy day. LeClear, who was a founding member and first superintendent of the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, which would later become the Albright-Knox, and the institution has the work in its collection.
The most fascinating of Thomas LeClear’s works is his 1865 painting entitled Interior with Portraits. The painting was commissioned by Franklin Sidway, an American businessman and banker from Buffalo, New York and is currently held by the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.
The setting for the painting is a studio in the famous New York artist building known as the 10th Street Studio Building. It was constructed in New York City in 1857 and was the first modern facility designed solely to serve the needs of artists. It became the centre of the New York art world for the remainder of the 19th century. The painting depicts much of the trappings of the professional artist such as a sculpted bust, animal sculptures, prints and copies after the old masters. This was the home of an artist not a photographer. This was the home of an artist who revered the artists of the past and their works such as the Borghese Gladiator and the Venus de Milo, copies of which we see in the studio.
In the painting we see two young children standing side by side. These are Sidway’s siblings, James and Parnell, who are posing for a photograph in an artist’s studio. But all is not as it seems as both were dead when this painting was made. The young boy on the right, James Sidway, was a volunteer firefighter, and had died in 1865, aged twenty-five whilst attending a hotel blaze. The painting was commissioned by his brother shortly after James’ death. The girl in the painting, Parnell Sidway, was an adolescent when she died of illness in 1850. LeClear, having no live models for the portrait, has utilised family daguerreotypes to aid him. Daguerreotypes were photographs taken by an early photographic process employing an iodine-sensitized silvered plate and mercury vapour and were invented by Louis Daguerre, a French artist and photographer. Painting using photographs was very contentious at the time and many artists were suspicious of the practice and maybe there are references to those hostilities in the painting. It marked the arrival of a new technological form of virtual reality into the painter’s traditional territory. Artists everywhere felt threatened by this new photography. Many vowed never to use photographs as painting aids and would rather acclaim the very special qualities that they believed made painting superior to photography
The two children stand before a landscape painting which has become part of the photographic trickery. This fact alone must have incensed the like of the Hudson River painters and the Western landscapes painters whose works were so dominant in the public exhibition rooms at the time.
Look above the landscape painting and you will see an old patriarch looking disapprovingly over the scene. Is it a mere coincidence that his portrait is partly obscured by the backdrop? Is this hinting at the Masters are being relegated to the past by the advent of photography?
There is much to see in the work regarding the tension between painting versus photography. The children are surrounded by painted portraits, and the demonised photographer has his back to us obscuring his face. Does this symbolise his reluctance to be part of the photography/painting argument? Of course, early photography had its own problems especially when it involved long exposure time and it being necessary for the subjects remaining absolutely still during the long exposure. Children were a special challenge for photographers. They sometimes used braces and ties and other torturous to keep people from moving. Note in this painting how the girl holds onto her brother to stop him moving as a comment on the “keep still” factor.
In the doorway we see a dog is depicted just about to rush into the studio, again highlighting the problem with photography as opposed to painting. But what happens when the dog chooses just that moment to come in? Well, if you’re an artist, you would capture the moment of him in the doorway. However, if you’re a photographer, you would probably have to start over again.
Looking closely at the work of art we have another conundrum to solve. There are three chairs dotted around but none have a sitter. One, which is positioned in front of the easel, which holds a painting of a bearded man. This had presumably once been occupied by the artist. On another chair we see a lady’s hat, shawl, and purse and the third unoccupied chair with its walking stick and discarded newspaper must have once been occupied by a gentleman. But where are the three now? The answer is probably quite simple – they are all out here with us, the viewers. We are all standing side by side just outside the picture frame, watching the scene before us. So LeClear is now telling us that instead of there only being three people involved in the painting, there were actually six !
It is thought that by using this illusion he was paying homage to Velazquez’z painting Las Meninas, which if we look at the figures in the mirror, used the same stratagem.
Two years after completing his portraits of the former president Ulysses S Grant, Thomas LeClear died of pleurisy in Rutherford Park, New Jersey on November 26th 1882 at the age of sixty-four. His wife Caroline had died thirteen years earlier when only forty-six-years of age.
The two lie together in Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, Kings County, New York.