Kathleen A Foster, Philadelphia Museum of Art
The Constitution and the Guerriere, ca. 1840–1850, by Thomas Chambers, Oil on canvas, 24 ¾ x 31 ¼ inches, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Boston Harbor. ca. 1843-45, by Thomas Chambers, Oil on canvas, 22 x 30 1/8 inches, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
Niagara Falls from the American side, ca. 1843–1852, Oil on canvas, 18 x 24
Thomas Chambers (1808–1869) played a pioneering role in expanding American folk art, then consisting almost entirely of portraiture, to include landscape and maritime art in the mid-19th century. He is best known for melding folk and cosmopolitan styles. Chambers used the flat colors, strong value contrasts and bold, two-dimensional designs that are characteristic of the folk aesthetic that he shared with other folk painters who began as sign painters, such as Edward Hicks (1780–1849), Ammi Phillips (1788–1865), William Matthew Prior (1806-1873) and Sturtevant Hamblin (1817–1884). More naturalistic, academic influences came from the works of contemporaries such as Thomas Birch (1779–1851), Thomas Doughty (1793–1856), Thomas Cole (1801–1848) and Victor de Grailly (1804–1889).
Kathleen Foster’s historical research adds to a fuller understanding of Thomas Chambers’ work. Recent research indicates that Chambers was born in 1808, in Whitby, England. He probably received early art instruction from his brother, George Chambers (1803–1842), a British self-taught painter who advanced from painting buckets and trunks to ship portraits, theatrical scenery, panoramas and, eventually, marine paintings that were exhibited at the Royal Academy.
Thomas Chambers left England for New Orleans in 1832 to pursue his painting career. He appeared in New York City directories and newspaper advertisements as a marine, landscape and “fancy” painter from 1834 to 1840. Over the next two decades, he worked in Baltimore, Boston, Albany and New York. Chambers’ artistic imagination also reflects the “fancy” taste of his prosperous, middle-class patrons in New York and New England. Although Chambers’ prolific output suggests remunerative client patronage, he painted on the periphery of the established academic art communities, nor did he exhibit with any official art organization, such as New York’s National Academy of Design. He sold at least some of his work by auction, as evidenced by an extensive 1845 auction list from Newport, Rhode Island. Chambers disappeared from American city directories and census records after 1866. His 1869 death record at Whitby’s poorhouse suggests he returned to his birthplace where he died penniless and disabled. Thomas Chambers’ wide-ranging subject matter presented patriotic and literary themes drawn from history, popular novels and current events. Illustrations from William H. Bartlett’s American Scenery and Jacques-Gerard Milbert’s Itineraire Pittoresque du Fleuve Hudson et des Parties Laterales permitted Chambers, for instance, to paint numerous images of Niagara Falls, Lake George and West Point — places he may never have visited himself. Prints depicting naval engagements of the War of 1812 inspired him to interpret these scenes decades later. Kathleen Foster has also been able to use period images to establish the inspirations, and titles, for many of Chambers’ work. The 1845 auction listing also provides titles for numerous Chambers’ works.
Thomas Chambers was an obscure artist in his own time. He may have been marginalized for his connection to sign and decorative painting, as well as his reliance on print sources. Unlike many of his peripatetic folk artist contemporaries, Chambers directly competed with academically trained painters by seeking his customers in urban areas, rather than roaming the countryside. His imaginative style was also eclipsed by the mid-19th century passion for realism and the popularity of inexpensive lithographs. Like many folk artists, he lapsed even deeper into obscurity only to be “rediscovered,” as were many other American folk artists, in the 1940s, as a precursor to modernism in painting.
Kathleen Foster received her bachelor’s degree from Wellesley College and master’s degrees and doctorate from Yale. She taught at Williams College and Temple University before serving as a curator for the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. She left Philadelphia for the Indiana University Art Museum — which has an extraordinary collection of paintings by Thomas Chambers — and teaching as an adjunct professor of art history and American studies at Indiana University. Dr. Foster returned to Philadelphia as the Robert L. McNeil senior curator of American art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and an adjunct professor of art history at the University of Pennsylvania.
Dr. Foster’s publications include Edwin Austin Abbey (1973) with Michael Quick; Daniel Garber (1980); Writing about Eakins: The Manuscripts in Charles Bregler’s Thomas Eakins Collection (1989) with Charles Leibold; Captain Watson’s Travels in America: The Sketchbooks and Diary of Joshua R. Watson , 1772–1816 (1997); Thomas Eakins Rediscovered (1997); American Watercolors at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (2000) with Jonathan Binstock; Thomas Hart Benton and the Indiana Murals (2000) with Nanette Brewer and Margaret Contompasis; A Drawing Manual by Thomas Eakins (2005);“Introduction/Reintroduction” in The Daniel Garber Catalogue Raisonne (2006); and “Alfred Jacob Miller, the Sketch, and the Album: The Place of Watercolor in Mid-Nineteenth-Century American Art” in Alfred Jacob Miller, Romancing the West (2010). She also co-curated and wrote the essays for Andrew Wyeth, Memory and Magic (2005). Dr. Foster organized the exhibition and wrote the catalogue for Thomas Chambers (1808–1869), American Marine and Landscape Painter.