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Alexander Ransom

 (1818 - 1865)
Alexander Ransom was active/lived in Massachusetts, New York.  Alexander Ransom is known for portrait and landscape painting, art education.

Alexander Ransom

Biography from the Archives of askART

This following biography was researched, compiled, and written by Geoffrey K. Fleming, Executive Director, Huntington Museum of Art, Huntington, WV.  

ALEXANDER RANSOM (February 28, 1818 – April 13, 1865)

Portrait and landscape painter and teacher.  He is best remembered as the first teacher of the noted 19th century American landscape painter, Aaron Draper Shattuck (1832 – 1928).

Alexander Ransom was born in Hartford, Vermont, the son of Electa (b. 1791) and Elisha W. Ransom (b. 1790).  His father was a farmer, who later moved with his wife to New York State to live with other members of their family.  It is unknown whether Alexander Ransom had any professional art training or if he was simply predisposed to be an artist.  He should not be confused with the younger “house painter” by the same name (Alexander E. Ransom) who also lived and worked in Boston, Massachusetts during the same period.
Ransom married Margaret Revell Freeman (1826-1902) in Hartland, Connecticut on the 21st of February 1846.  Ransom and his wife were involved in a stage coach accident near Petersham, Massachusetts shortly after their marriage, where he was slightly injured.  They had three children, Alexander (b. 1848), Frederic Alexander (b. 1853), and Maud Margaret (b. 1857).  Early in their marriage the Ransoms lived in Lowell, Massachusetts in a building located at the corner of “Nesmith and Merr’k,” and buried their eldest son in the cemetery located in the city.  His studio was located in Boston at 17 ½ (1845) and then at 23 (1846) Tremont Row, just around the corner from the Boston Athenaeum.  There is a reference to Ransom traveling to London in 1850, though the evidence for such a trip is not clear.

In Boston he worked both as a portrait and landscape painter while also teaching and was evidently respected enough in his field to receive an honorary bachelor of arts degree from Middlebury College in 1851.  Among his most noted pupils was the Hudson River and White Mountain School painter, Aaron Draper Shattuck (1832 – 1928), who studied under Ransom between 1851 and 1852.  In 1852 he accompanied Shattuck to New York City, where the latter began his studies at the National Academy.  According to Shattuck’s diaries, for a time he lent money to his former teacher, perhaps while Ransom and his family were getting settled in the city.

Ransom listed his Manhattan studio address as 703 Broadway and his home as 248 Tenth Street.  In 1854 he was noted as having invented a way to use daguerreotypes in the creation of oil portraits.  In December of that year the New York Times reported: “It may not be amiss at this season to recall the attention of our readers to an invention of Mr. ALEXANDER RANSOM, an Artist of this City, by which he is able to paint from daguerreotypes far more accurate Portraits than have hither to been attainable.

The process allowed a daguerreotype to be magnified “to any required extent” and the image was in turn reflected onto a canvas to enable the artist to utilize the image to create a large scale and extremely accurate likeness of the person depicted.  The Times further reported “His rooms are at the University,” which refers to New York University, which was founded in 1831.  It is unclear if he was professionally associated with the institution or if he merely rented space from them.

Ransom and his family left New York City and were back in Boston by 1857 and eventually settled in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, which was later annexed to Boston in 1874.  It is probably from Massachusetts that Ransom created his one well known Civil War related painting entitled “Near Fort Donelson, Tennessee,” which was completed in 1862 and is now in the collection of the Tennessee State Museum.  James C. Kelly’s essay Landscape and Genre Painting in Tennessee, 1810-1895 (published in Tennessee Historical Quarterly) assumes that Ransom may have actually traveled to Tennessee after General Ulysses S. Grant captured the fort to create the picture, though that seems unlikely considering he may have already been ill (see below).  

That said, it is possible he could have traveled to the south, however, he is not listed as having served in the Civil War as a soldier, nor as having registered with draft.  There also does not appear to be any reference to him as an artist associated with the war effort either.  It would be more likely for him to have relied on information sent to him regarding the position of the army’s camp located in Tennessee and then painted the scene from afar.  There is presently no record indicating that the work was exhibited during his lifetime.

By this time, however, Ransom’s career and life were coming to a close.  At some point during the early 1860s he became ill with cancer, a disease that would take his life on Thursday, the 13th of April 1865.  He was forty-seven years old.  The following day his body was interred in lot 1520 at Forest Hills Cemetery, located in Boston, Massachusetts, where other members of his family would follow in the decades to come.

During the course of his career, Ransom exhibited at several major institutions, including the Boston Athenaeum, The National Academy of Design, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.  The majority of his exhibited works appear to be portraits or figure studies and sketches.  He completed at least one portrait of an American politician (Daniel Webster) and at least one self-portrait. Some of the paintings exhibited at the Boston Athenaeum in his later years appear to have been more genre style figurative works, and were given titles such as “The Toilette” and “A Sybil.”  At present only two landscape works are known, the previously mentioned Fort Donelson painting and another now in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum, entitled “Lover’s Walk,” which depicts a woman standing on a bridge in an idyllic landscape.

Though there are undoubtedly other exhibitions in which Ransom participated, those presently known include the following:  Boston Athenaeum, Boston, MA (1842-43, 1847, 1853, 1855); The National Academy of Design, New York, NY (1853-55, 1857); and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA (1865).  

Ransom’s works are held in the following public institutions at present:  Brooklyn Museum of Art, Brooklyn, NY; University of Michigan Museum of Art, Ann Arbor, MI (self-portrait); Tennessee State Museum, Nashville, TN. The majority of his works reside in private collections throughout the United States.

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About  Alexander Ransom

Born:  1818 - Hartford, Vermont
Died:   1865
Known for:  portrait and landscape painting, art education