Find, Learn, Price Art
Enjoy the comprehensive art database we've compiled since 1987
Membership Details
Images, sales charts, bios, signatures, 30 artist Alerts and more ...
Art auction records:  Millions of references for pricing research
Or, register for Free Alerts
To track 10 artists.

Already a member?  Sign in here

Charles Bird King

 (1785 - 1862)
Charles Bird King was active/lived in District Of Columbia, Rhode Island.  Charles King is known for Indian portrait, genre and still-life painting.

Charles Bird King

    KING    click to hear

Biography from the Archives of askART

Born in Newport, Rhode Island, Charles Bird King became famous for his portraits of distinguished Native Americans.  He studied with Samuel King, colonial painter, and then at age 15, ran away to New York City where he worked in the studio of Edward Savage.  From 1805 to 1812, he lived in London, studying with Benjamin West and sharing a studio with Thomas Sully.

In 1816, he settled in Washington D.C., becoming the city's first significant resident artist.  He did portraits of politicians and then spent 16 years on a commission to paint members of a five-tribe Indian delegation, which came to the city in 1821.  The results became the basis of the National Indian Portrait Gallery.  The originals burned, but lithography copies remain.

He did an occasional still life, some of them in trompe l'oeil style including The Vanity of an Artist's Dream, which shows dusty, dilapidated books, stale food, and debris from an artist's studio.  Another work, Still Life Game, has dark tones and melancholy mood and highly realistic rendering.

Sources include:
Groce & Wallace, The New York Historical Society's Dictionary of Artists in America
Peter Hastings Falk, Editor, Who Was Who in American Art

Biography from The Johnson Collection
Endowed with a large inheritance upon his father's death, Charles Bird King, a native of Newport, Rhode Island, received early artistic instruction from the portraitist Edward Savage in New York. From 1800 to 1805, he apprenticed in Savage's studio and gallery, where the artist's monumental painting, The Washington Family, was on display. Savage, who had studied with the renowned American expatriate artist Benjamin West at London's Royal Academy, encouraged King to do the same. King departed for England in 1806 and, by 1808, was accepted as West's pupil. While honing his skills as a portrait artist, King made copies of old masters and served as a mentor to other American student-artists, including Thomas Sully, with whom he shared a humble residence.

Upon his return to the United States in 1812, King settled in Philadelphia and launched a career as a portrait artist, traveling along the mid-Atlantic seaboard to record the likenesses of notable sitters, including the statesman Daniel Webster and President James Monroe. He also conveyed a highly elevated sense of artistic being through several unusual still life and genre paintings, such as The Poor Artist's Cupboard (1815), The Vanity of the Artist's Dream (1830) and The Itinerant Artist (1830), one of the most important genre paintings in the romantic canon. Additional commissions from national political figures eventually led King to relocate to Washington, D.C. where he established a large home, studio and gallery. This Twelfth and F Street complex became one of the first seminal centers of art activity in the capital; it was there that King gave instruction to the young artists John Gadsby Chapman and George Cooke and that several important history paintings had their premiere, including Benjamin West's Death on a Pale Horse, Auguste Hervieu's The Landing of Lafayette at Cincinnati and George Cooke's monumental copy of Théodore Géricault's Raft of the Medusa. It was also the site where King painted his most significant commission, a series of portraits of Native Americans undertaken in the winter of 1821-1822 at the behest of John Caldwell Calhoun, Secretary of War. Eventually totaling 143 works, this project occupied much of King's attention until 1842, when "financial problems, prejudicial political opposition, and the development of the camera effectively denied the need for such paintings." However, between 1837 and 1844, Thomas Loraine McKenney, longtime superintendent of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and James Hall published 120 of King's portraits, as copied by Henry Inman, in a large folio edition entitled History of the Indian Tribes of North America, With Biographical Sketches and Anecdotes of the Principal Chiefs.

Charles Bird King enjoyed the admiration of his colleagues throughout his career, admired for his modesty generous spirit. "In person and manners, Mr. King is prepossessing. He has not the polish of a court, neither has he the duplicity of a courtier. A frankness and naiveté have attended him through life, seldom found in men who have mingled so much in society."

The Johnson Collection, Spartanburg, South Carolina

Biography from Altermann Galleries and Auctioneers, III
Charles Bird King
Born: Newport, Rhode Island 1785
Died: Washington, DC 1862

Very important portrait painter specializing in Indians

King was as a boy the pupil of Samuel King in Newport, then of Edward Savage in New York, and finally of Benjamin West in London for seven years along with Thomas Sully. After failing with a Philadelphia studio he opened in 1812, King moved to Washington, DC in 1816 where he was the "principal artist-in-residence less by his painting skill than by a bachelor's pleasant manner while eating out." King thus "smiled his way to success as a mediocre portraitist," although as a still-life painter he "made loveliness out of ruined things."

In 1821, King was commissioned by Thomas L McKenney, Superintendent of Indian Trade, to paint portraits of eight Western Indians brought to Washington "to visit their Great White Father" to become impressed with his strength. King went on to paint about 90 portraits of Indians visiting Washington, to comprise by 1837 the nucleus of the National Indian Portrait Gallery. All but three of these were lost in the Smithsonian fire in 1865. Today these paintings exist in the many replicas King is said to have painted, as well as copies known to have been made by Henry Inman and others. In addition the portraits were duplicated in "faithful and colorful lithographs" illustrating McKenney and Hall's three-volume work published 1836-44. And finally, the lithographs themselves were widely copied.

Resource: SAMUELS' Encyclopedia of ARTISTS of THE AMERICAN WEST,
Peggy and Harold Samuels, 1985, Castle Publishing

Biography from Charleston Renaissance Gallery

Lauded as Washington, D.C.'s first significant resident artist, Charles Bird King studied in New York with Edward Savage and in London with Benjamin West. At the time, West had all but abandoned portraiture for history painting, but King benefited from West's instruction and gained access to the studios of the best English portrait painters. Returning to America in 1812, he worked briefly in Philadelphia and Baltimore before settling in the nation's capital.

Of the hundreds of pictures King painted, the best known are his portraits of Indians and of prominent local citizens and national leaders. King enriched the life of the city in other ways as well. In addition to the Indian Gallery, begun in 1821, his own studio was a favorite retreat for artists and lovers of art.  King often painted replicas or copies of his portraits, probably to enhance his gallery, and he also painted variant views. His finest pictures, including Mrs. John Quincy Adams (National Collection of Fine Arts, Washington, D.C.) and Henry Clay and John Calhoun (Corcoran Gallery, Washington, D.C.) were painted in the 1820s.

This essay is copyrighted by the Charleston Renaissance Gallery and may not be reproduced or transmitted without written permission from Hicklin Galleries, LLC.

** If you discover credit omissions or have additional information to add, please let us know at

Share an image of the Artist

  Full access to biographies is
  free each Friday

About  Charles Bird King

Born:  1785 - Newport, Rhode Island
Died:   1862 - Washington, District Of Columbia
Known for:  Indian portrait, genre and still-life painting

Essays referring to
Charles Bird King

San Francisco Panama-Pacific Exhibition 1915