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 Alfred Wordsworth Thompson  (1840 - 1896)

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Lived/Active: New York/Maryland/New Jersey      Known for: genre, landscape, marine, history

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Wordsworth Thompson is primarily known as Alfred Wordsworth Thompson

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Alfred Wordsworth Thompson
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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
History painter Alfred Wordsworth Thompson was born in 1840 in Baltimore, studying at Newton University. By the time of the Civil War, Thompson was an artist for the Illustrated London News and Harper's Weekly, interested in events in Virginia.  But his interest was apparently not very strong, for, in 1861, he went to Paris to study art, eventually at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in 1864, exhibiting at the Salon of 1865.

Returning to New York City in 1868, he exhibited at the National Academy of Design in that year, becoming an Associate in 1875.  His realistic, brightly colored "Ruins of the Palace of St. Cloud in the Winter of 1871", he was able to gift to the Academy upon becoming a member, and it became well known throughout the country. The National Academy was a successful sales outlet for Thompson.  Over the years, he sold 125 paintings there, though in 1878, he also joined the Society of American Artists, newly formed in opposition to the Academy's overly academic ways.

Thompson, known for his subjects taken from the revolutionary period in America, also sketched and painted out-of-doors during eighteen years of travels to exotic locales like Asia Minor, Morocco and Spain.

He lived in Summit, New Jersey for twelve years, dying there in 1896.  The paintings of Alfred Wordsworth Thompson may be seen in the collections of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York; New York Historical Society and Union League Club in New York City.

Source: David Michael Zellman, Three Hundred Years of American Art

Biography from Charleston Renaissance Gallery:
Thompson was born in Baltimore on May 26, 1840.  He was intended by parental vision as well as education to enter his father's law office; however, just before the War Between the States began, he opened his art studio in Mulberry Street.  He visited Harper's Ferry to sketch John Brown in prison.  The resulting drawing was published in Harper's Weekly, and when war broke out, he went to work for that periodical as a special artist. He also provided illustrations for the Illustrated London News.

Thompson cut short his participation in the War Between the States.  After less than one year as an artist-correspondent, he left the United States to study art in Paris.  His instructors included the genre painter Charles Gleyre (1806-1874) and the landscapist Emile Lambinet (1815-1878). (1)

In 1865 he enjoyed the distinction of having his painting "The Moorlands of Au Fargis" exhibited in the annual Paris Salon.  Not until 1868, well after the war, and after he had had time to travel throughout the Rhineland, along the Danube, and make a six-month walking tour from Heidelberg to Calabria, did he return home, establishing his studio in New York City. (2)

Despite Addison Richard's warning of the difficulty which the artist would encounter in traveling through the south, Thompson did visit Virginia and North Carolina soon after he returned to the States and at other times in the 1870s and 80s.  He exhibited "The Poor White Trash - A Home in the Sand Hills" at the Spring exhibition of the Brooklyn Art Association in 1869 (3), and seven years later "Virginia in the Olden Time" was hung in the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. "Road Out of Norfolk", which Thompson completed in 1888, today may be seen in the collection of the Chrysler Museum.

Thompson's southern views did not go unnoticed in the North.  S. G. W. Benjamin, writing in 1879, glowingly described Thompson's picture of "a steamboat landing in Chesapeake Bay, with its groups of carriages and horses, mules, cattle, negroes, babies, planters and dogs, in picturesque confusion."(4)  An anonymous nineteenth-century reviewer who visited Thompson's studio wrote, "He has at present on his easel and nearly completed a large landscape of western North Carolina scenery."  The reviewer went on to identify the scene as representing a broad valley with Mount Pisgah and Coal Mountain in the background and continued, in praise of Thompson's technique, "Mr. Thompson combines in his style much of the solidity of the French with the charming detail of the American school, and in all that he does he gives evidence of the thorough training he has received in his preliminary studies." (5)


(1) John Denison Champlin, Jr., and Charles C. Perkins. Cyclopedia of Painters and Painting. Port Washington: Kennikat Press, Inc., 1969 (originally published 1885-1887), vol. 4, p. 269.

(2) M. & M. Karolik Collection of American Water Colors and Drawings, 1800-1875. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1962,
vol. 1, p. 282.

(3) Clark S. Marlor, A History of the Brooklyn Art Association with an Index of Exhibitions. New York: James F. Carr, 1970, p. 351.

(4) S. G. W. Benjamin. Our American Artists. Boston: D. Lathrop & Co., Publishers, 1870, n.p.

(5) Fine Arts. The Artists in the Tenth Street Studio - Dr. Ruggles's Pictures. Alfred W. Thompson. Unidentified and undated clipping in the Alfred Wordsworth Thompson file. Manuscript collection. The New York Historical Society.

Cynthia Seibels
Copyright 1990 Robert M. Hicklin Jr., Inc.

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