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 Moses Billings  (1809 - 1884)

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Lived/Active: Pennsylvania      Known for: portrait painting-notables

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Ad Code: 3
Moses Billings
Girl in White, Oil on canvas, 60" x 48", unsigned
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Moses Billings   (1809 - 1884)

The only permanent portrait painter in Erie in the first half of the 19th century, Moses Billings exerted a tremendous influence on artistic development in the community.  With brush and canvas, he captured life in the young city straddling the eras between its frontier founding and its rise to prosperity as a commercial port and industrial center.  

Born January 15, 1809 in Amherst, New Hampshire, Billings was a self-taught artist, as few formal schools of instruction were in existence at that time.  His lack of training in anatomy was obvious to the trained eye but his facial features, particularly the eyes, gave his likenesses excellent quality, while his colors and period apparel were realistic.  

Having lived in Orange County, New York for a time, he came to Erie, Pennsylvania in 1829.  He continued to travel however, and was known to have been in Cincinnati while possibly also having a studio in Cleveland around 1833.  

The artist is known to have finally settled in Erie in about 1835 as he married Jane Wilkins of Erie in October of that year.  In addition to portraits his income was supplemented by odd jobs paintings signs and decorative crafts for commercial purposes.  

By 1845 he had adapted himself to the new medium of photography as a means of supplementing his income.  He is believed to have abandoned this medium by 1850.

In February of 1846 the artist moved to Washington, D.C. for a time to avail himself of the opportunity to paint any politicians arranged for by the Erie Congressman James Thompson.  Only two were known to have been done: President John Quincy Adams and Dolly Madison.  Neither was sold and they returned with him to Erie as display material.

Back in Erie by 1848 the artist began to give lessons; one of his pupils being the young painter from Ohio, Junius R. Sloan.  He also began making a living painting the prominent citizens of Erie, of which about 500 were known to have been done.  In his advance years he spent winters in warmer climates such as Charlotte, South Carolina and Florida.  

Billings was never considered an innovative artist.  He earned a solid local reputation for his ability to capture a likeness, a skill he practiced into his 70’s.  He died August 14, 1884, at age 75.

Biography excerpted from the unpublished manuscript: “Erie Artists – A History of Heroes,” by Dr. Kirk Steehler of Erie Art Museum.  
Submitted by Edward Bentley, researcher of Lansing, Michigan

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
The following biography, submitted by Mike Bruns, is from the Erie Hall of Fame:

Billings, Moses
Candidate's Name: Moses Billings
Occupation: Painter/Artist
Lifespan: January 15, 1809-May 18, 1842

Moses Billings was born on January 15, 1809 and traveled to Erie, Pennsylvania in 1829. Billings was a very talented artist, who quickly became the most prominent portrait painter in Erie County in the first half of the 19th century.  He painted many portraits, including his first known and most famous, entitled The Father of His Country. This painting was a portrait of George Washington, which was displayed in a procession on September 10, 1840, in conjunction with a Great Whig Convention.

Billings offered a new technology to the people of Erie, called daguerreotype, which was the process of making a photograph on a plate of chemically treated metal or glass, which put him at a great advantage. Along with his most famous painting, Billings also painted portraits of John Quincy Adams, Abraham Lincoln, and Dolly Madison, among 500 other estimated portraits in his lifetime.  In 1963, the Erie Public Museum opened a special exhibit featuring Billings' portraits.

In 1976, the Smithsonian Institution's National Collection of Fine Arts honored him among American artists, and the following year, the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown purchased an oil painting entitled Girl in White. His portraits are now located at the Erie Art Museum; the Erie County Historical Society, Self Portrait of Moses Billings; Brauer Museum of Art, Portrait of Junius R. Sloan; Erie County Courthouse; Theil College Permanent Art Collection, Portrait of John Quincy Adams; and Stamford Historical Society, Portrait of William Jacob Blickensderfer;


Biography from Butler Institute of American Art:
Moses Billings was born in Orange County, New York in 1809 and died in Erie, Pennsylvania ion August 12, 1884.

He came to Erie from New England in 1829 and soon afterwards married Miss Jane Wilkins who survived him. In 1846 he was called to Washington where he painted portraits of James Madison and John Quincy Adams.

Billings became the teacher of Junius Sloan (1827-1900), portrait and landscape painter.

Submitted by Pat McCormick, Acting Registrar

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