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|The following, used with permission given by Bruce G. Miller, is from the website: |
b. 8 October 1808, Malta, Saratoga County, New York
d. 28 July 1892, Saratoga Springs, New York
Nelson Cook (rarely, Cooke) was the son of furniture-maker Joseph Cook, b. Wallingford, CT, and Mary Ann Tolman (Tallman?), b. Guilford, MA; the parents moved to the Ballston Spa/Malta area of Saratoga County around 1800 from Wallingford. Nelson was one of nine children, including inventor and reforming prison warden Ransom (1794-1881). Correspondence between Nelson and the better-known Ransom provide a great deal of the information we have about the painter, who may have developed his interest and skill in painting by stenciling for a number of years in Ransom's furniture shop; Ransom also provided moral and financial support for his younger brother throughout much of their lives.
Cook's birthdate given here is derived from his death certificate, which, instead of indicating his birthdate, lists his age at death as 83y, 9m, 20d. This date is generally supported by census data. A number of sources report Cook's year of birth as 1817, but his death certificate, census data, and the logic of his career confirm the earlier year; the 1817 date may derive from an incorrect obituary entry in the Rochester Chronicle , 30 July 1892, and others.
Around 1832 Cook left the Saratoga area for Canada, where he spent 6-7 years as an itinerant painter. Eventually settling in Toronto, Cook sharpened his skills painting individuals and families of modest circumstances as well as the more affluent and well connected (including several Lt Governors, military figures, and those associated with the growing canal industry; he apparently was included in an art exhibit in 1834 sponsored by "The Society of Artists and Amateurs" of Toronto). According to the 1860 census of Saratoga County, a daughter was born to the Cooks in Canada in the late 1830s. He returned to New York State around1839 and continued his portraiture in various Upstate cities, especially Rochester: For a time he had a studio at the Clarendon Hotel in Buffalo, at the Blossom Hotel and in Crystal Palace Block, Main Street, Rochester (he was able to move art materials from this location in advance of a fire which apparently leveled the area), and probably other locations.
In the late '50s Cook returned to Saratoga for a time and taught art at Temple Grove Seminary, a school for young women on the eventual site of Skidmore College, later he spent some twelve years in Rome, NY, where illness may have contributed to an ongoing decline in portrait commissions. Throughout his career Cook seems to have kept up with other artists, past and present. In a letter (New York, 1858) to Mansfield Walworth, in whom he apparently worked to create an appreciation of the arts, Cook cites Murillo's Madonna as the "most valuable work of Art in our country," one which reflected his own striving to capture on canvas "the human face divine." His letters make occasional references, some not especially complimentary, to other contemporary portraitists (and their fees) who comprised his competition.
Cook's family life seems to have been close if austere and plagued by illness. His wife Esther (or Ester), born in New York State and about the same age as Nelson, moved with Nelson from city to city and helped in his work by choosing colors, clothing textures, and background drapery in portraits. He notes how he missed her help painting ladies' dresses when she fell ill, which seems to have been often; one of Nelson's letters (22 July 1877) mentions her failing health and a constant noise in her head. His Canadian-born daughter Marion apparently lived with or near the family for much of her life and, with her mother, made extended trips to Michigan (perhaps to stay with Nelson's brother Marcus, but certainly to Esther's cousin, lawyer Peter Morey, for four years that state's Attorney General with a home in the Tecumseh/Adrian area). Marion was taught at home by Esther and, at least for a time, at an Academy in Adrian, MI, learned to read French, and took piano lessons.
On 31 July 1860 Marion married Frank Ellinwood (b. MA, ca 1828; he may have been one of her music teachers) at home in Saratoga Springs; the officiating clergyman was Robert C. Rogers of Bethesda Episcopal Church. Marion and Frank gave Nelson at least three grandchildren, Ransom ("Ransie," b. ca 1866), Frank ("Frankie," b. ca 1872), Est(h)er ("Essie," b. ca 1874). Although she outlived her father, Marion apparently suffered from a long bout of mental illness, which Cook found "hard to bear."
There seems to be no mention of portraits Cook may have made of his own wife or offspring. However, on 9 September 1840 in Saratoga Springs, Cook and his wife had their silhouettes "cut" by August Edouart (1789-1861). This Frenchman created thousands of cut-out 'silhouettes' -- he coined the term -- of prominent Europeans and, when in the USA in 1839-49, Americans. The Cook silhouettes have not been located and perhaps were lost at sea.
Like his immediate and extended family, the artist himself suffered from illness, although when younger he claimed he kept working as long as he didn't fall out of his chair. During his years in Rome, NY, Cook was quite ill, complaining in 1875 of a "nervous disorder." However, by April of 1877 he admitted a weakness which made it hard for him to carry his satchel on a trip to the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. This apparently was the result of a hernia and internal abscess which led him to write Ransom (Nov, 1877) that he felt his "painting days are nearly over." The details of this affliction are gruesome: "My hernia is worse," he writes. "The number of times each day I am obliged to manipulate the intestines to get it out of the scrotum... and adjust the truss, increase. The intestine has greatly increased in size when out, so the manipulation gives me more pain. There appears to be no relief for scrotocele [a hernia in the scrotum], especially after the age of 70." The abscess broke on 6 Dec 1877, and Cook apparently recovered fully (but see below).
Money is also a constant theme of Cook's letters to his brother Ransom, and he portrays himself as continually in debt. Typically for those in his profession, Cook was forced to cultivate patrons in various locales to present his skills to potential sitters, preferably wealthy [see Alice Chester (1854) ]. Although the artist claimed to be doing better than some of his competitors, the rates he charged for his work seem paltry by modern standards: In 1854 a "bust" (head and shoulders) of a child cost $35; an adult bust: $50; a full portrait: $70 or more; he told Ransom he earned only $1817 in a twenty-two month period between 1851 and 1853; rent for his studios in Rochester cost Cook $75 annually. Nelson regularly sought to borrow funds from Ransom, whose business evidently prospered; he served for a time as an agent in Toronto for Ransom and his business partner, Thomas Davenport (inventor of an electric motor) and, later, as his brother's representative in New York cities while he sought portrait work. In 1854 Cook negotiated with his brother for a loan with which to purchase a piano for his daughter, Marion, suggesting that Ransom take a mortgage for the instrument and promising not to build on his property in Saratoga until the debt was paid.
Cook's letters suggest an embittered, even sycophantic individual as he aged, promoted perhaps by health and financial difficulties. He claims to be routinely cheated by his clients and others [see Charles Miller Williams and Alice Chester , both 1854]. "In evil, Saratoga is a paradise compared with Rochester," he wrote. "Half...of the merchants clerks here, steal -- and also their masters." In 1877 he tells Ransom his brother's portrait (which one?) is the best he has ever done and writes from Rochester: "However poor I may remain through life, I had rather you would make a fortune than any other man in the world."
His letters to Ransom reveal other aspects of Cook's personality, perhaps because he feels he can speak freely to his brother. By the mid-1850s he is clearly disillusioned with organized religion and is vigorous in his criticism of the clergy, whom he views as sinful (all of which he admits he keeps from clients); to add to Cook's irritation, a churchman apparently had begun a portrait of Marion but left it unfinished to attend a revival. To Cook the Catholic clergy is the most suspect, and he is distressed when some of Reuben Walworth 's children , under the influence of the Chancellor's second wife Ellen (1857) convert to Catholicism. His attendance at church is rare, and the artist does not hesitate to paint on Sunday when pressed for time. However, before that decade was out he apparently had a change of heart: While in 1854 he deemed himself a "Deist," the records of the Bethesda Episcopal Church indicate he was baptized on 9 October 1857 and confirmed on 29 April 1858.
Cook's religious views apparently influenced his politics: In 1854 he said he had left the Whigs in favor of the "Know Nothing" or, later, the "American" Party. This was a significant admission (albeit to Ransom, whom he urged to join), since "Know Nothings" originally were a secret, oath-bound society based largely on nativist, anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant beliefs (Cook's claim at that time that he was "a democrat [small 'd']; and a Republican to the core" was apparently a general statement of philosophy, not reflective of affiliation with a political party). Is it a coincidence that ex-President Millard Fillmore became the American Party's presidential candidate in 1856 and that Cook painted (1845-52) Fillmore's son? After the Civil War, however, Cook apparently cast his lot with the Republican Party and complained that brothers Truman and Marcus and brother-in-law Ira Millard (sister Mary Ann's husband) "still crawl with the Copperheads [northern Democrats with Southern sympathies]."
Cook has been described as an "occasional poet," and he may have viewed poetry as his true calling. He apparently dreamed of publishing a volume of his verse, which he used to describe the pastoral scenes he missed painting as a portraitist -- perhaps in his mind more a business than a passion. But in an 1877 letter to Ransom, he mentions that he has painted a landscape (he dubbed it the Salvator , perhaps a reference to the 17th century Italian artist Salvator Rosa, whose "sublime" landscapes influenced Thomas Cole and perhaps other landscapists); during much of Cook's career portraits and not landscapes provided income for American artists, which may explain why Cook wanted to crate the Salvator and ship it to London.
His poetry appeared in newspapers of the day. These lines are from a sonnet of Cook's in the Saratoga Whig (4 Feb 1848), perhaps written during a visit to Clinton County to see Ransom, then working on the new State prison there:
Mount Dannemora! from thy towering hight,
O'er a wild country far down lookest thou:
Thy stately trees swayed before the night,
Of tempests for a century, doth bow
And yield at last....
The Rochester Daily Union published several of his poems during his extended stay in that city:
From "Summer," 24 June 1854:
'Tis early morn; the orient light
Begins to glow round Horus' car;
Waves o'er his steeds a banner bright,
Glad Herald in his path afar!
See, o'er the mountain's burnished height
The clouds with golden fringe unfurled;
Th' unwearied orb of day and light,
Ascends, exulting o'er the world!
From "The Hills of Corning," 14 September 1854:
A few short years ago the forest tall
Stood 'neath this sunny sky,
Where stately edifice and spacious Hall
Now greet the trav'ler's eye--
Where winds the blue Chemung,
Oft sweetly sung.
Upon the hill's broad slope a village stands,
And on the river's shore,
Where furious, harnessed in huge iron bands,
With Neigh and deaf'ning roar
The steam horse rushes by,
And seems to fly!
Clearly dissatisfied with limited newspaper exposure, Cook sought -- unsuccessfully, it seems -- publication in magazines ( Harper's ,Appleton's ) and in 1871 asked Ransom to recommend him to an editor. He wrote some of his descriptive poetry based on information from others, and on at least one occasion this led to the inclusion of inaccurate poetic images and some serious self-criticism: "I have published so much trash," he wrote. "I sincerely repent of it. Yet I was not alone -- a vast multitude joined me in doing the same thing. It is a poor excuse however." He threatened to burn all of his poems in Ransom's presence, although it is not clear whether he actually followed through. [See Alice Chester (1854) .]
Cook's final years were spent in Saratoga Springs, where for a time he seems to have moved between various lodgings and finally into a home at 102 Woodlawn Avenue; the City Directory of 1892 still lists his occupation as Artist. It appears, too, that Ransom's estate after his death in 1881 paid Nelson a monthly (?) stipend of at least $20. Obituaries and death notices of his passing in Saratoga Springs appeared in a number of newspapers, including the Albany Argus (31 July 1892), Rochester Chronicle (30 July 1892), Utica Morning Herald (29 July 1892), Albany Evening Journal (30 July 1892), Rome Daily Sentinel (28 July 1892), and Boston Transcript (29 July 1892), the latter apparently suggesting to some that his place of birth was Boston. His death certificate gives the time of death as 9:30 am and his age as 83y, 9m, 20d; he died of chronic nephritis (inflammation and possible destruction of internal structures of the kidneys) with jaundice; a Dr. Humphrey attended Cook from 24 May - 27 July 1892. A private funeral service was conducted by the Rev. Joseph Carey of Bethesda Episcopal Church in Saratoga; the funeral director was Holmes Funeral Company. Esther Cook was buried on 18 February 1893 at a given age of 85, according to church records. Research continues to locate Cook's gravesite which, according to his death certificate, is in Greenridge Cemetery, Saratoga, but which apparently is not with those of the Cook family who lie in a fenced plot beneath a stone designed as a seashell by Ransom.
Gravesite of many of the Cook family in Greenridge Cemetery, Saratoga Springs, NY. The unusual tombstone in the shape of a seashell was designed by Ransom Cook; the names of family members are carved on the ribs of the shell, although they are badly worn and illegible to the naked eye. It is not known whether Nelson, Esther and Marion rest here; investigation to confirm their gravesite(s?) continues.
Canada, c 1832 - c 1839 (Kingston, Ontario, and Toronto [106 King St., W.; 1837]; daughter Marion born in Canada, ca. 1839)
Saratoga, NY 1840-1844 (?)
Rochester, NY 1851-1856 (16 Pleasant Street) (also working in Buffalo,1853-1854)
Saratoga, NY 1857-1865 (spent time in Rochester and New York City [for some time at 606 Broadway] in 1860)
Rome, NY, ca 1875-1887 (10 Liberty Street; 83 Madison) (severely ill here in 1878, not in Rome, Italy, as reported by some)
Saratoga, NY 1892 (1 Jefferson, 1891; 102 Woodlawn Ave, 1892) (Died in Saratoga in 1892)
Additional notes from website under section titled AS A PORTRAITIST
As a Portraitist
American Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art notes: "Few of Cook's signed works are known today, and many of his portraits may be classified as anonymous or erroneously ascribed to other contemporary artists. Although he lacked academic training, he became familiar with the conventional devices of high-style portraiture and translated them into his own stylized folk art idiom."
Associated professionally with upstate New York, Canada; portraits said to have been in many private homes in Saratoga Springs
During his early years in Toronto, in addition to portraits, Cook (then also Cooke) painted from prints, including those of Sir Walter Scott, Shakespearean actor J. P. Kembel, and classical works such as Carracci's Magdalen . These may have provided him practice, perhaps some income, and samples to show potential clients.
"Consistent" winner of art contests (1840s? 1847?) sponsored by The Cultivator (published in Albany by the NY State Agriculture Society )
Exhibited: National Academy of Art & Design , New York City (1841-44, 1852, 1856-59); Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute , Utica, NY (1960) (see Little Dandy ); Toronto (1834, 1847, 1848)
A modern critic observes that two of Cook's early Canadian military portraits showed nothing more than "ordinarily competent workmanship; though the skill shown is beyond what was customary at the time." His talents grew more refined than many contemporary "itinerants," with subjects emerging as distinct individuals; the growth of his talent may be seen clearly by comparing the early and more "primitive" Blaisdells and McVicars (both 1832) to Mrs. James Bradford (1847) or Mrs. Naramore (1855). In 1837 the Courier referred to him as "Toronto's respectable artist." The Rochester Democrat (4 March 1852) referred to his "transferring to canvas the features not only, but the living animated likeness, the speaking expression of the countenance..."
For materials, Cook used tongue-in-groove stretchers of poor quality wood, fine grain, pre-primed linen or canvas, and lean oil paints with little impasto; portraits covered with fine varnish layers. Cracking and some spotting are evident in all works due to varnish impurities and to application of paints over layers not yet dried.
In letters Cook expresses concern about portrait longevity, noting that he did not use colors with arsenic as it fades and that he recommended bleach to lighten faded or yellowed oils. He apparently found himself redoing some of his faded portraits on occasion.
In a letter as early as 1860, Cook implied that he was painting some (by no means all) portraits from photographs, noting in one case that it was "more difficult, by far, than to paint from life."
The Rochester Daily Union (27 May 1854) reported "a new and elegant lamp for the locomotive 'David Upton'...." Placed on the engine, it was "in the shape of a pipe which regulates the draft of air, so the lamp burns steadily at all times." The lamp also boasted a device which supplied it with oil. "The portrait of Mr. Upton [for whom the engine was named] on the lamp, was painted by that talented artist, Nelson Cook, of this city...." Cook received $20 for his efforts.
Apparently Cook painted at least one landscape, which he referred to as the Salvator (letter to Ransom, 31 Oct 1877, written from Rome, NY); this may have been a wishful or whimsical reference to the 17th century Italian Baroque painter of wild and "sublime" landscapes, Salvator Rosa, who apparently had an impact on some of Cook's contemporaries. He wished that he could crate it and send it to London, where he may have thought the market better. The location of such a painting, if it exists today, is unknown.
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