Fig. 1: Ira Chaffee Goodell (1800–1877), Map of the World, 1822. Watercolor and ink on paper, 21 x 29 inches. Signed on front. Courtesy of the Jones Library Inc., Amherst, Mass. Photography by the authors. This map was drawn at the time Goodell was teaching penmanship in Lenox, Mass.

One of the challenges of interpreting the past is the dearth of historic records. This is why when material is uncovered that sheds light on an individual or circumstance it can have larger ramifications for a general understanding of how people lived, worked, and interacted with one another. Our discovery of a previously unknown collection of first-person narratives by the little-known American artist Ira Chaffee Goodell (1800–1877) provides for just such an opportunity in its revelation of his education, fortunes, downturns, and his life as an artist in the nineteenth century.1 This treasure-trove of material contains 266 items, including letters written throughout Goodell’s life, an account book kept from 1819 to 1873 with over 12,000 entries, a lengthy series of autobiographical recollections written to his nephew Lafayette Goodell between 1874 and 1876, and many other important documents from his lifetime. It represents one of the most extensive collections of original writings from an artist who is today considered to be a nineteenth-century folk portrait painter. The wealth of material allows us to use Goodell’s own words to tell his life’s story.2

The first of twelve children of a rural Belchertown, Massachusetts, farmer, Goodell attended school “about three months in the winter time until I was 19…Scholars were from 5 to 20 years of age and there was only one grade.” The first entry recorded in his account book was for “One Quarters tuition at Amherst Academy $2.50.” Goodell described his first career decision made during May of 1821. His choice to work as a store clerk in Boston did not go well. He “staid eight days, and returned home, disgusted with store business, particularly, drawing molasses, hauling ham and eggs, codfish, lard & butter &C.” A year later he moved to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, with the intention of becoming a lawyer. “I read law with Hubbard and Bush.” During this time he also taught “a writing [penmanship] school in Lenox…having about 30 pupils” (Fig. 1). By August of 1822, Goodell “had not fully made up my mind to be a lawyer—for while I was in Pittsfield Mr. [Chester] Harding [1792–1866] a celebrated Portrait Painter arrived there and staid 4 or 5 months, and painted many portraits at 30 to 50 dollars apiece. Oh, how charmed was I with the art, being the first I have ever seen.—Mr. Harding observed my fascination, and offered to teach me gratis. But I thought I could never learn it—and so I did not at that time attempt it.”

Fig. 2: Ira Chaffee Goodell (1800–1877), John Eldredge of Westfield Massachusetts, 1829. Oil on panel, 25¾ x 23 inches. Signed and dated July 19, 1829 on reverse. Photograph courtesy of Northeast Auctions, Portsmouth, N.H. During his early itinerancy, Goodell painted on wood panels and often used the unusual framing, with two slotted pieces of wood at the top and bottom, as seen here. These framing strips were clearly placed on the panel before the portrait was painted, as evidenced by the 3/8-inch unpainted area beneath them.
Fig. 3: Ira Chaffee Goodell (1800–1877), Woman with Shawl, ca. late 1820s. Oil on panel, 27 x 23½ inches. Private collection. Photography by the authors.
Figs. 4a, b: Ira Chaffee Goodell (1800–1877), Elizabeth and Asa Sprague, ca. early 1830s. Oil on panel, 27¾ x 21½ inches each.
Collection of Pat and Keith Collins.

A pivotal event occurred in Goodell’s life at age 25. “I got the strange notion in my head that I could make money easier than any other way by building those little one horse waggons that were in vogue… So with what little money I had I bought materials.” To finish the wagons he had to borrow money. “But Chet. Bliss thought he never would get his pay, so he must sue me.” In August 1825, Bliss arrived with the local constable to arrest Goodell. His mother managed to talk Bliss into waiting, but the constable took Goodell’s watch as payment for his time. “I felt so mortified, so discouraged, so angry, so bewildered, so puzzled…For what is a man’s life worth to him, especially a young man, if he cannot sustain an untarnished and honorable character? …I determined to leave my native place for awhile at least, and perhaps forever, for I felt disgusted…”

Goodell traveled to Enfield, Massachusetts, where he met “a young man by the name of Collins a pupil of Harding the Portrait Painter…I instantly resolved to be an artist myself…in November 1825, I bade farewell to home…applied to Mr. Collins, and informed him of my wishes—he willingly offered to instruct me all he could in the Art of Painting, without any charge, whatever…on the 4th day of March 1826, I commenced the Art, with half a dozen sitters of Enfield’s young gentleman and damoiselles.”3

Goodell pursued both possible careers: “…after I became an artist in 1826 I spent during the 5 succeeding years, about 3 years time in studying law in different lawyers offices, while I was going over the country following my new profession of Portrait Painting not knowing but what I might make the law my future profession…in the mean time painting all the portraits I could get.” Goodell remained in Western Massachusetts painting portraits and studying law until late 1829 when he reconciled, “Well, I had got so far…and found out what a set of vampyres and unprincipled scamps the great body of the local [legal] profession were and are, I do not say all, (for there [are] many fine exceptions,) that I found if I was to follow the [legal] profession and wanted to make money, I must be a consummate trickster…”

Choosing a life as an itinerant portrait painter, Goodell relocated to the area around Hudson, New York. According to his account book, he moved sixty-six times while painting portraits (Figs. 2, 3, 4a, 4b, 5, 6). Painting became quite lucrative and extensive purchases, particularly for clothing, are recorded. At this time Goodell also “…fell in love with my wife [Delia Cronin] the first time I saw, or took particular notice of her—for all our courting was done over my palette and brushes…in my painting room, in the short space of 6 weeks, from the 15 of April 1832 to the 31st of May, the day in which we were married.” Their first child was born in Hudson, New York, on May 30, 1833.

On April 8, 1834, the family moved to New York City where Goodell would remain as a portrait painter for the rest of his life.4 He rented a separate painting studio and quickly established himself. His prosperity is evidenced in the greatly increased expenditures recorded in his account book for mahogany furniture, silver, and clothing that often exceeded $200 a month, quite a large sum for the time.

Fig. 5: Ira Chaffee Goodell (1800–1877), Mr. Pixley of Hillsdale, New York, ca. early 1830s. Oil on panel, 27½ x 22½ inches. Collection of Barbara Luck.
Fig 6: Ira Chaffee Goodell (1800–1877),
Althea Meyers Gilbert, ca. early 1830s.
Oil on panel, 27½ x 24 inches. Private collection.
Figs. 7a, b: Ira Chaffee Goodell (1800–1877), Cynthia Goodell and Asahel Goodell, 1837. Oil on canvas, 29¾ x 26¾ inches each. Stretchers inscribed in pencil, respectively, “Cynthia Tilsore Goodell, wife of Asa Goodell” and “Asahel Hulet Goodell, Age 26.” Photographs courtesy of Cowan Auctions, Cincinnati, Ohio. The portraits of Goodell’s brother and sister-in-law were painted when he returned to Belchertown in July 1837 and are among Goodell’s finest portraits.
Fig. 8: Ira Chaffee Goodell (1800–1877), Self Portrait of the Artist and His Wife—Ira and Delia Goodell, ca. 1839.
Oil on canvas, 34¾ x 41 inches. Private collection.
Photography by the authors. In 1839, Goodell described in his account book his unusual overcoat as a “Spanish circular cloak.”
He itemized the costs of having the cloak lined in velvet and adding a belt.
Fig. 9: Ira Chaffee Goodell (1800–1877), Angelo Newton Franklin Goodell, 1849. Oil on canvas, 43½ x 33 inches. Signed and dated on front and reverse. Private collection. Photography by the authors. This large portrait commemorates six-year-old Angelo Goodell’s feat of writing the Declaration of Independence from memory in phonography before the New York Phonographical Society.

Goodell had not maintained a relationship with his parents following the wagon incident. When his mother heard that he was in New York City, she wrote him a letter noting “they tell us you are married and you are now a husband and have been a father of two promising children.” She pleaded that they all are still, and will always be, family. Five months later Goodell responded, bringing her up-to-date: “I have read law two years, and painted rising of fifteen hundred portraits averaging about eight dollars apiece besides some miniatures, fell in love with an Angel (not a fallen one) by the delightful name of Delia Cronin…” When he finally returned to Belchertown to visit his family in June 1837, he displayed his artistic talents by painting portraits of several family members (Figs. 7a, b).

Goodell wrote to his parents in 1838, reflecting on the past few years and noted that he and Delia “have been afflicted by having three children taken from us in less than four years!! How can I think of staying any longer in this City of the dead?” Yet, they remained in New York City as he wrote “You must overlook poor writing as I have not a moment to spare from my painting at this time… I have just finished two very large pictures, one of them containing a group of five children, the other containing four children full height.” During 1839, Goodell painted an unusually large double portrait of himself and his wife, which showed his fashionable “Spanish circular cloak” (Fig. 8).

The depression of 1837 seriously dampened the economy for many years and in 1843, Goodell complained as he wrote home that “…for the last few years, I have had money enough to be above board…[but] My business is good for nothing.—and all artists are sleeping on their oars. I know of Painters who had in brisk times from thirty to seventy five dollars apiece for Portraits, who are now painting the same kind of pictures for eight and ten dollars…”

During these years, Goodell participated in many of the latest intellectual movements. His 1844 phrenological reading was pasted into his account book. Letters to relatives extolled the value of galvanic battery shock treatments to cure every illness. He also became involved in clairvoyance and often attended séances. When physicians declared that Eugene, his youngest son, would not live through the night, “we followed the Clairvoyant’s directions [to] obtain a certain plant at the drug store, steep in boiling water and give him a spoon full every hour…” Eugene survived, and Goodell became convinced of the power of clairvoyance. “Now I have seen and done things myself in Mesmerism and Clairvoyance which are positively astonishing, if not miraculous—.” He reasoned that since the Bible is filled with stories of angels visiting earth, the spirits heard at séances represented modern visitations. “God can send his ministering Angels or Spirits, now as well as formerly.”

Fig. 10: Ira Chaffee Goodell (1800–1877), Child with Whip and Poodle,
ca. 1850. Oil on canvas, 36½ x 29 inches. Stretcher signed “I.C. Goodell,
New York.” Private collection.

In 1847, Goodell became fascinated with phonography, an early form of shorthand. He taught his son Angelo, who, two years later at age six, wrote the Declaration of Independence from memory in phonography before a large audience. The proud father painted a large portrait to commemorate his son’s feat (Fig. 9). In June of 1847, Goodell visited home, which he initially delayed since “my business has been rather driving for two or three weeks,…and if I have a job of ten in one family which I soon expect.” He and his family did make the trip but he would not return to Belchertown for another twenty-six years. His aging parents asked him to return home to help on the farm, but he had to attend to his own future, noting “Business with me has been pretty good—I have commenced and finished nearly a hundred portraits averaging about 10 dollars apiece—I have to paint cheap now a days—but work the harder.”

His business was still thriving into the 1850s (Fig. 10). In 1856 he noted, “I have so much painting to do just right now and for eight weeks past, that I can hardly find time to turn around as the saying is…” Two years later, Goodell purchased a small farm in nearby Nyack, New York, where he relocated with his family with the idea that the country would help revive his wife’s poor health. In 1861, they were fortunate in that an accommodating local draft board allowed his two sons to avoid the Civil War. They moved back to New York City and, on November 17, 1866, Delia, his “Angel,” died.

In the following years, Goodell’s business declined. In 1872 his sister Eliza wrote to him that she was told he was “not being able to have all the necesaries of life” and offered her support. Goodell responded “I felt quite well until the winter of 1868…and I have never from that day to this felt as well as formally.” Goodell told her that he had buried five children, as well as his wife, and only his son Eugene remained to support him in his old age. Goodell was contemplative: “…can you realize my sister that I am 72 years of age…how many thousands have gone down to the grave whose portraits I have painted.”

Fig. 11: Daguerreotype of Ira Chaffee Goodell (1800–1877), 2⅝ x 2⅛ inches. A note written in Goodell’s hand is attached to the case, “I.C. Goodell/Taken Nov. 1848./Presented to/ his Brother/Marcus Goodell/1873.” Private collection. Photography by the authors.

In 1872, Goodell wrote to his sister-in-law Cynthia letters that recalled the high and low points of his life: “When I was twenty one years old how could I ever think or dream, of travelling over the country…practicing my profession and finally floating in a steamboat into the City of New York, on the ninth of April 1834—with a wife and one baby, ten months old. Here I have been 39 years next April, when this City only contained 350,000 people, a mere village in comparison to what it is now— containing over one million of human beings… The first three years I made considerable money, and my family were in comparatively good health, and we felt happy, thinking this City was a Paradise… But Alas! The Financial Crash of 1837, prostrated all my bright Anticipations to the dust, and from that day to this, I have only made enough money to meet my necessary expenses, and supporting my family comfortably…But the last two or three years in particular, my profession has not yielded me my yearly expenses. I have many promises, but few ever come to sit for their portraits… Portrait Painting has received its “death blow,”… In this City, thirty years ago there were nearly two hundred Portrait Painters. Now, I doubt if there is fifty, and nearly all of these are of the first class artists and are patronised by the Wealthy, paying from three to five hundred dollars apiece.—I think Hard Times and Photography, has Slain Common Portrait Painters… Yes, my Father told me when I entered, what I considered a glorious art, that I was foolish, that it was a precarious or dubious Profession and now his Prediction is fulfilled. Now the Celestial Wand, through whose magical and potential influence, I have captivated and charmed thousands is broken—is dashed to atoms, never to be wielded by my hands again forevermore!”

On April 26, 1873, Goodell made his last entry in his account book when he purchased two spools of cotton thread for 12 cents. Later that year, along with his son Eugene, Goodell returned to Belchertown for what would be the last time to attend a family reunion (Fig. 11). In 1874, an aging Goodell wrote to his nephew Lafayette “I do not have many customers because I cannot go round this bad weather to “scare them up”…
and make them understand the usefulness of getting their portraits.” “[T]imes are very hard in money matters… I must dig out of my painting business as soon as possible—In this City it is good for nothing… I have paintd only 40 portraits in 20 weeks and I could have painted 140 if I had had them…”

Despite his complaints and his lack of financial success in later years, Goodell was content at the end of his life, writing to his nephew Lafayette, “Well I am satisfied, I think I have a clear conscious, for I believe I have never cheated a person, or defrauded them willfully in my whole life—… Never had a real enemy, to my knowledge, in the world.” He wrote that his father, an “obscure farmer of no education, no not even to be able to ever learn to Cipher” would, he was sure, have been proud of his “eldest child I. C. G. a Portrait Painter, although not celebrated, yet so proficient in the Art that not one in twenty thousand could ever succeed in the Art at all.”

Ira Chaffee Goodell died on April 19, 1877. The financial difficulties of his last years meant that his son Eugene had to write several letters asking relatives for $100 to pay for his father’s burial at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.

Suzanne Rudnick Payne, Ph.D. and Michael R. Payne, Ph.D. research early American folk artists and are members of the American Folk Art Society. This is the twelfth article they have published on early American artists. They would like to express their deepest gratitude to the many people who assisted with this project, in particular, Tevis Kimball and Kate Boyle of the Jones Library.


This article was published in the Autumn 2015 issue of Antiques & Fine Art magazine, a digitized version of which is available on Antiques & Fine Art and AFAmag are affiliated with