Discovered in the late 1930s and identified by name in 1942, when the first signed painting (Fig. 1) emerged, the distinctive marine and  landscape paintings of Thomas Chambers (1808–1869) inspired pioneering research by Nina Fletcher Little, who published the first facts about his life in 1948.1 Two views of Undercliff, Near Coldspring (Fig. 2), based on a print published by W. H. Bartlett, were among the first paintings discovered and attributed to Chambers. These paintings demonstrate the spontaneous, decorative, and straightforwardly commercial qualities that marginalized Chambers in his own day and subsequently delighted his admirers in the twentieth century, who dubbed him “America’s first Modern.”2 Chambers’ maverick style, anonymous status, and strong sense of two-dimensional design appealed to connoisseurs a hundred years after his heyday, when his work was avidly acquired by both avant-garde museum directors and Americana collectors. But apart from museum collection catalogue entries, the last ground-breaking article on his work was in 1956, when Howard Merritt produced a fine article that has remained the basis of current knowledge.3 After fifty years of relying on these two brief essays, it might be argued that Thomas Chambers has been the most widely recognized and collected, yet least studied figure of mid-nineteenth-century American art.

Fig. 1: Thomas Chambers (1808–1869)
The “Constitution” and the “Guerrière,” ca. 1840–1850
Oil on canvas, 24-3/4 x 31-1/4 inches
Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; gift of Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch, 1962, 62.256.5.
Fig. 2: Thomas Chambers (1808–1869)
Undercliff, Near Coldspring, ca. 1843–1860
Oil on canvas, 22-1/4 x 30-1/4 inches
Courtesy of Dr. Howard Diamond
Fig. 3: George Chambers (English, 1803–1840)
The “Phoenix” and “Camden” Running into Whitby Harbor, 1825
Oil on canvas, 25 x 36 inches
Private collection
Photograph courtesy Christie’s Images Ltd. (1991)

More recently, an enthusiastic private collector inspired new action. Morton C. Bradley Jr., a Boston painting conservator and sculptor, gave twenty-nine paintings by Chambers to the Indiana University Art Museum between 1986 and 1998. The arrival of so many paintings posed an obvious opportunity for a university museum, and as curator at Indiana in the 1990s, I proposed an exhibition and began to investigate the mysterious Thomas Chambers.

Unlike academic artists working in the same period who left a welter of personal papers and second-party opinions, Chambers is astonishingly undocumented. Probably because he was poor, he left few traces. Most of the surviving records of his existence are census entries and city directory listings, information already excavated by Little and Merritt, who constructed a skeletal chronology based on Chambers’ arrival in New Orleans in 1832. By 1834 he was listed as a landscape painter in New York (changing to “marine painter” in 1838 and 1839), where he remained until about 1840. He emerged in Boston in 1843, where he lived until 1851, always listed as an “artist.” A stint in Albany from 1851 to 1857 was followed by a return to New York City, where he appeared sporadically in directories before disappearing in 1866. This bare outline was difficult to enrich, although I did find Chambers in the Baltimore directory in 1842 and in the New York census of 1860. Hitting a wall, like all earlier scholars, I benefited, however, from a few discoveries that opened as many questions as they answered.

Fig. 4: Thomas Chambers (1808–1869)
Ship in a Storm, ca. 1836–1845
Oil on canvas, 13-3/4 x 17-3/4 inches
Courtesy of Indiana University Art Museum, Bloomington
Morton and Marie Bradley Memorial Collection, 86.27.10
Fig. 5: Thomas Chambers (1808–1869)
Packet Ship Passing Castle Williams, New York Harbor, ca. 1838–1845
Oil on canvas, 22-1/4 x 30 inches
Courtesy of National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Gift of Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch, 1980.62.5

The largest field of new information was simply the increasing number of paintings attributed to Chambers that have emerged since Little and Merritt surveyed the field. Multiple examples of the same subject and many previously unknown images, often based on prints after the work of William H. Bartlett or Jacques Milbert, gave a much larger sample to study. In this larger oeuvre, now approaching four hundred paintings, known at least in photographs, new problems arise in discrepancies of color and handling: are all these paintings by Thomas Chambers?

Attempting to define Chambers’ style, the most important breakthrough came from the work of scholar Alan Russett, who published in 1996 a biography of George Chambers (1803–1840), a well-known English marine painter.4 In the first paragraph of his book, Russett mentions George’s younger brother, Thomas, born in 1808. This date tallies with the age of the Thomas Chambers in American census records, and instantly a context opens in a family of mariners and painters from the port of Whitby, Yorkshire. George went to sea at the age of ten, showed talent painting the gear on board ship, and was subsequently apprenticed to a house painter. Mostly self-taught, he began to paint ship portraits (Fig. 3), then moved to London, where he worked on panoramas and theatrical scenery. Later, he developed a career as an academic marine painter and was patronized by the king.

Fig. 6: Thomas Chambers (1808–1869)
Boston Harbor, ca. 1843–1845
Oil on canvas, 22 x 30-1/8 inches
Courtesy of National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Gift of Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch, 1980.62.4
Fig. 7: Thomas Chambers (1808–1869)
Rockaway Beach, New York, with the
Wreck of the Ship “Bristol,” ca. 1837–1840
Oil on canvas, 21-3/4 x 30-3/8 inches
Courtesy of Indiana University Art Museum, Bloomington
Morton and Marie Bradley Memorial Collection, 98.44
Fig. 8: Thomas Chambers (1808–1869)
Shipping off a Coast [Nahant, from Lynn Beach], ca. 1843–1850
Oil on canvas, 22 x 30 inches
Courtesy of Nahant Public Library, Nahant, Mass.
Fig. 9: Thomas Chambers (1808–1869)
View of Nahant [Sunset], ca. 1843–1850
Oil on canvas, 22 x 30 inches
Courtesy of a private collection

George Chambers’ impoverished life and multifaceted career provide background for Thomas Chambers, who—as a research trip to England revealed—returned to Whitby, where he died as an “artist, age 61” in the poorhouse in 1869. George’s on-the-job training supplies a plausible education for Thomas, whose style suggests experience with sign painting, panoramas, or scenic design. But a comparison of the work of the two painters raises other questions: Why did George develop a sophisticated academic naturalism, in tune with mainstream marine painting of the 1830s, while his brother invented an expressive style based on the bright, flat, and decorative qualities of the older, shop-based “folk” tradition? That “folk” and “academic” artists could come from the same household challenges the usual categories. Clearly, class, education, birthplace, and residency could not be used to define Chambers’ style.

The second research breakthrough came from the discovery of two auction records: a brief advertisement that appeared in the April 22, 1837, edition of the New-York Post and a broadside listing the contents of a sale in 1845. The 1837 notice mentioned “a number of sea pieces by Mr. Chambers,” including subjects “taken from” the best-selling tale by Captain Frederick Marryat, The Pirate.5 Surviving paintings, such as Ship in a Storm (Fig. 4), may represent these early marines, whose themes Chambers borrowed from popular fiction. Romantic in concept, the subject shows the swooping rhythms as well as the enterprising use of popular culture that would mark much of Chambers’ work. His later sale in 1845 included more titles from Marryat, as well as from the equally popular sea story by James Fenimore Cooper, The Red Rover.

Fig. 10: Thomas Chambers (1808–1869)
View of West Point, ca. 1843–1860
Oil on canvas, 22-3/8 x 30-3/4 inches
Courtesy of a private collection
Fig. 11: Thomas Chambers (1808–1869)
Niagara Falls from the American Side, ca. 1843–1852
Oil on canvas, 18-1/6 x 24 inches
Courtesy of Indiana University Art Museum, Bloomington 
Morton and Marie Bradley Memorial Collection, 98.16

The auction broadside from 1845, listing the contents of a sale in Newport, Rhode Island, offered another instance of Chambers’ marketing strategy. Instead of entering his work in the annual exhibitions of artists’ organizations in the cities where he lived, Chambers evidently sold his work independently, or at auction, in his characteristic “splendid gilt frames” all “ready for immediate removal to the parlor.”6 The seven titles in the Newport auction credited to “Mr. Chambers of New York” were all marines, including “noble” subjects such as The “Constitution” and the “Guerrièr” (Fig. 1). The list allows us to propose the restoration of older titles to known works. The Packet Ship Passing Castle William, New York Harbor (Fig. 5) may be the work described in the broadside as “New York Bay, with a fine view of Staten, Governor’s, and Bedlow’s Islands, the George Washington, Liverpool Packet Ship, homeward bound, taking in sail to anchor.” The flier urged bidders to buy paintings in pairs, such as “Boston Bay and harbor, with a quarter view of the U.S. Ship Ohio, 74 guns, at anchor, the Royal Mail Steamer Hibernia, leaving port for Liverpool — a splendid original picture, and matches New York Bay.” These titles suggest that any one of several surviving paintings akin to Boston Harbor (Fig. 6) may have ornamented a parlor or shipping office along with figure 5. Other extant paintings that can be linked to similar descriptions in this sale, such as “Rockaway Beach, New York, with the Wreck of the Bristol” (Fig. 7) or “Nahant, from Lynn Beach, the Royal Mail steam ship Britannia, running in for Boston” (Figs. 8, 9) illustrate his eye for newsworthy subject matter as well as his habit of turning a composition to a new purpose, with a dramatic change of color and mood and a few additional landmarks. All of these subjects survive in multiple versions, each one with different detail and a shift in weather or time of day, making it difficult to know which one was sold in 1845. Chambers probably had similar sales in other cities and kept popular subjects in his repertory for years, exploring different effects to keep the work interesting.

Fig. 12: Thomas Chambers (1808–1869)
Landscape with Mount Vesuvius, ca. 1843–1860
Oil on canvas, 22-1/8 x 30 inches
Courtesy of Susanne and Ralph Katz
Fig. 13: Thomas Chambers (1808–1869)
Landscape with Mount Vesuvius, ca. 1843–1860
Oil on canvas, 22-5/8 x 30-1/3 inches
Courtesy of Indiana University Art Museum, Bloomington
Morton and Marie Bradley Memorial Collection, 98.38

Problems arise from the Newport auction list because these last two subjects, like many of the titles in the sale, including views of West Point and Niagara Falls that are now familiar as Chambers’ subjects (Figs. 10, 11), were sold anonymously. Was Chambers also painting these views, evidently pirated from print sources, uncredited? Even more confusing are listings of favorite Chambers subjects, such as Washington’s birthplace, assigned to other artists with names like “Mr. Corbin of London,” who has yet to be traced elsewhere. In the auction list Mr. Corbin is credited with “Mount Vesuvius, from the Environs of Naples,” a title suggesting known works attributed to Chambers (Figs. 12, 13). New scenarios arise from the disparity of effect between these two versions of the same subject, and the appearance of new and undocumented names in his circle. Perhaps he worked under other signatures (or styles) to give a sense of variety and cachet to his sale, or maybe he had other artists working for him in his studio, working on the same subjects, much in the fashion of the Prior-Hamblin “Garret” in Boston, which was flourishing during these same years. Very likely, Chambers had assistants (maybe family members) who helped him with foliage and detail. Alternatively, the differences seen in variant versions of many of Chambers’ subjects may be a question of time. The example of Ammi Phillips and his changing styles over the decades, not to mention Rembrandt or Picasso, may allow us to accept development as natural over the course of four decades of work. Because the known landscapes are rarely signed and never dated, this puzzle awaits solving.

Fig. 14: Thomas Chambers (1808–1869)
Landscape with a Road Leading to Water, ca. 1843–1850
Oil on canvas, 18-1/2 x 24-5/8 inches
Courtesy of Indiana University Art Museum, Bloomington
Morton and Marie Bradley Memorial Collection, 98.19
Fig. 15: Thomas Chambers (1808–1869)
Delaware Water Gap, ca. 1840–1850
Oil on canvas, 18 x 24 inches
Courtesy of Ann Abram and Steve Novak

The last important clue to Chambers’ identity was the discovery of the newspaper advertisement he ran in the New-Yorker for two years, beginning in 1835.7 Describing himself as a “marine and landscape painter,” Chambers also offered “Fancy Painting of every description done to order.” A fancy painter might be asked to paint decorative scenes on chair backs, coaches, or signs. We know that Chambers produced “cabinet pictures” with imaginary (that is, fanciful or fantastic) subjects, such as figure 3 or Landscape with a Road Leading to Water (Fig. 14). Such generic views allowed patrons to identify the subject themselves (as the Hudson? Ireland?). His self-description confirms that Chambers lived professionally exactly where his work fits visually, in the territory between Thomas Cole and the legions of decorative painters who shaped the bold “fancy” interiors of the 1830s. His romantic, national subject matter, seen in a painting such as The Delaware Water Gap (Fig. 15), based on the work of Thomas Doughty and Asher B. Durand, shared the taste of his academic contemporaries, but disdained their grayed and naturalistic style in favor of a flatter, brighter, more expressive and decorative effect. His entrepreneurial energy and sophisticated borrowings demonstrate the vitality and modernity of the “folk” tradition as it met a new audience of middleclass collectors.

Kathleen A. Foster is the Robert L. McNeil, Jr. Curator of American Art and Director, Center for American Art. She was curator of the exhibition Thomas Chambers (1808–1869): American Marine and Landscape Artist and author of the concurrent publication (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art and Yale University Press, 2008).