From the confines of a wheelchair, Massachusetts native Joseph Whiting Stock (1815–1855) painted nearly a thousand portraits over a period of twenty-three years. Paralyzed in a traumatic accident at age eleven, and suffering from additional complications for the rest of his life, Stock defied medical odds to become one of the country’s most admired folk artists. He combined exceptional artistic talent with uncommon business acumen and remarkable strength of character.

Sometime after 1845, Stock began a journal that served as a combination autobiography, diary, and business account book. He began with an account of his background:

I was born in Springfield, Massachusetts January 30th, 1815. My parents were poor, married early, and have had a large family to support but have ever maintained a respectable standing in society by their honest and industrial habits.

Joseph Whiting Stock (1815–1855), attributed, Portraits of Mr. and Mrs. Calvin Chase, 1832–1836. Oil on canvas, 36⅜ x 31¼ inches. Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York (N0019.2003 [01 & 02)]. Photograph by Richard Walker.

In his lifetime, Joseph Whiting Stock painted more than 900 portraits of friends and family as well as notable personages and members of an upwardly mobile middle class. In addition to the full-length images of children, for which he is best known, he also painted half-length portraits of adults such as this pair. 

     In August of 1836, Stock recorded in his journal that he “Went to Cabotville [now Chicopee], a factory village in Springfield. Stayed eight weeks and painted Calvin Chase; Mrs. Chase, his wife; Stewart Chase, son; and Mary Chase, daughter.” Calvin Chase was a machinist born in 1802 in Dunbarton, New Hampshire. He married Eliza Boardman in nearby Weare, settling in Chicopee by 1830. The couple had four children, all of whom remained in the area. 

     This was a substantial commission for Stock as he charged eight dollars each for the adult portraits and five dollars apiece for those of the children. It appears that he was well received in Chicopee as he painted an additional 22 portraits during his stay.

Springfield was located at the confluence of four rivers and was the crossroads of trade routes to Boston, Albany, New York City, and Montreal, making it a relatively cosmopolitan city in the early nineteenth century. Although Stock described his parents as “poor,” he was born as the third child of twelve to a financially stable, if modest, family. His father held a responsible job at the United States Armory (founded by George Washington in 1777) from 1814 to 1843, which provided a substantial living.

When he was just eleven years old, Stock’s life changed completely. He described the event in his journal:

[I was] standing near the body of an ox cart leaned nearly upright against the barn when suddenly I perceived it falling . . . which I attempted to push back and was crushed under it. I experienced no pain at the time . . . other than a numbness in my legs which were powerless. [All] the medical men in town pronounced it to be an injury of the spine . . . which wholly destroyed all the nerves proceeding from the spinal cord . . . and destroyed all action and sensation in the lower extremities . . .

The survival rate for patients with “complete paraplegia” was very low at the time. Stock received medical treatment almost immediately, however, recalling that, after the accident, he was “carried into the house where all the medical men in town were soon gathered.” Stock’s first doctor, William Little Loring (1792–1843), was instrumental in Stock’s recovery. While Stock and his family understood the need for him to have a career, it was Dr. Loring who first realized that portrait painting might be such an option, quite possibly saving Stock  from a desultory and useless life.

Joseph Whiting Stock (1815–1855), attributed, Little Child with Flower Book, ca. 1845. Oil on canvas, 33⅛ x 27¼ inches. Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York; Gift of Stephen C. Clark (N0296.1961). Photograph by Richard Walker.

The attribution of this portrait to Joseph Whiting Stock is based on a stylistic comparison with the documented portrait of Helen Eddy (painted in Springfield in 1845, Private Collection.) These two likenesses display the markedly similar facial features—large, dark eyes and dimples—details that give many of Stock’s children pleasingly innocent expressions. In this portrait, Stock departed from his usual method of placing children in detailed interior settings by depicting this young subject against a dark, neutral background. The resulting contrast with the child’s white dress makes this a strong composition, enhanced by the large size of the canvas.

The artist worked bedridden for a few years, painting portraits, and, as he later recorded, his talents were “noised [shared] abroad,” suggesting some success. In about 1834, he came to the attention of another doctor who would impact his life and career directly. James Gilchrist Swan (1794–1846) graduated from Harvard College and Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia before relocating to Springfield, where he commissioned the artist to create drawings of skeletons and illustrations for his phrenological studies. In addition, Swan designed a custom wheelchair that allowed Stock to become mobile for the first time since the accident some eight years before. In his journal, Stock wrote: 

Several attempts had been made to construct something in which I might be able to sit up, which had failed . . . When Dr. S. submitted his plan it met with little favor at first . . . he [by] dint of perseverance succeeded in constructing a chair [and] I was soon enabled to sit up several hours in the day and could roll myself all over the same floor of the house

Erastus Salisbury Field (1805–1900), attributed, Girl in the Yellow Dress with Doll, ca. 1838. Oil on canvas, 42½ x 249⁄16 inches. Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York; Gift of Stephen C. Clark (N0234.1961). Photograph by John Bigelow Taylor, NYC.

Both Stock and Erastus Salisbury Field worked in similar areas and were based in or near Springfield for most of their overlapping careers. Anecdotal evidence also links Field to Chester Harding who may have influenced both painters.

     For most of his 95 years, Field lived in and around western Massachusetts, venturing no farther than 200 miles from home to earn a living painting portraits. As a youth, Field first showed an interest in art when he began sketching likenesses of relatives. As a young man, Field traveled to New York City where he briefly studied with the artist and inventor Samuel F.B. Morse (1791–1872).

The wheelchair included modifications designed to hold Stock in place, including a confined footrest, knee and abdominal belts, and padding for the sides and back. A series of gears allowed Stock to move the chair himself by cranking small levers near the armrests. While the chair was being constructed, Dr. Swan also arranged for “training”—probably rudimentary physical and occupational therapy—to help Stock strengthen his upper body, which enabled him to dress himself and get into his chair from his bed without assistance. Undoubtedly, Stock’s mental outlook improved, too, with these advances. In 1835, when he received the chair, Stock noted that he could sit up for several hours a day and, as a result, completed twenty-five portraits. When he began to travel the next year, with the help of aides—mainly his siblings—he trebled that number. Once he became mobile, his career as a painter flourished.

Stock worked steadily and successfully at painting for the next few years. In 1839, however, another calamity struck, as recorded in his journal:

On January 1st, 1839, I was preparing some mastic varnish when it took fire and I was soon involved in the flames . . . [My] hands, face, and neck were badly burned . . . so at the time my physician [Dr. Swan] thought me in considerable danger . . .

The accident weakened Stock’s immune system, resulting in a life-threatening infection in his right hip, subsequent joint dislocation, disintegration of the ligaments, and decayed bone. Another doctor, Joseph Henshaw Flint (1786–1846) was called to remove Stock’s hipbone entirely—a risky surgery even today. With no known concept of germ theory and only a rudimentary understanding of asepsis, surgeons such as Dr. Flint had to rely on their medical intuition and common sense when performing such operations. Assisted by the best medical care available and the attention of his family, Stock recovered, and within six months was painting again, and able to travel to obtain commissions in about a year.

Scholars have suggested that society portraitist Chester Harding (1792–1866) may have directly influenced Stock. Born on a Massachusetts farm in 1792, Harding became the quintessential self-taught American artist. After pursuing a variety of occupations, he achieved success as a portrait painter of some note. After traveling and working in the West and in Washington, D.C., Harding returned to Northampton, Massachusetts, where he continued to paint and exhibited in the “Mechanical Arts” section of the Springfield Exposition, where Stock could have seen his work.. By the late-1820s, after studying in England, Harding established a studio in Boston and moved his family to Springfield, where he was to remain for the rest of his life. In his memoirs, he mentioned that he had several students while there, including one Franklin White (1814–1884). Stock also mentions White in his journal:

In the fall of 1832, I commenced [painting]. Mr. Franklin White, a young artist, a pupil of Chester Harding called upon me frequently and showed me his manner of preparing and laying the pallet (sic) and lent me some portraits to copy . . . I followed this course for some months . . . and made so good a likeness as to induce my friends to encourage me by their patronage . . . I soon acquired more skill and experience in the use of the pencil and gave more perfect likenesses.

Among the likenesses that Stock copied were Harding’s self-portrait and others of Springfield residents. Harding’s home and studio were only a few blocks from Stock’s workplace so it is entirely probable that Harding knew of Stock’s artistic efforts. In some cases, both painters executed portraits of the same sitters or families. Recent research has shown that another student of Harding, William Elwell (1810–1881) also shared patrons with Stock. The visual similarities between Harding’s early work—done before he viewed academic painting in England—to that of Stock, are obvious in their plain style.

Joseph Whiting Stock (1815–1855), Edward W. Gorham, 1844. Oil on canvas, 30⅛ x 25 inches. Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York; Gift of Stephen C. Clark (N0266.1961). Photography by Richard Walker.

This somber colored, posthumous portrait of a child seated on a floor and playfully driving tacks into a chair seat has long been known by the title The Young Hammerer. The child has been identified as Edward W. Gorham of Springfield, Massachusetts, who was born in 1842 and died in 1844. Gorham was the son of Joseph W. and Laura N. Rogers Gorham of Springfield. According to Stock’s journal, Mr. Gorham, Deputy Sheriff of Hampden, paid the artist the sum of twelve dollars for this likeness of his deceased child.

     Posthumous portraits and photographs were commonly commissioned as memorials to lost children. Stock depicted the Gorham boy as a playful, energetic child, yet placed him in a dark, plain setting without the brightly patterned floor that typifies his portraits of children. Edward’s older brother, William Henry (1840–1889) was painted in 1842 by William S. Elwell (1810–1881) also in Springfield. Elwell was a student of Chester Harding which suggests yet another connection among the artists.

According to the data contained in his journalStock painted portraits of a variety of sitters during his working life. As one might expect, his family and neighbors were amply represented, but notable personages and members of an upwardly-mobile middle class  were also included. Stock also painted window shades, made decorative boxes and frames, and copied published prints—generally engaging in activities that were typical of an artisan painter of the time. Thanks to his specially designed wheelchair, he was able to travel through Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New York, taking likenesses from about 1834 to 1854. In addition to the full-length images of children for which he is best known, he also painted half-length portraits of adults, miniatures, landscapes, and genre scenes. Many of the books in Stock’s library inventoried after his death showed illustrations that he included in his compositions. W. H. Bartlett’s American Scenery (1837) featured landscapes that Stock incorporated, or reimagined, into the background of some of his portraits. His entrepreneurial spirit surfaced when he staged several raffles of his own work—a practice that professional arts associations had used for years.

In 1845, in Springfield, Stock, in partnership with Otis Hubbard Cooley, the husband of one of Stock’s sisters, offered a variety of artistic services, with Cooley taking daguerreotypes and Stock painting miniature portraits. But the partnership did not last long, with Stock noting in his journal in 1846:

[I] having now decided to go back to New Bedford and Mr. Cooley wishing to remain in Springfield, we concluded that it is best to dissolve the partnership in business and, accordingly, the dissolution took place on the 20th March, 1846.

Despite the extraordinary challenges of being paralyzed and suffering from multiple health issues throughout his life, Stock became one of the most prolific, and popular, folk artists of the day. In an era when no provisions were made to aid physically challenged people, Stock made his way through life by overcoming his perceived handicaps, helped by the advantages of a financially stable family, access to professional medical care, and the attention of the local artistic community. Stock’s business acumen allowed him to prosper in a field where many failed. His natural talent and inherent curiosity helped him to pursue various branches of artistic activity that showcased his skills and provided additional income. Stock remained optimistic throughout his life, which, no doubt, contributed to his success. At age twenty-eight, he mused in his journal:

January 3th. This day completes 28 years of my life. It seems but as yesterday when I was a boy and roamed the fields as free as a lark  . . . I have embraced much . . . suffering and affliction much sorrow and pain, not unmingled, however, with much joy and happiness.

1. The journal is in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, Massachusetts.

The Remarkable Life of Joseph Whiting Stock is on view at the Fenimore Art Museum and at the Doctor's Office at The Farmers' Museum, both located in Cooperstown, New York, through December 31, 2019. For more information, call 607.547.1400.  

Jacquelyn Oak,  guest curator of  The Remarkable Life of Joseph Whiting Stock, works in the Education Department at the Shelburne Museum in Vermont.