The Precarious Profession of Painting

John Lewis Krimmel, Sketch of bill collectors confronting artist, 1813. Collection 308, Downs Collection, Winterthur Library

Early in his career, painter John Lewis Krimmel sketched a scene of two men demanding payment from a distraught artist seated at his easel, wife and children helplessly witnessing his shame. Krimmel may have been practicing his compositional skills in this drawing for the well-populated genre scenes he later excelled in, but the subject matter remains intriguing. To what extent did this young artist worry about his future?

Krimmel arrived in Philadelphia from Ebingen, Germany, by way of England around 1809, joining his older brother George who emigrated two years earlier. Mostlyself-taught, he most likely had some prior watercolor instruction while working in England before enrolling in classes and exhibiting at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) in the early 1810s. Philadelphia in the early republic was a budding artistic center, and here he rubbed shoulders with fellow painters Thomas Sully and Rembrandt Peale. Throughout the decade, he stayed busy painting landscapes and people of different ages, classes, and races, and exhibiting at PAFA. His career seemed to be gaining traction with his election as president of the Association of American Artists in 1821. Tragically, only several months later, Krimmel drowned in a mill pond in Germantown, Pennsylvania, at age 35. This sketch of a poor artist was never rendered in oil on canvas, but was somewhat prophetic as the 18 paintings listed in Krimmel’s probate inventory were sold to pay off his debts.

Krimmel had every right to worry as factors beyond an artist’s control made painterly pursuits an unstable career choice. Artists depended on physical attributes—mobility, steadiness of hand, acuity of vision—that could easily be damaged and definitely diminished over time. Additionally, changing tastes and fickle patrons could easily cause painters to fall out of favor. More successful painters possessed a good business sense and savviness to help them manage expenses, navigate distribution networks, and attract and retain wealthy patrons.

Even a noted painter like Benjamin West encountered patrons who were lax about payment. West himself enjoyed a long and successful career in London beginning in 1763 with accolades and patronage coming easily. He was appointed historical painter to King George III in 1772 and later served as president of the Royal Academy. Enormously influential, he trained numerous artists in his studio. However, while working on a portrait of Sir John Sinclair, West wrote under the guise of the need for another sitting “to assist…with the price of that portrait” as he had “considerable demands…in the course of this week.” Sinclair of Ulbster, First Baronet, was a Scottish politician, financier, economist, and author of several books who perhaps simply overlooked a promised payment to West amidst his busy schedule. West knew to tread carefully so as not to be left with an unpaid canvas by offending his notable client who could easily disparage him to potential clients. The letter apparently worked and accounts settled as Sinclair’s portrait was finished. It currently hangs in Wick Town Hall in Scotland.

Benjamin West, Letter to Sir John Sinclair, 1801. Collection 394, Downs Collection, Winterthur Library

Not all issues between artists and patrons were resolved to mutual satisfaction. George Hite, a portrait and miniature painter, wrote to Elisha Wilcox in 1854 enclosing a bill for $40 due for a miniature. Interestingly, he mentioned his usual practice of painting from a daguerreotype of a sitter to save on time-consuming sittings. The first miniature “failed to suit the whim,” causing a second attempt from the same daguerreotype due to the “great press of business” on Wilcox’s time. Although Hite wasn’t fully satisfied himself with his effort, he “completed the experiment” and doubly appealed to the reluctant patron from a “business point of view” and a “point of Honour” for compensation. Wilcox immediately responded upon receipt of Hite’s letter. He took offense at Hite’s remark regarding honor and stated he was ready to fulfill his part of the contract, but only if the work was satisfactory. He refused to pay for “miserable execution.”

George Hite, Letter to Elisha Wilcox, 1854. Collection 361, Downs Collection, Winterthur Library

George Hite, Letter to Elisha Wilcox, 1854. Collection 361, Downs Collection, Winterthur Library

Elisha Wilcox, Letter to George Hite, 1854. Collection 361, Downs Collection, Winterthur Library

Elisha Wilcox, Letter to George Hite, 1854. Collection 361, Downs Collection, Winterthur Library

The trail stops there and whether a compromise was reached remains a mystery. A search through New York City directories offers additional information on the client. Wilcox was a dry goods merchant who moved his home and business several times in the 1850s. His store, located either on or just off Broadway throughout the decade, moved steadily northward, reflecting the quick settlement uptown of the time. Wilcox must have been keeping apace with that trend to capitalize on business opportunities. As he was becoming more successful or aspiring to greater heights, having his portrait painted, even in miniature, symbolized his growing status. An astute businessman could easily detect quality—was Wilcox sincerely unhappy with Hite’s work or was he merely reluctant to pay?

Now immortalized through their paintings, artists’ personal lives and struggles are often overlooked. Their sketches and letters help to remind us of those details and bring them to life, adding dimensions to the artworks beyond a surface appreciation for them.

Post by Jeanne Solensky, Librarian, Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera, Winterthur Library

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