Charles Bird King


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Painter. Although chiefly a portraitist, he is remembered especially for a few innovative still lifes that incorporate thematically related objects in unsettling combinations. He also compiled an important early record of American Indians and painted imaginative subjects and genre scenes. King was born in Newport, Rhode Island, and it is thought he received his earliest professional instruction from Samuel King (1749–1819), an unrelated Newport painter and nautical-instrument maker. He apprenticed in New York with Edward Savage, returned to Newport in 1805, and headed for London in 1806 to study with Benjamin West and at the Royal Academy. After returning to the United States in 1812, he painted portraits in several cities before settling permanently near the end of 1818 in Washington, D.C. There, he maintained a steady portrait business, numbering among his clients many prominent federal officials. On commission from the U.S. government, between 1822 and 1842 he also documented the appearance and costumes of nearly 150 visiting Indians. The first large body of American Indian likenesses, these include the first portraits of tribal representatives from the far West. Although nearly all of these paintings were destroyed in a fire at the Smithsonian Institution in 1865, many of the images survive as widely distributed hand-colored lithographs in the landmark McKenney and Hall serial publication, History of the Indian Tribes of North America (1836–44). Without precedent in American painting, King's most interesting still lifes consist of trompe-l'oeil arrangements in shallow niches. His combinations of intense illusionism, oddly chosen items, and formal complexity carry surrealistic overtones. With sardonic wit, The Vanity of the Artist's Dream (Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1830) comments indirectly on the financial and psychological insecurities of an artist's life.

Subjects: Art.

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