Best known for his rural genre scenes with a distinctly American tone, Francis William Edmonds was born on November 22, 1806 in Hudson, New York. In 1923, he moved to New York City to enter the banking profession. Later that decade, Edmonds enrolled in art classes at the Antique School of the National Academy of Design, becoming an associate member in 1829. For a few years, he suspended his artistic pursuits and concentrated on building a career as a banker, but resumed painting in 1835. Within a year, he once again exhibited works at the National Academy and would later be represented in exhibitions at the American Art Union, Boston Athenaeum, Brooklyn Art Association, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and London’s Royal Academy. From the mid-1830s on, Edmonds balanced life as both financier and artist, although he occasionally concealed his artistic accomplishments from his Wall Street associates, concerned that those colleagues might disapprove of his avocational interests.
Edmonds found unalloyed success among the artists of the mid-nineteenth century. In 1841, he traveled to Europe, studying in Paris and Italy for eight months in the company of his friends Asher B. Durand, John W. Casilear, Thomas P. Rossiter, and John F. Kensett. During this sojourn, Edmonds devoted considerable attention to Dutch Old Masters paintings, especially genre scenes of domestic and public life. Returning to the United States, he adopted Dutch genre scenes and late seventeenth century Dutch painting techniques as hallmarks of his aesthetic approach. Edmonds is well known today as the creator of such works as The Two Culprits (1850), The Scythe Grinder (1856), and The New Bonnet (1858). The artist served as secretary and then treasurer of the National Academy of Design and founded a bank-note engraving company. He resigned from the academy in 1861 and died within two years, on February 7, 1863.
Edmonds’ posthumous portrait of James Madison likely depicts the future president during the years 1801 to 1809 when Madison served as secretary of state in the administrations of Thomas Jefferson. The naval vessels in the background along with the book and quill pen Madison hold suggest the executive duties of an American diplomat. During Madison’s term in this office, the United States negotiated the Louisiana Purchase from France; engaged in an unofficial war with the Barbary pirate states of North Africa; and struggled to remain neutral during the Napoleonic wars that engulfed Europe in the first decade of the nineteenth century. Madison succeeded Jefferson to the presidency, serving as commander-in-chief from 1809 to 1817. Executed in 1862, Edmonds’ likeness bears close resemblance to a pair of Gilbert Stuart portraits of Madison executed in 1804 and 1805 (presently held in the collections of Colonial Williamsburg and the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, respectively.)
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