Pioneering Families
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Index to

Tompkins Harrison Matteson


Birth: May 9, 1813 in Peterboro, New York
Death: February 2, 1884
Occupation: Painter
Source: Dictionary of American Biography Base Set. American Council of Learned Societies, 1928-1936.


Matteson, Tompkins Harrison (May 9, 1813 - Feb. 2, 1884), historical and genre painter, born at Peterboro, N. Y., is remembered chiefly for his popular patriotic pictures, which were widely known through reproductions. His father, an astute Democratic politician, named him for Governor Tompkins of New York, and having been appointed deputy sheriff for Madison County, he permitted his son to take his first lessons in art from a clever Indian prisoner in the Morrisville jail, who was awaiting trial on a charge of murder. Several other incidents showing the boy's zeal in the pursuit of knowledge are recorded. He copied prints, cut out silhouettes, obtained a paint-box, and experimented assiduously in the intervals of work in a pharmacy and a tailor's shop. He ran away from home and started for Albany, hoping to be able to support himself on the way by making crayon likenesses. With an occasional lift on a canal-boat, he finally reached his destination, but his cash and courage were exhausted and he was forced to return home. Then he wandered for a while, making portraits in Manlius, Cazenovia, Hamilton, and other towns near his birthplace. In 1834 he found his way to Sherburne, making his first appearance there as Othello in a company of strolling players whose star performer had been prostrated by sickness in Hamilton. Soon after this he went to New York. He drew from the antique in the National Academy school, opened a studio, and in 1839 went back to Sherburne, where he was married to Elizabeth Merrill.

After a move to Geneva, N. Y., in 1841 Matteson made his second invasion of the metropolis. This time he was prosperous, and much of his best work was done in this period. His "Spirit of Seventy-six" was received with enthusiasm and was bought by the Art Union. Among his other works were "Signing the Compact on the Mayflower," "The First Sabbath of the Pilgrims," "Perils of the Early Colonists," "Washington's Inaugural," and "Eliot Preaching to the Indians." He was made an associate of the National Academy and exhibited frequently up to 1869. In 1850 he retired to Sherburne, and the rest of his life was passed there. He had a large family. Elihu Vedder, who was one of his pupils, says: "his good wife . . . presented him with the yearly child,--one, no more, no less." He was a useful and respected citizen, serving in various public offices--as a member of the legislature, as president of an agricultural society, as president of the school board, as foreman of the fire department, and in other capacities. He was always busy; he painted many portraits; had a group of students; and conducted drawing classes in the schools. After his death at Sherburne in 1884, the National Academy paid a tribute to his character and talents. The Sherburne Public Library owns his "King Lear" and "Washington Crossing the Delaware." His "Trial of George Jacobs for Witchcraft" belongs to the Essex Institute, Salem, Mass. Matteson's drawing is more spirited than accurate. He had a knack of suggesting action, however. His color is rather dry. His most successful motives were drawn in black and white for reproduction.
-- William Howe Downes


[H. T. Tuckerman, Book of the Artists (1867); Elihu Vedder, The Digressions of V. (1910); F. J. Mather, Jr., and others, The Am. Spirit in Art (1927); Sherburne Illustrated (1896); the Sherburne News, Dec. 6, 1866, Apr. 2, 1868, May 24, July 26, 1873, Dec. 5, 1874, Mar. 27, 1880, Feb. 9, 1884.]
SOURCE CITATION: "Tompkins Harrison Matteson." Dictionary of American Biography Base Set. American Council of Learned Societies, 1928-1936. Reproduced from Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: The Gale Group. 2004.


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