(Franklin, Massachusetts, 1785 - 1834, New York, New York)
Eliab Metcalf was born to an old and established farming family in Franklin, Massachusetts on February 5, 1785. (1) According to William Dunlap, at age 18, after a common school education, he contracted a “cold that was the foundation of the disease which pursued him through life.” (2) In an attempt to restore his health he traveled to Guadeloupe with an acquaintance in 1807 but the disease recurred when he returned north in the spring of 1808, at which time he was confined to a doctor’s care in New York for weeks. Although he had an abiding interest in art and wished to pursue that profession, he consented to the advice of family and friends and returned to the West Indies and mercantile pursuits for the following winter. His business was unsuccessful but his health improved and he returned to his father’s home in 1810 where he remained under the watchful eye of a physician. He continued the practice of drawing he had started years earlier and improved his skills sufficiently to work with his father’s consent as a limner for several years in the northeastern US and Canada while his health permitted. He sought art instruction in New York City and in 1814 married Ann Benton, daughter of Captain Selah Benton, an officer in the Revolutionary War. He studied with Samuel Waldo, exhibited at the American Academy, and attained some fame as a portraitist in the City. (3)
Mantle Fielding indicates that the New York Commercial Advertiser reported in September 1817 that Metcalf had “recovered his health” and “returned to the city and resumed the exercise of his profession at No. 152 Broadway.” By 1819 his health had deteriorated again and his doctor recommended an extended trip south. That autumn he arrived in New Orleans with letters of introduction and established an active practice as a portraitist that lasted (with one trip to New York) for three years. In the autumn of 1822 he visited St. Thomas and subsequently painted portraits in St. Croix and Puerto Rico. His health improved and he decided to spend a winter with his wife and four children, but he was debilitated once more by the northern winter. In the autumn of 1824 he sailed to Havana where he painted until afflicted by a cholera epidemic in April 1833. He recovered sufficiently to return to his family but suffered a cold and stormy voyage that further debilitated his health. He died quietly at home in New York January 15, 1834.
(1) William Dunlap, The History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States (New York: Dover Publications, 1969 reprint of 1834 edition), p. 231 says his father’s name was James. His mother was a “near relative” of Chester Harding, the artist. A portrait of Metcalf formerly thought to be a self-portrait is in the collection of the National Gallery of Art (NGA 1947.17.72). It is illustrated in Robert Wilson Torchia, American Paintings of the Nineteenth Century, part 2 (Washington: NGA, 1998), p. 276 and NGA, American Paintings and Sculpture: An Illustrated Catalogue (Washington: NGS, 1970, p. 83).
(2) Dunlap, Rise and Progress, p. 231.
(3) In Art Across America, p. 92, William Gerdts says, “the little-known Eliab Metcalf [was] one of New York State’s finest portraitists of the early part of the century.” The Inventory of American Paintings lists 18 paintings by Metcalf. The Catalog of American Portraits lists 14 works, many of which are in the IAP. Metcalf’s portrait of Asher B. Durand (#585) and three other works (#1307, 2234, 2235) are discussed briefly in the Catalog of American Portraits in the New-York Historical Society (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1974). Inscriptions on those works corroborate the assessment that Metcalf visited New York several times in the 1820s.