C. R. (Charles) Parker
(Cheshire, Connecticut, 1799 – 1849, New Orleans, Louisiana)
C.R. Parker was a peripatetic portraitist, an artist whose shadow “flits and struts” across the southern stage for more than three decades prior to the Civil War. He may have been born in England, but nothing is known of him until several of his large-scale portraits of statesmen were unveiled in the Louisiana statehouse in 1826. (1) He was in New Orleans in 1826, 1832, 1838, 1845-46; Mobile in 1840, 1843, and 1844. (2) In 1828 he was in London, where he painted the portrait of John James Audubon, who he had met previously in Natchez and with whom he traveled to Paris and Versailles. (3) In 1832 he opened a studio on Canal Street in New Orleans. (4) For sixteen years he wintered in that city, like many itinerant artists of the time who were drawn to the plantation aristocracy’s urban social season. Until recently, he was thought to have disappeared in Italy after 1848, but his portrait of Colonel James Bowie has been documented as “executed in 1862 while at his mother’s plantation in East Feliciana, Louisiana.” (5)
Parker’s artistic training is as mysterious as his genesis. The prolific artist must have learned to paint rapidly, judging from the large number of canvases signed or attributed to him. (6) He must have been a good salesman as well as a personable individual because a portraitist, then as now, must entertain their clients for at least a couple of hours in order to capture the essence of their appearance and personality. Typically, a couple of sittings are required at a minimum—one to block in the face (and sometimes hands) and another to finish the portrait. Accessories, backgrounds, and final glazes and varnishes could be added without the sitter present, but the process would take at least several days, if only for the oil paint to dry. (7)
Parker’s portraits tend to be repetitious. Buck Pennington, an authority on southern nineteenth-century painting, observed:
“there is a tendency to repeat the same composition rather endlessly. Ladies are almost always posed with one arm raised or curving around a chair, and the body blocked in such a way as to suggest that the shoulders are spanning the width of the picture plane.” (8)
(1) Askart.com says Parker was born in 1799 and died in 1849. Mike Bunn, Curator of History at the Columbus (GA) Museum indicated that Mr. Sibley Jennings had authored a new biography of Parker for AskArt.com that presumably discusses Parker’s work in New England prior to moving south. The MMFA does not subscribe to AskArt now so has access to only the first 500 of 7639 characters of Parker’s bio until starting a subscription in FY07. Bunn expects Jennings to see the exhibition he is organizing in Columbus March-June 2007. Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser, American Paintings Before 1945 in the Wadsworth Atheneum (Hartford and New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), vol. 2, p. 582 says Parker painted as late as 1862. Parker is not mentioned in Mantle Fielding, the Dictionary of American Biography, or the Catalogue of American Portraits in the New-York Historical Society.
(2) Jesse Poesch, The Art of the Old South (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1983), p. 269.
(3) William Gerdts, Art Across America: Two Centuries of Regional Painting (New York: Abbeville Press, 1990), vol. 2, p. 88. Gerdts says Audubon’s portrait was exhibited in 1829 at the Royal Society of British Painters. It is now in a private collection in Connecticut.
(4) Pennington, Downriver: Currents of Style in Louisiana Painting, 1800-1950 (Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing Co., 1990), p. 44-45.
(5) Kornhauser, American Paintings in the Wadsworth Athenaeum, p. 582; Pennington, Downriver, p. 45 says after 1848 Parker “disappears in Italy.”
(6) Alabama Portraits Prior to 1870 (Mobile: National Society of the Colonial Dames of America in the State of Alabama, 1969) lists a dozen works. The Smithsonian’s Inventory of American Painting lists 60 works by or attributed to Parker. Estill Curtis Pennington, Look Away: Reality and Sentiment in Southern Art (Atlanta: Peachtree Publishers, 1989), 80 and 82 says he “worked from Savannah to New Orleans and back painting hundreds of works with the exact same anatomical composition….”
(7) Patti Carr Black, Art In Mississippi (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1998, p. 53 says that Mary Savage Conner of Berkeley Plantation 17 miles south of Natchez wrote in her diary that a portrait painter arrived after 2 pm on Oct. 19 and on Oct. 24 her father’s portrait was “pretty much finished.”
(8) Pennington, Downriver, p. 45.