Thomas Buchanan Read (American, 1822-1872), Death of a Maiden, oil on canvas, 40″ x 32″
Thomas Buchanan Read, born in Corner Ketch, Pennsylvania, was a gifted writer, prolific painter, successful actor, talented sculptor, and one of the greatest nineteenth century American intellectuals. He created some of the most recognizable Civil War images, wrote numerous notable patriotic poems, was a protégé of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and one of the first American friends of Pre-Raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rossetti(1), yet his name today is almost completely forgotten.
Read showed artistic talent as a child, yet his parents were poor and unable to provide him with an education in art. At the age of ten, Read left home and went to live with a sister in Cincinnati, Ohio. Though still a young boy, he was employed at a local grocery store making cigars, painting signs, decorating canal boats, and engraving tombstones. He also used his youthful appearance to play female roles in stage productions. It was in Ohio that he began painting portraits and learned the art of sculpture as an apprentice to Shobal Veil Clevenger. Nicholas Longworth, a prominent citizen, horticulturalist and millionaire, recognized Read’s tremendous talent and provided him with a studio and connections to several well-to-do patrons.
In 1840, at the age of eighteen, Read published his first collection of poetry in the Cincinnati Chronicle and Times and gained national recognition with his portrait of Whig presidential candidate William Henry Harrison. In 1841, Read moved to Boston and befriended famed poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (“Paul Revere’s Ride”) and romantic painter Washington Allston. The young artist, greatly influenced and encouraged by Longfellow and Allston, penned his first and only novel, Paul Redding, A Tale of the Brandywine (pub. 1845), a melodrama set on Chester County’s Brandywine River.
In 1843 Read married an Ohio woman, Mary J. Pratt, with whom he had three children. Although his family lived in Philadelphia, Read spent the bulk of the late 1840s and 1850s in Italy studying art and literature in Florence and Rome. “A New Pastoral,” one of Read’s significant works, was completed in Florence in 1854. In this series Read tells a tender story of a family’s journey from Pennsylvania’s countryside to the Mississippi River. Unfortunately, his wife and two of his children died from cholera while Read was in Italy establishing himself as one of the world’s leading artistic and literary voices.
With the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Read moved back to the United States and enlisted in the Union army, serving under General Lew Wallace (future author of the novel Ben Hur) and General William Rosecrans. Read’s literary work during his tenure as a soldier (“The Wagoner of the Alleghenies,” “The Oath,” and “The Defenders”) became popular readings among Northern lecturers, as their pro-Union sentiments and unwavering sense of patriotism inspired the masses. “Sheridan’s Ride,” Read’s most famous work, was also published during his time. It is a passionate account of General Phillip Henry Sheridan’s 1864 heroic ride to rally Union troops at the battle of Cedar Creek. When the war ended, the Union League of Philadelphia commissioned Read to bring his lyrical prose to life in a painting. The life-sized image depicts a stout General Sheridan courageously pushing forward towards Cedar Creek atop his horse, Rienzi, a galloping black stallion. Read also sculpted a bust of the General.
Read eventually remarried and, in 1867, moved back to Italy with his new wife, Harriet Dennison. Influenced by his friend Dante Gabriel Rossetti(1), founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Read began to paint more sentimental allegorical and mythological subjects. “A Painter’s Dream” (1869), one of the painter’s last works, depicts a floating Venus figure acting as an artist’s muse. In 1871 Read was seriously injured when his carriage overturned. The next year Read returned to the United States, but died soon after his arrival in a New York. His body is buried on Laurel Hill in Philadelphia.
(1) Bulletin of the Detroit Institute of Arts VOLUME XXXVIII – Number 4 – 1958-59 http://www.dalnet.lib.mi.us/dia/collections/diaBulletins/38-4.pdf
- The New Pastoral. Philadelphia: Parry & M’Millan, 1855.
- The Wagoner of the Alleghenies: A Poem of the Days of Seventy-Six. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1862.
- The Oath, or, Ye Freemen, How Long Will Ye Stifle. Philad[elphi]a (N.E. cor. 11th & Market): A.W. Auner, 1864.
- A Summer Story, Sheridan’s Ride, and Other Poems. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1865.
- The Defenders. (Poems, etc., in Patriotism in Poetry and Prose: Being Selected Passages from Lectures and Patriotic Readings) Philadelphia, PA: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1865.
- Paul Redding: A Tale of the Brandywine. New York: E. Ferrett & Co, 1845.
- Harp of Erin. Cincinnati Art Museum, 1867.
- A Painter’s Dream. Detroit Institute of Arts, 1869.
- Sheridan’s Ride. National Portrait Gallery, 1871.
- Cousin, John William. “Read, Thomas Buchanan.” A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature. London: J.M. Dent, 1910.
- Krile, Katherine M. “Read, Thomas Buchanan.” American National Biography. Feb. 2000. 24 June 2007. <http://www.anb.org/articles/17/17-00715.html>.
- “Obituary: Thomas Buchanan Read.” New York Times (12 May 1872): 1.
- “PHILIP H. SHERIDAN (1831-1888) by Thomas Buchanan Read (1822-1872).” A Brush with History: Paintings From the National Portrait Gallery. National Portrait Gallery. 26 June 2007. <http://www.npg.si.edu/cexh/brush/index/portraits/sheridan.htm>.
- Stover, Catherine. “James L. Claghorn, Philadelphia Collector.” Archives of American Art Journal4 (1987): 4-8.
- “Thomas Buchanan Read.” ExplorePAhistory. Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. 24 June 2007. <http://www.explorepahistory.com/hmarker.php?markerId=619>.
- “Thomas Read – Artist, Art, Thomas Buchanan Read.” AskART. 2007. 22 June 2007. <http://www.askart.com//askart/artist.aspx?artist=25736>.
- Bulletin of the Detroit Institute of Arts VOLUME XXXVIII – Number 4 – 1958-59 <http://www.dalnet.lib.mi.us/dia/collections/diaBulletins/38-4.pdf>.