Thomas Chambers, Mount Vesuvius and the Bay of Naples, ca. 1843–1860

Visitors from near and far will enjoy the Speed Art Museum’s latest exhibition, American Storybook: The Imaginary Travelogue of Thomas Chambers, on view now through January 16, 2019. The Speed’s Chief Curator, Erika Holmquist-Wall, who helmed the exhibition, said, “I feel like the show kind of lifts the curtain as to how artists actually have to make a living.” The installation uses decorative elements of the day, reflective of how work was presented in the home — as another decorative choice of a new luxury class — along with timelines and reproductions of the artist’s print advertisements.

Thomas Chambers was an English immigrant to the United States who worked his way into the art market in the mid-1800s by capturing epic historical scenes and subjects sentimental to the people of his day. The artist was an autodidact who practiced his technique on walks through the wilderness, but made a living selling renditions of places he had never seen. Many of his paintings aren’t signed.

Thomas Chambers, Rockaway Beach, New York, with the Wreck of the Ship “Bristol”, ca. 1837–1840

There are elements of surrealism, and an inventive style and line quality that wouldn’t catch on until more than 100 years later in some of the folk-artist’s paintings. His rendition of light seems to glow as a precursor to Maxfield Parrish’s carefully-rendered oils, only with an almost wildly expressive style. Many works show steps in the evolution toward surrealism.

Not a lot is known about Chambers. He operated outside of the academic art world, inventing ways to market himself, representing himself as a marine artist, while selling his work as that of European masters. Historical records show an almost itinerant life, moves to Boston, Baltimore, and New York City. These are the outlines of an immigrant life — one that ended in his death in a workhouse in his native England at age 61.

Chambers aggressively pursued an art career throughout the 1830s, a time of American artists’ exodus to Europe. Few artists looked to paint for other immigrants and people rising from poverty. He had a lot more in common with many of his clients than he did the art establishment.

Having art in your home was status. In a rapidly industrializing society, the flood of capital made for a new art market. The patron determined the subject matter. There was for the painter of this time, an opportunity to fit into a niche where professional storytellers and performers of the day had deeper purchase. The art market demanded renditions of historical events, the news of the day, and pastoral scenes from far-flung homelands and exotic locales that captured the imaginations of new consumers of news, fiction, and history.

Thomas Chambers, Niagara Falls, from Above [Horse Shoe Fall from the Canada Bank], ca. 1843–1852

The artist’s job was first to research. Chambers pulled images from a variety of sources. Some resources were black and white prints of only a few square inches in the historical pulp of the day. From these, he pulled the lines of structures and compositional elements — even entire compositions. To these he added bold colors and a dramatic tenebristic play of light and shadow that’s a signature element of his work.

The United States of Chambers’ time was an explosion of industry. Information was available in unprecedented ways. A new and industrialized global consciousness was taking hold.

Ships meeting at Sea: The British Queen and an American Packet, painted in 1839-40, depicts a newfangled steamship (The British Queen), known for crashing with its pilot ship. The captains of it and the trusted wind-ship converse over their bows with megaphones. There is humor there in the meeting between worlds in the struggle toward industrialization, and an almost cartoonish quality to the figures.

Entering the exhibition, the viewer is met by a bold, wall-sized, hand-painted title wall, designed by one of the Speed’s graphic designers, Carrie Donovan, and painted by Kentucky sign-painter Kirby Stafford. It harkens to the one-time widespread craft of generating spectacle with bold, inspired lettering. Inside is a retrospective of Thomas Chambers, culled from years of collectors Marie and especially Morton Brown’s passionate pursuit of the artist’s work. The paintings are on loan from the collection of the Eskenazi Museum of Art at Indiana University.

Patron members of the Speed Museum are invited to a Patron Circle Curator Talk hosted by Chief Curator and Mary & Barry Bingham Sr., Curator of European & American Painting & Sculpture, Erika Holmquist-Wall on Friday, August 10. The curator looks forward to giving a peek into the deeper historical and societal context of the work of an immigrant artist, drawing connections to current-day struggles.