Francis William Edmonds’ Communicative Practices

face of a prisoner

Francis William Edmonds (1806 – 1863) is now remembered publicly as an artist. He primarily painted domestic scenes with literary referents (“genre paintings”). Two book-length studies document Francis’ life with respect to his paintings.^ ^ One of his paintings, The Bashful Cousin, hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The Bashful Cousin depicts a domestic scene in which a mother and daughter gesture vigorously regarding a departing suitor. The father sits at the far end of dining table. He is preoccupied with reading a newspaper. His figure, placid, is turned away from the center of the composition. Such a turning away seems to have characterized Francis’ communicative practices.

Francis’ domestic circumstances weren’t unusual. Francis moved from his family’s home town of Hudson to New York City in 1823 at age seventeen. In 1830, about age twenty-four, he returned to Hudson and that year married his first wife, née Martha Norman.^ Two years later he returned to New York City and never again lived in Hudson. Martha and Francis had a daughter and a son. Martha died unexpectedly on January 5, 1840.^ Francis then spent from November, 1840 to July, 1841 in Europe.^ In November, 1841, he married his second wife, née Dorothea Lord, the daughter of a prominent businessman. Dorothea and Francis had six children.^

By 1844, an account of Francis’ life from his own pen concerned his development and career as an artist. Francis formally addressed this account to his fellow artist Asher Durand, who apparently requested it. Francis began:

Dear Durand

As you desire me to put down some of the leading dates and incidents of my life I have taken up this little memorandum Book for that purpose …

Francis’ account is a brief, factual autobiography, commencing with “I was born in…”, and ending at the present date (1844). About a hundred years later, this autobiography was found hidden behind a self-portrait that Francis painted in the same month that he wrote the autobiography. Perhaps Francis, as a painter, decided to foreground a painted portrait of himself. The painted portrait positioned as a complement to the written autobiography emphasizes that Francis did not understand his written autobiography to be a narrow, artistic curriculum vitae.

In Francis’ account, “the leading dates and incidents of my life” had little relation to his family. Francis did not mention his marriages, his wife’s death, or his children’s births. Francis did not mention any members of his natal family other than his parents, whom he discussed only in conjunction with his birth and youth. He named only of his father. Maintaining a strict boundary between personal and public life seems to have been a general practice among publicly prominent men in early nineteenth-century America. Yet Francis’ autobiography apparently was not intended for publication. It is surprisingly bereft of familial milestones.

In 1840, Francis suffered from serious mental illness. One of Francis’ biographers suggests that grief over his first wife’s death produced a lingering malaise or severe depression.^ In “The Leading Incidents & Dates of My Life,” Francis did not connect his wife’s death to his illness:

These two pictures were exhibited in the Spring of 1840 and at the annual election I was elected an Academician – and I had scarcely got them in the Exhibition before I was attacked by an illness which baffled the efforts of all my physicians — It was a disease in the head and which medicine seemed impossible to eradicate – After cupping, bleeding, and a severe course of medicine I was advised to travel in the South of Europe.^

A contemporary biography also did not connect Francis’ illness to his wife’s death:

The only opportunity he {Francis Edmonds} ever had of studying art, “beyond the leisure of his business as a banker,” was afforded him on a brief visit to Italy {in 1840} – on the occasion of his breaking down in health under the pressure of his labors in the examination of the accounts of the Manhattan Bank, which he undertook in addition to his regular business as Cashier of the Mechanics’ Bank.^

Strong external pressures and weak external emotional connections, rather than grief from the loss of his wife, probably prompted Francis’ mental illness.

Francis was not easily engaged in ordinary communication with family and friends. Francis’ brother John and John’s daughter Laura perceived Francis to be achievement-driven. John recorded this communication with Francis:

I was then silent for a moment or two. He wrote:
“Come! What question? Don’t spend your time idly.”
Laura remarked, “That is so like him!”
He wrote:
“Well, I like things done up well, and with dispatch.” ^

An acquaintance who wrote an obituary for Francis described him thus:

Mr. Edmonds was of a warm and affectionate nature, but by no means demonstrative of his feelings. He was very sensitive, and very shy of showing that he was so. He was strong in his prejudices, and equally so in his friendships; was intimately known to but few, but by that few he was highly esteemed.^

Francis’ brother John had many friends and was extraordinarily communicative. The contrast between Francis and John suggests that personality, rather than family or social circumstances, shaped their respective communicative practices.

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