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Winthrop Chandler, Disappointed Limner

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When Winthrop Chandler died on July 29, 1790, his obituary in the Massachusetts Spy noted that he “could guide the pencil of a limner.” Chandler, like so many artists, faced disappointment in life. He had to earn his living as a house painter. He managed some side hustles, though: as a gilder, carver, illustrator and painter of portraits and landscapes.

Winthrop Chandler, self-portrait

Winthrop Chandler

He was born April 6, 1747, the youngest of 10 children, to William Chandler, a farmer, and Jemima Bradbury Chandler, on the family farm in Connecticut. The farm, on Chandler Hill, straddles the border of Thompson and Woodstock. 

His father died when he was a boy, in 1754. He may have left home when he was about 15 to serve as an apprentice to a Boston portrait painter. Though no documentation of his apprenticeships appears to exist, he didn’t live in Woodstock for eight years — the usual term for an apprentice. After eight years, he won a commission, which suggests he did work as an apprentice, according to the National Gallery of Art biography

When he returned to Woodstock he painted portraits of his relatives and town notables, as well as landscapes of the local gentry.

His work is that “of a highly gifted folk painter,” observed Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser, in The Grove Encyclopedia of American Art. Chandler didn’t fight in the Revolutionary War, though many of his family members did — on both sides.

He painted his brother Sam, for example, a captain in the Connecticut militia.

Capt. Samuel Chandler

He also painted a landscape for Gen. Timothy Ruggles, one of New England’s leading Loyalists. Chandler depicted the Ruggles estate outside of Worcester. Massachusetts confiscated Ruggles’ property and banished him. He fled to Nova Scotia, leaving behind his pregnant daughter who went to the gallows for murdering her husband.


Timothy Ruggles’ estate

He painted both sides in the Battle of Bunker Hill.

The Battle of Bunker Hill by Winthrop Chandler

Hard Times

Chandler married Mary Gleason of Dudley, Mass., in 1772. They had five sons and two daughters. Chandler had a hard time providing for his large family, despite a modest inheritance. The couple moved to Worcester, Mass., in 1785, perhaps in search of work. But unlike most itinerant painters of the era, he didn’t travel the countryside looking for commissions. He stayed put in Worcester for five years.

During his time in Worcester his son Charles and his wife died. His other children went to live with relatives.

He scraped together a living painting houses and, once, re-gilding the weathervane on the courthouse. He couldn’t make a go of it, though, and returned to Chandler Hill practically destitute. There he died on July 9, 1790, only 43 years old.

No Bosom of Encouragement

His Spy obituary suggests he was disappointed in life It read, “Died at Woodstock, Conn., Winthrop Chandler of this town, a man whose native genius has been  serviceable to the community in which he resided. In profession he was a house painter, but many likenesses on canvas shew he could guide the pencil of a limner.”

“The world was not his enemy, but, as is too common, his genius was not matured on the bosom of encouragement,” it read. “Embarrassment, like strong weeks in a garden of delicate flowers, checked his enthusiasm and disheartened the man.”

This story was updated in 2022.


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