Hovenden, Thomas (1840–95), painter, was born 28 December 1840 in Dunmanway, Co. Cork, second child and younger son among two sons and one daughter of Robert Hovenden, a protestant of English ancestry who was keeper of the Dunmanway bridewell, and Ellen Hovenden (née Bryan). After the deaths of both of his parents during the Great Famine (1847), he was placed in a Cork city orphanage where he began to draw. Apprenticed at age 14 to carver and gilder George Tolerton, from 1858 he attended the Cork School of Design to nurture his drawing skills, and learn the crafts of picture-frame-making and gilding. Despite the school's concentration upon training in the decorative arts, Hovenden, attracted to the supposed higher aims and ideals of painting, executed watercolour landscapes, and refined his skills at figure drawing by sketching from the school's wide collection of plaster replicas of classical statuary. After completing his apprenticeship and working for Tolerton as a journeyman, he emigrated to America (1863), joining his brother in New York city; their sister would soon follow. Living in Greenwich Village and attending evening classes at the National Academy of Design (NAD), he worked chiefly as frame-maker and gilder, supplemented by lithography, magazine illustration, and colouring photographs.
Moving with an artist friend to Baltimore (1868–74), he concentrated increasingly upon painting, encouraged by exhibitions of his work. Under the patronage of two wealthy Baltimore art collectors, he lived for six years in France (1874–80). After study in the academic tradition at the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris, in 1875 he joined the art colony at Pont-Aven, Brittany. Exhibiting regularly at the Paris salon, he specialised in closely observed genre scenes of Breton peasant life. Developing a fused style of ‘historical genre’, in such works as ‘Breton interior: Vendéan volunteer’ (1878) and ‘In hoc signo vinces’ (1880) – both set during the royalist Chouan risings against the French revolution – he treated humble rustics in the noble attitudes and compositional conventions of academic history painting. After returning to America in 1880, he exhibited the latter work at the NAD to critical acclaim (1881), thereby securing an American reputation. There followed ‘Elaine’ (1882), a literary period piece from Tennyson's Idylls of the king. The broad appeal of Hovenden's style was signified by his election as a full member of both the progressive Society of American Artists (1881), and the tradition-bound NAD (1882).
Hovenden married (1881) Helen Corson (1846–1935), a talented animal painter he had met in Pont-Aven, and settled on her family's homestead in the quiet quaker community of Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania, utilising as his studio a former anti-slavery hall constructed by her abolitionist father. As he adapted his style and themes to American material, by the 1890s his intimate scenes of rural domestic life and renditions of historic subjects were the most popular paintings in America, familiar to a large public in prints rendered from etched copies by his own hand. His style of ‘romantic realism’ was characterised by an accumulation of meticulously accurate detail in location, costume, furnishings, and artefacts – in the case of his history paintings, the product of exhaustive research – within romanticised and sentimental situations, his genre subjects carefully chosen to address contemporary concerns in American life. Rooted firmly in the French academic tradition in composition, handling of figures, and nobility of purpose, his canvases were so thoroughly planned that the act of painting became, in the words of his contemporary Thomas Eakins, ‘so many square feet of execution’ (Woodmere, 45).
His many studies of African-American subjects are akin to his earlier Breton genre works as sympathetic depictions of a marginalised ethnic subculture within a larger modern society; mostly devoid of racial stereotype, such works as ‘Chloe and Sam’ (1882) and ‘Their pride’ (1888) portray black people with dignity and individuality. Foremost among his history paintings, ‘The last moments of John Brown’ (1884) (Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY) is romantic legend dressed as historic documentary, in its apocryphal portrayal of the abolitionist martyr stooping to kiss a black baby on his way to the gallows. ‘In the hands of the enemy’ (Yale University Art Gallery), named ‘star picture’ at the 1889 NAD exhibition, expresses themes of Christian compassion and national reconciliation in its depiction of a Pennsylvania farming family nursing a wounded Confederate soldier after the battle of Gettysburg. His best-known work, ‘Breaking home ties’ (1890) (Philadelphia Museum of Art), voted popular favourite among over 1,000 paintings at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, is remarkable for a subtext of unseen social forces that compel the depicted departure of a country lad from his mother's hearth to seek his fortune in the uncertain world beyond the familiar threshold.
Amid the profound changes wrought within the American landscape by rapid industrialisation, urbanisation, and modernity, Hovenden portrayed a romanticised America of rural simplicity, tradition, virtuous domesticity, and piety, with a heritage of heroic nobility. He was appointed at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts as professor of painting and drawing (succeeding Eakins) (1886–8), and as teacher of composition (1890–91). Despite executing several late landscapes in a quasi-impressionist palette and technique, he contended that such caprices ought not be elevated into the single purpose of art, and denounced the art-for-art's-sake aesthetic of impressionism as tending towards trivialisation and self-worship. Though enjoying considerable wealth and fame, he shunned extravagance and celebrity, leading a sober life in accord with the values of his art, active in the local meeting of the Society of Friends. He and his wife had one son, and a daughter, Martha Hovenden (1884–1941), an able painter and sculptor. Hovenden died 14 August 1895 when struck by a locomotive at a railway crossing near his home. Accounts that he had died heroically in a futile effort to save a child who had strayed before the locomotive were widely reported, prompting intensely felt eulogy and public mourning. The coroner's inquest, however, determined that both Hovenden and the child had failed to see or hear the oncoming vehicle. Within a decade of his death, as modernist movements such as impressionism and the new realism embedded themselves into the mainstream of American public and critical taste, his work was largely forgotten. Neglected through much of the twentieth century – a footnote at most in histories of American art – he was the subject of revived critical attention in the 1980s, and of a major 1995 centenary retrospective at the Woodmere Art Museum, Philadelphia.