The portraitist Henry Inman was the son of an English-born brewer who settled near Utica, New York. Shortly after the family moved to New York City in 1812, he was apprenticed to the city’s most successful portraitist, John Wesley Jarvis. Inman learned to paint miniatures, and made his first large oil portrait in 1817. He commenced his own portrait practice in New York in 1821.
In addition to portraits, he began painting an occasional genre picture, and eventually his catholic interests would also embrace landscape. With the artists Thomas Seir Cummings and Frederick Agate, Inman was instrumental in forming the National Academy of Design
; in 1826 he became its first vice president. Inman became closely identified with the Academy, studying for two years in its antique school and exhibiting there every year for the rest of his life--sometimes with as many as 18 works in a single show. Publicly visible, he became the member most often singled out for vituperative newspaper criticism by the Academy's early enemies.
Inman often contributed illustrations to gift books, but in 1831 he increased his involvement in the print industry by moving to Philadelphia, where he had set up a partnership with lithographer Cephas G. Childs a year earlier. He continued to paint portraits, however, competing with Thomas Sully for commissions in Philadelphia and making short trips to Baltimore and New York. For a time he lived on a farm that he purchased across the river from Philadelphia, in Mt. Holly, New Jersey, but in 1834 he sold his real estate and returned to New York. These years were busy for Inman, filled with teaching, large numbers of commissioned portraits, and a major project of copying over 100 paintings of Native Americans (the originals were mainly by Charles Bird King) for lithographic reproduction. The copies later traveled as a separate exhibition.
During a prosperous period, Inman had engaged in land speculation, but following the Panic of 1837, he found himself in unexpected financial difficulty. This, coupled with his chronic asthma and failing health, turned his final years into something of a struggle. In addition, a younger generation of New York portrait painters--including Huntington and Charles Loring Elliott--was becoming increasingly popular, winning ever more commissions.
In 1844, he took a long-deferred trip to England, accompanied by a daughter. Although his health did not improve, he was able to execute a group of portraits in London and study the landscape in Scotland and northern England. He returned to New York in 1845, but following a period of two months in his sickbed, he died in 1846. Left unexecuted at his death was his commission of a large work, The Emigration of Daniel Boone to Kentucky for the Capitol rotunda. (He had been paid $6000, but had never moved beyond a few early studies). Inman was accorded a lengthy, ceremonial funeral procession through the streets of Manhattan, and a month later an unusual memorial exhibition of 126 of his paintings earned nearly $2000 for his widow and six children. One son, John O'Brien Inman, later became an artist.
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