Left: Thomas Chambers, Packet Ship Passing Castle Williams, New York Harbor, ca. 1838–45, oil on canvas, 22 1/4 x 30". Right: Thomas Chambers, Undercliff, near Coldspring, ca. 1842–50, oil on canvas.

Kathleen A. Foster, senior curator of American art and director of the Center of American Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, organized “Thomas Chambers: American Marine and Landscape Painter, 1808–1869,” the first major exhibition of Chambers’s work in over fifty years. She also authored the exhibition’s catalogue, which is the first book to survey Chambers’s life and paintings.

ORGANIZING THIS EXHIBITION was a very long process. About fifteen years ago, when the Indiana University Art Museum received twenty-nine works by Thomas Chambers, I tried first to answer the most basic curatorial question, Who is this artist? In preparing a catalogue of these gifts, I discovered that scholarship on him had not advanced beyond a brief sketch of his life published in 1956. Any art historian with an amateur-detective streak would rise to that challenge. At first, curiosity and opportunity drove my response to the work.

My research proceeded in fits and starts; I kept an ongoing file into which I would tuck notes and information as I traveled around the country on other projects. When I arrived in Philadelphia in 2002, the museum’s late director, Anne d’Harnoncourt, loved the mystery, and my colleagues were enthusiastic. As it became an exhibition, my work shifted into a theoretical realm. I began researching Chambers’s place in history, his relationship to his contemporaries, the surprising terms of his rediscovery in the twentieth century, and even more arcane subjects like sailing terminology. I knew nothing about marine painting going into this project, and little about mid-nineteenth-century American “folk” art, which is a wilder area than my usual beat, the well-documented period fifty years later, when Thomas Eakins and academic naturalism were dominant.

One of the first things to know about Chambers is that the critics of the 1840s and ’50s would have been horrified by his art: It was too bright and flat, it wasn’t fully finished, it was reproachfully dependent on printed sources and therefore insufficiently original. When Chambers was rediscovered in the middle of the twentieth century, of course, all of those qualities were turned upside down: His work looked brilliantly abstract, expressively personal. The 1942 exhibition that brought him back to the public eye labeled him “America’s First Modern.” I found that roller coaster of taste fascinating, if only because period biases made both his critics and his admirers misapprehend his work.

One of the difficulties in approaching his work today is the way that modernism continues to skew one’s vision; it’s difficult to inhabit the context of Chambers’s era. He was a child of the Romantic period, the cult of imagination that characterized the 1820s and ’30s. His manipulation of sources and the free addition of details—clouds, weather effects, and so forth—are all pure fancy. Chambers probably produced his pictures entirely in the studio. He wasn’t like Thomas Cole or Frederic Church––two of his more famous contemporaries––who would sit at the base of the waterfall and sketch. Over the course of his lifetime, his imaginative mode of working was eclipsed by the increasing importance attached to firsthand observation and documentary detail as signifiers of artistic authenticity.

There are at least two possible explanations as to why his work didn’t change to “keep up” with his era. One is that he had a very strong personal sense of what he wanted to do. The other is that he found an audience who liked the way he painted. We have no testimonials from his patrons, but he made hundreds of paintings, and somebody was buying them. My thesis is more rooted in the second explanation: I think he found a new market of patrons who had previously not been collectors of landscape and marine painting. But by 1860, not long before he died, popular taste and the alternatives available on the market (chromolithographs, for example) had changed. Chambers was steamrollered; he died poor in England in 1869.

When he was resuscitated in the 1940s, it was as a folk artist—albeit one of a very sophisticated type. My wish for this exhibition was to disturb somewhat that easy categorization of him by placing his work alongside that of so-called academic contemporaries like Thomas Doughty and Cole. Chambers’s work is, unlike some folk art, an equal partner in the visual conversation set up by such juxtapositions. I also attempted to emphasize the milieu surrounding his work and in which his paintings were originally installed. (For example, the exhibition in Philadelphia featured items such as window shades, painted clocks, wallpaper samples, and decorated chairs.) We still have the tendency, as modernists and “Westerners,” to segregate objects and prioritize painting and sculpture. In the museum world, this segregation breaks down along departmental lines. But just like today’s environment, the environment of the 1840s was full of messages for the people who knew how to decode them. The language of visual culture ranged across many surfaces—walls, furniture, porcelain, textiles—and recovering the sweep of that knowledge will allow history (and art history) to make more sense.

Thomas Chambers” will be on view at the Hyde Collection, Glens Falls, NY, from February 8 to April 19. It will subsequently travel to the American Folk Art Museum in New York and the Indiana University Art Museum in Bloomington. The exhibition catalogue is available from the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Yale University Press.

— As told to Brian Sholis