Endowed with a large inheritance upon his father’s death, Charles Bird King, a native of Newport, Rhode Island, received early artistic instruction from the portraitist Edward Savage in New York. From 1800 to 1805, he apprenticed in Savage’s studio and gallery, where the artist’s monumental painting, The Washington Family, was on display. Savage, who had studied with the renowned American expatriate artist Benjamin West at London’s Royal Academy, encouraged King to do the same. King departed for England in 1806 and, by 1808, was accepted as West’s pupil. While honing his skills as a portrait artist, King made copies of old masters and served as a mentor to other American student-artists, including Thomas Sully, with whom he shared a humble residence.
Upon his return to the United States in 1812, King settled in Philadelphia and launched a career as a portrait artist, traveling along the mid-Atlantic seaboard to record the likenesses of notable sitters, including the statesman Daniel Webster and President James Monroe. He also conveyed a highly elevated sense of artistic being through several unusual still life and genre paintings, such as The Poor Artist’s Cupboard (1815), The Vanity of the Artist’s Dream (1830) and The Itinerant Artist (1830), one of the most important genre paintings in the romantic canon. Additional commissions from national political figures eventually led King to relocate to Washington, D.C. where he established a large home, studio and gallery. This Twelfth and F Street complex became one of the first seminal centers of art activity in the capital; it was there that King gave instruction to the young artists John Gadsby Chapman and George Cooke and that several important history paintings had their premiere, including Benjamin West’s Death on a Pale Horse, Auguste Hervieu’s The Landing of Lafayette at Cincinnati and George Cooke’s monumental copy of Théodore Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa. It was also the site where King painted his most significant commission, a series of portraits of Native Americans undertaken in the winter of 1821-1822 at the behest of John Caldwell Calhoun, Secretary of War. Eventually totaling 143 works, this project occupied much of King’s attention until 1842, when “financial problems, prejudicial political opposition, and the development of the camera effectively denied the need for such paintings.” However, between 1837 and 1844, Thomas Loraine McKenney, longtime superintendent of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and James Hall published 120 of King’s portraits, as copied by Henry Inman, in a large folio edition entitled History of the Indian Tribes of North America, With Biographical Sketches and Anecdotes of the Principal Chiefs.
Charles Bird King enjoyed the admiration of his colleagues throughout his career, admired for his modesty generous spirit. “In person and manners, Mr. King is prepossessing. He has not the polish of a court, neither has he the duplicity of a courtier. A frankness and naiveté have attended him through life, seldom found in men who have mingled so much in society.”