Born on the eastern shore of Maryland, the artist George Esten Cooke was largely self-taught as a youth. Despite early artistic promise, he could not afford expensive instructional fees and so became a partner in a Washington, D.C. mercantile venture. In 1816, he made a fortuitous marriage, wedding Mary Ann Heath, daughter of Virginia politician John Heath and sister of James Elwell Heath, the first editor of the Southern Literary Messenger. Following the demise of his dry goods store—as well as unsuccessful efforts to profit from land speculation—Cooke purchased four versions of Gilbert Stuart’s portraits of the first four presidents in 1819 and copied them in oil. He then launched his career as a portrait artist with itinerant visits to his wife’s family in Richmond.
In 1824, Cooke, along with his distant cousin John Gadsby Chapman, studied with Charles Bird King in King’s gallery/studio in Washington, D.C. By 1825, Cooke reported having made 130 portraits; with funds accumulated from commissions, the artist and his wife departed in July 1826 for further training in Europe. Following one year of study at the art academy of Florence, Cooke relocated to Rome, where he remained through 1828. During his Roman sojourn, Cooke began making large replicas of old master paintings, beginning with Raphael’s Transfiguration. After a visit to Naples in 1829, he returned to Washington, D.C. and exhibited The Conspiracy of Catiline and the Interior of St. Peter’s Rome in Chester Harding’s studio. He traveled once again to Europe to paint a copy of Théodore Géricault’s monumental Raft of the Medusa on site in the Louvre; the full scale replica was subsequently exhibited in New York in November 1831. After 1832, Cooke began to paint landscape art and topographical views in the warm tones of the Hudson River School.
Throughout the years 1834 to 1837, Cooke traveled extensively as an itinerant portrait artist. He also began to submit articles to the Southern Literary Messenger, the most important Southern journal of the antebellum period. In 1837, Cooke returned to Washington, D.C., where he assisted Charles Bird King in painting Native Americans, a series of works which were later engraved by the chromolithographic firm of McKenney and Hall. From December 1844 until 1848, Cooke operated a seasonal gallery on St. Charles Street in New Orleans—an enterprise underwritten by Daniel Pratt, an Alabama industrialist, and James Robb, a local collector and financier—where he displayed works of art by some of the leading American painters of the day, including Thomas Sully, Emanuel Leutze and Daniel Huntington.
While making an itinerant tour of the Alabama “black belt” in 1848, Cooke painted a portrait of Colonel John Whitfield Lapsley (1806-1889), a wealthy Selma attorney and successful entrepreneur. One of Lapsley’s five sons, Joseph Fairfax Lapsley (April 20, 1845-August 30, 1847), had died as a toddler. After recording the father’s likeness, Cooke was further commissioned to paint a commemorative portrait of Joseph, affectionately known as “Little Fax.” The resulting portrait is at once charming and perplexing, laden with complex symbolic meaning. Cooke’s articles in the Southern Literary Messenger had addressed his thoughts on the mortality of life and the immortality of art. For Cooke, the artist functioned as aesthetic preservationist, “one who ‘by the magic of his pencil’ captures ‘the very faces and persons of the fair and the brave of ages gone by.’”
Cooke’s work can be found in the collections of the White House Historical Association, United States Military Academy, Georgia Museum of Art, Morris Museum of Art and Gibbes Museum of Art.