Though he enjoyed success as a painter of portraits and still life, Thomas Bangs Thorpe was best known in his own time as an author of Southwestern humor. The son of a circuit Methodist preacher, Thorpe received a public school education and, by 1830, had begun art lessons with John Quidor in New York. During this time, he made the acquaintance of the artist Charles Loring Elliott, who became a lifelong friend, as well as the sculptor John Henri Isaac Browere. Over the next few years, the young artist also sought instruction from the portraitists Samuel Lovett Waldo and William Jewett, as well as John Trumbull. He first exhibited at the American Academy of the Fine Arts in 1833.
Thorpe briefly attended Wesleyan University beginning in 1834. When the harsh New England winters began to affect his health, college friends from Mississippi suggested the fledgling artist and writer move south. Thorpe began his exodus in 1837, eventually settling north of Baton Rouge, and pursued itinerancies painting portraits and fancy pieces. In Still Life with Grapes, Watermelon and Peaches dating to 1839, Thorpe demonstrates his awareness of trends in classic seventeenth century Dutch still life art, especially the Haarlem school. He also began to write antebellum anecdotes, including “Tom Owen, The Bee Hunter” (1839) and “The Big Bear of Arkansas” (1840). Over the next decade, Thorpe’s activity as an artist declined as he became increasingly involved in the writing and editing of various Whig newspapers in Louisiana. During the Mexican War, he accompanied General Zachary Taylor’s Army to Mexico and later penned his reminiscences.
As sectional tensions increased, Thorpe returned to New York in 1853. In the years leading up to the Civil War, he published multiple volumes of humor, picaresque stories, reminiscences and one novel, The Master’s House: A Tale of Southern Life. His last major show as an artist came in 1860 when his monumental Niagara As It Is was displayed in New York.
Despite his affection for the South, Thorpe enlisted with federal forces and returned to New Orleans in 1862 as a member of the staff of occupying General Benjamin Franklin Butler. In this capacity, he participated in the convention that rewrote the Louisiana constitution. Once back in New York, he resumed his literary and journalistic career, and held various posts at the New York Custom House from 1869 until the time of his death.