Born in Charleston, South Carolina, Thomas Wightman came of age during the heyday of Charles Fraser and the itinerancies of Samuel F. B. Morse and other prominent portrait artists; he may also have come into contact with the miniaturist Edward Greene Malbone who recorded his parents' likenesses. But Charleston was not always a nurturing environment for burgeoning native talent, and, by the mid-1830s, Wightman was living in New York where he became a student of Henry Inman, the leading portraitist of the moment and a founder of the National Academy of Design. Wightman first exhibited portraiture at the academy in 1836. His address of record in a well established neighborhood just off Broadway at that time indicates a certain degree of artistic success.
From 1837 until 1861, Wightman seems to have been based in New York, from which he made profitable seasonal visits to Charleston, securing commissions and executing portraits, and to Augusta, Georgia, where his brother John was the proprietor of one of that city’s earliest photography studios. In the mid-1840s, exhibition records testify to a body of still life art, first exhibited at the National Academy in 1844 and shown there through 1854. In this example, the artist’s earliest known work of any type, Wightman displays a sure knowledge of seventeenth century Dutch still life painting, notably the ontbijtje format of Jan Davidszoon de Heem, Pieter Claesz and Willem Claeszoon Heda. Laid out upon a precipitous marble ledge, the trompe l’oeil effect lifts the fruit—rotund peaches and grapes, a gaping watermelon and peeled orange with spiraling tendrils—towards the viewer. The warm coloration and contrast of light and shadow in the background are ambitious effects for an artist just then beginning his stylistic formation.
Elected an associate of the National Academy in 1850, Wightman spent long working visits during that decade in Spartanburg, South Carolina, where his brother William served as president of Wofford College. At the outset of the Civil War, the artist, whose sympathies were linked with the Confederate cause, returned to the South and lived separately from his wife, a native New Yorker, thereafter. The artist’s final years were spent in Augusta, painting still lifes and hand-coloring photographs. Upon his death in 1888, minutes of the National Academy of Design, praised him as an “excellent artist and a most worthy man.”