A native of Tennessee, William Harrison Scarborough first studied medicine in Cincinnati around 1828, but soon decided to abandon the field in favor of art. He is known to have worked with Horace Harding in that city and may have had access to Frederick Eckstein’s fledgling Academy of Fine Arts there. While these early cursory experiences fired his ambition, Scarborough’s most thorough training in the technique of portrait painting came from his work with John C. Grimes in Nashville in 1830. When his young wife died in childbirth in 1835, Scarborough and his infant son left Tennessee, moving first to Alabama and then to South Carolina, where he settled in 1836. By 1843, Scarborough was residing in Columbia, where he became the portrait artist of choice. Not only was Columbia the state capital, it was also the seat of the state university and a thriving commercial hub.
Just a year after his arrival in Columbia, Scarborough’s skills attracted his most important commission to date: a portrait of John Caldwell Calhoun (March 18, 1782-March 31, 1850), South Carolina’s favorite son and the dominant political voice of the antebellum South. Calhoun, who served as Secretary of War under President James Monroe, later held the office of vice president under John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson before entering the United States Senate in 1932. Throughout his career, Calhoun staunchly resisted abolition and fervently promoted states rights, displaying a political implacability that is reflected in Scarborough’s stern portrait.
While living in Columbia, Scarborough concurrently pursued various itinerancies, working in Charleston and the Nashville, Tennessee area. In 1857, he made a tour of Europe, visiting London, Paris and Rome. A comprehensive exhibit of Scarborough’s work was sponsored by the Columbia Art Association in 1937. The artist’s works can be found in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Morris Museum of Art, Gibbes Museum of Art, Columbia Museum of Art and University of South Carolina.