A key figure in the history of American sculpture of the mid-nineteenth century, Erastus Dow Palmer was a nonconformist who followed his own artistic path. While most of his fellow Neo-Classicist sculptors, notably Horatio Greenough and Hiram Powers, studied and worked in Italy, Palmer was a self-taught artist who spent his entire career in Albany, New York. Honing his craft independently, Palmer developed his own version of Neo-Classicism, often imbuing his figures with a greater degree of naturalism as opposed to the consistently idealized productions of those who went abroad. In addition to exploring subjects from antiquity, Palmer also set himself apart from the mainstream by taking an interest in themes related to contemporary life. As summed up by the art collector and critic Henry T. Tuckerman, Palmer’s art was characterized by “a progressive taste, the most individual conceptions, and an execution scrupulous in its refinements” (Henry T. Tuckerman, Book of the Artists [New York: G. P. Putman, 1867], p. 356). Entering his studio was, as Tuckerman described it, a “magical process,” as if “Albany was transformed to Florence.”
The son of a carpenter and joiner, Palmer was born on a farm near Pompey, Onondaga County, New York, a small town near Syracuse. Endowed with a high degree of manual dexterity and a love of fine craftsmanship, he worked as a journeyman carpenter in locales such as Syracuse, Dunkirk, and Amsterdam before moving to Utica, where he established himself as a pattern maker and joiner. However, a turning point in Palmer’s career occurred in 1845, when, perusing a shop window, he saw a delicately cut shell cameo from Europe which so impressed him that, using a file from his toolbox, he made a carving of his wife, Mary Jane. After showing it to a local collector who encouraged him to follow his artistic inclinations, Palmer began cutting these tiny reliefs on a full-time basis, plying his trade as a conchiglia (shell artist) in and around Utica, Albany, and New York City.
By 1848, having produced more than two hundred cameo portraits, Palmer was suffering from eye strain. In order to alleviate his condition, and desirous of broadening his commissions, he transitioned to modeling larger relief sculptures, a form of creative expression that became a specialty he would pursue throughout his career––to the extent that almost half of Palmer’s oeuvre would consist of sculptures in relief. He also relocated to Albany, a flourishing industrial city with a population of affluent citizens who could afford to buy art. In 1850, Palmer turned his attention to sculptures in the round, the first of which was The Infant Ceres (1849–50), a portrait of his two-year-old daughter, Fanny, which, upon its successful debut at the National Academy of Design in New York in 1851, marked the beginning of his career as a professional sculptor.
Palmer exhibited at the National Academy again in 1852 and 1853, after which he stopped participating, concerned that sculpture was typically relegated to out-of-the-way rooms with poor lighting. Writing in early January 1855 to the editors of the Crayon, a leading art journal, Palmer suggested that he might have to find another venue in New York for his work if no improvements, namely a “respectable room and fine sky light,” were made. Palmer’s decision to withhold his work from public display did not go unheeded by his supporters: in November 1856, at the invitation of a group of distinguished friends and fellow artists that included the painters Asher B. Durand, Frederic Edwin Church, and Daniel Huntington, Palmer organized an exhibition of his work at the Church of the Divine Unity, at 548 Broadway, which was on view from December 1856 to April 1857. Dubbed the “Palmer Marbles,” the twelve sculptures that comprised the exhibit included Indian Girl or The Dawn of Christianity (1853–56), a depiction of a semi-nude woman in which Palmer explored the theme of Christian morality in relation to America’s Native Americans, as well as earlier pieces such as The Infant Ceres.
In addition to his high standing in New York City art circles, Palmer was considered a celebrity in Albany. He was at the height of his fame during the 1850s and 1860s, during which time photographic prints of his work were exhibited and sold in both the United States and Europe––a major coup for an American artist who had never been abroad. Certainly, Palmer was proud of his Yankee heritage and the fact that he achieved renown without the benefits of foreign training. He felt no need to cross the Atlantic until 1873, when he traveled to Paris to model his portrait of Robert R. Livingston (1874; Statuary Hall, U.S. Capitol) which, conforming to the changing tastes of the time, was cast in bronze. During his later years, Palmer concentrated on portraits and relief sculptures. Elected a fellow of the National Sculpture Society in 1896, he died in Albany on March 9, 1904.