Thomas Ball was born in Charlestown, Massachusetts. Except for the Civil War years, 1857–65, he spent his active his working career in Florence, Italy. Notwithstanding, Thomas Ball remained, through his long life, an unwavering Boston Yankee. The artist’s father was a sign painter who contracted lead poisoning and died when his son was twelve. Ball left school to help support his mother and five siblings. He stumbled into a job as a helper at a local museum, which was, as was then the custom, a place of popular entertainment. In the course of his work at the museum he discovered that his facility for drawing and his natural mechanical turn of mind could be parlayed into an unexpected and financially viable career.
Ball’s first engagement with the arts was with music, a love and a talent that gave him joy throughout his life. Ball’s parents had met at a “singing-school.” As a young man, he earned money singing in church choirs. Music served as Thomas Ball’s means of entrée into the first rank of Boston society. The artist reminisced that in the late 1840s, he was among a small and convivial group of musicians who met at the home of Julia Ward Howe, making music with Howe participating as the piano accompanist. He played the violin, in addition to singing. Fittingly, his successful sculpture, in 1851, was a small bust of the beloved “Swedish nightingale,” Jenny Lind. In 1854, Ball married Ellen Louisa Wild, the daughter of the soprano in the choir of St. Paul’s Church where Ball sang bass.
Ball began his career in the fine arts as a painter. Though he applied himself diligently and enjoyed a modest early success, he gave up painting when he discovered a more compelling talent for modeling. Ball did not allow himself to marry until he had the money in hand to support himself and his wife for two years in Italy. That first trip was undertaken both for Ball to study sculpture in earnest and to endeavor to put some early Boston efforts into marble. Ball’s straightforward style (and personality to match) appealed to his New England clientele. Upon his return to Boston, Ball took a studio and spent the years 1857 to 1865 modeling his equestrian Washington. He produced, as well, a series of sculptural portraits of well-known subjects, including Henry Clay, Edwin Forrest, Henry Ward Beecher, and Edward Everett. The equestrian Washington had to wait until after the Civil War to be cast in bronze by the Ames forge in Chicopee, Massachusetts, by which time Ball was already back in Italy. It was the first of a number of high-profile public commissions that brought the sculptor’s name before the general public.
Though resident in Italy, Thomas Ball remained firmly tied to a nexus of American patrons. They visited him in the course of their European tours; he, in turn, often returned home to work and to reconnect with old friends and to make new ones. While for some American expatriate artists, the Atlantic Ocean presented an impermeable (and often welcome) barrier, for Ball it was but a pond. After his honeymoon crossing in 1854, he made, by his own account, a total of eighteen trans-Atlantic trips. Ball’s numerous trips back to Boston were profitably spent maintaining and expanding a network of familial and professional relationships that yielded a steady supply of patrons and commissions. In fact, when the Balls returned to Florence in 1869, Ball had in hand a commission for a monumental statue of John Andrew (1818–1867), the recently deceased Civil War Governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. That statue remains in the northwest corner of Doric Hall at the entrance to the Massachusetts State House. Ball was especially happy about the Andrew commission as it defrayed the costs of constructing and decorating his new home.
While these heroic-size bronze statues built Ball’s popular reputation and greatly enhanced his income, they never replaced the individual portrait bust as everyday stock-in-trade. Ball also always found the time and freedom to undertake so-called “ideal” subjects, expressions of loftier sentiments for patrons who were willing to pay for something other than their own physiognomies or those of notable Americans. Ideal subjects were almost always undertaken as speculative ventures, in the hope of finding art-minded buyers. Ball modeled a varied series of ideal subjects—full-size statues, busts, and bas reliefs, fashioned in clay and translated into marble—that allowed free rein to Ball’s creative imagination.
Ellen Louisa Wild Ball died in 1891 and was laid to rest in the Protestant cemetery in Florence. When Thomas Ball returned to America in 1897, he and his son-in-law, sculptor William Couper (1853–1942), set up a studio and salon in a brownstone at 201 East Seventeenth Street, New York, down the block from Stuyvesant Square. Later, Ball and the Coupers settled in Montclair, New Jersey, a town popular with artists, where they built an Italianate house at 105 Upper Mountain Avenue, which they called Poggioridente (Laughing Hill). When Thomas Ball died in 1911, he returned one last time to Florence where he rests alongside his wife.