Born in Newtown, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Thomas Hicks was a younger cousin of the painter Edward Hicks (1780–1849). It was from his cousin that Thomas received his first artistic training, between the ages of thirteen and fifteen. Later, Hicks continued with formal study at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, and at the National Academy of Design, New York, of which he was made an associate member at the young age of eighteen. Hicks traveled in Europe between 1845 and 1847, going to London, Paris, Florence, and Rome, where he shared a studio with John F. Kensett. He then returned to Paris for a longer stay, studying with the French academician, Thomas Couture. Like so many American students of Couture, who emphasized ideal subjects and who valued history painting above all other, Hicks ultimately denounced his master’s methods and left Couture’s atelier. Nevertheless, Hicks’s art was in important ways influenced by his study with Couture. After his European sojourn, Hicks returned to New York and embarked on an extremely successful professional career as a portraitist. In addition to producing numerous portraits, landscapes, and genre subjects, Hicks was also active in New York art circles, serving as the president of the Artists’ Fund Society as well as a member of the Council and of the Committee of Arrangements at the National Academy during the late 1850s. He and his wife resided in New York and at their summer home, “Thornwood,” in Trenton Falls, New York, for the rest of their lives. (Hicks’s portrait of his wife, Angie, is in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.)
Surprisingly little attention has been paid to the career of Thomas Hicks. He was one of the most successful and prominent portrait painters in New York in the 1850s and 1860s, with a long roster of famous personages engaging his brush, including Abraham Lincoln, Henry Ward Beecher, William Cullen Bryant, Oliver Wendell Holmes, William Seward, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, among many others. Hicks’s portrait of Lincoln (1860, Chicago Historical Society) earned him particular renown; painted soon after Lincoln’s nomination to the presidency and apparently the first portrait of Lincoln as President, Hicks’s portrait was commissioned by W. H. Schaus and reproduced as a lithograph, thus broadly disseminating the image.