Chester Harding was born in Conway, Massachusetts, the 4th of 12 children whose father, an unsuccessful inventor, experienced some difficulty in providing for his large family. Chester Harding spent several years in the household of an aunt; and at age 12, he was hired out to help support of his family. When he was 14, his parents decided to move to the relatively unsettled area of Monroe County, New York. There he dabbled in a variety of trades--including drum-making, cabinetry, & tavern-keeping --without much success. Shortly after his marriage to Caroline Woodruff in 1815, he left New York State because of mounting debts. His young family joined him in Pittsburgh, where he began painting houses.
Around 1818, he was introduced to portraiture by an itinerant artist named Nelson. Largely self-taught, Harding achieved some success before moving to Kentucky, where a brother was already engaged in the portrait trade. There he felt the influence of Matthew Jouett, a slightly older artist working in the manner of Gilbert Stuart. Over the next few years, Harding painted in Kentucky, Ohio, Missouri, & Washington, D.C. He traveled to Philadelphia for 2 months of study at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts during the winter of 1819-1820. Business was good, & he received praise for a likeness of the 90-year-old Daniel Boone, which was engraved by several printmakers.
In 1823, Harding spent 6 months in Boston, where he received an astounding reception & more commissions, than he could carry out. He later admitted that his success was due largely to his reputation as an untaught "primitive" from the frontier, a mythic status upon which he would capitalize for several years to come. Despite his good fortune, he moved his family that year to Northampton, Massachusetts, in preparation for an anticipated trip to Europe.
Harding soon left for London, where he met artists Charles Robert Leslie & Sir Thomas Lawrence & temporarily adapted his tight, finished style to the looser brushwork then in fashion in Britain. He met with extremely good fortune in England, Scotland, and Ireland. Taken by his plain mannerisms and humble origins, aristocrats with a democratic bent--and even members of the royal family--commissioned their likenesses from him.
Pleased with his popularity, Harding made the decision to settle in Glasgow & sent for his family to join him there. Soon after they arrived, however, he was forced to abandon his plans & return to Boston in 1826, after a British financial panic destroyed his business.
For the rest of his life, Harding's career was centered in Boston, although he made his home in Springfield, Massachusetts, beginning in 1830. He became an important & visible force in the Boston art world, largely through his ownership of a studio building that was the site of many important exhibitions. Much of each year was also spent on the road, executing portraits in New York, Louisiana, Kentucky, & points in between.
In all, he is thought to have painted over 1000 portraits. After the death of his wife in 1845, he made a second, 9-month visit to Europe. Thereafter he painted less, though never giving up his brushes entirely. His interests late in life gravitated toward landscape architecture & fishing. He died in Boston in 1866.