Whatever Happened to Abbeyleix Man
How one of the most important post-Civil War Sculptors died in obscurity and is buried in an unmarked grave.
By Michael Burke ©
Lancelot (Launt) Thompson was born in the town of Abbeyleix, in what was then Queens County and is now Laois County, Ireland, on February 8, 1833. He came to the United States in 1847 with his recently widowed mother, who had no means of support in Ireland. They settled in the Albany, New York area. Soon the fourteen year old was working as an office boy for James H. Armsby, surgeon and professor at Albany Medical College, with the hope of eventually becoming a doctor himself.
While in the early stages of studying anatomy his interest veered toward the human form itself. Having always possessed a talent for art he now specialized in anatomical drawing. A well-known sculptor living in Albany, Erastus Dow Palmer, saw potential in his work and hired him as a studio boy. He would spend the next nine years apprenticing with Palmer and developing his own unique style in sculpture.
Albany at that time was a center for visual arts, with several painters and sculptors in year-round residence and more swelling their ranks from New York City and Boston during the summer to take advantage of the beautiful scenery of the Catskills, Adirondacks, and the Hudson River.
Thompson and Palmer became friends, and the senior artist helped his protégé early in his career, getting his work exhibited and sold. The center of the art world in America at that time, as now, was New York City, upon which the young man set his sights. In 1858 he moved there, sharing an apartment with his friend, the young artist James Pinchot, who would later leave art and become very successful in the wallpaper business.
Thompson also rented work space in the Tenth Street Studio Building, an artistic and social center for the burgeoning New York art scene. He was soon working steadily, turning out cameos and marble relief portraits, some of which were entered into an exhibition at the National Academy of Design, and which received favorable mention in the fledging art magazine Crayon.
Rose Madder, reviewing his work for Irish America Weekly, wrote in 1859, “A case of cameos, by Launt Thompson, a pupil of Palmer, the celebrated sculptor, are unrivalled in the delicacy of their execution.”
What first brought Thompson to the attention of the general public, however, was his marble portrait of James Capon Adams, known familiarly as “Grizzly Adams,” the legendary woodsman. Adams, who bonded with nature and refused to harm any animals, later became the subject of books, a movie and a television series.
Launt Thompson’s star was now rising, with more work and lucrative commissions coming his way. The Century Association, of which he was a member, commissioned him to do a portrait of another member, his close friend, the poet, journalist and lawyer, William Cullen Bryant, which is currently housed in the permanent collection of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Another commission came about in an unusual way – via his roommate’s family. Cyrille Pinchot, father of James, had served in Napoleon’s army before moving to the United States, where he took part in establishing the town of Milford, Pennsylvania. He wanted a bronze statue of his commanding officer placed in the town square.
Of course, by this time Napoleon was no longer an emperor. Although considered by many to be an excellent work of art, for various reasons (mostly political) the monument was never installed and remained at the Metropolitan Museum for some time before finding a home at the Smithsonian.
The statue was unique in that it depicted the defeated Napoleon, walking with his head down, an unusual interpretation of an unusual commission, that of a defeated leader, especially one destined for a place of honor in a town square. This, however, led to other commissions, including an important one from the United States Military Academy at West Point, depicting Civil War Major General John Sedgwick, who was killed in the Battle of Spotsylvania in Virginia. In addition to the standing general, Thompson included a bas-relief on the base of the statue depicting his death in the battle.
During his early years in New York City, Thompson cultivated an active social life. He frequented the famous Pfaff’s Cellar restaurant and bar and was soon considered one of the new avant-garde artists and writers referred to as “bohemians,” among whom were the writers, Fitz-James O’Brien, William Winter, Thomas Bailey Aldrich and the artists Frank Bellew and Sol Etynge, Jr. who illustrated the work of Charles Dickens.
Two of their alumni who later rose to prominence were poet Walt Whitman and France’s Premier Georges Clemenceau. Lola Montez sometimes dropped into Pfaff’s, as the guest of her friend, Walt Whitman.
Thompson joined the Lotos Club and the Union League Club. He became a well-known host himself. A quote from the wife of his close friend, the poet and journalist Thomas Bailey Aldrich, may have hinted at problems to come: “Mr. Launt Thompson’s studio was one of the largest, and as he was always a great favorite, choice spirits were to be met there day and night.”
She was probably referring to interesting people but there may have been a pun intended with the use of the word “spirits.” At any rate, it indicated Thompson’s outgoing personality – and perhaps his aversion to being alone.
Thompson was now doing so well financially that he could afford to take some time off to do a “Grand Tour” of Europe, so popular with well-to-do and up-and-coming young Americans of the time. His tour, however, was more than a vacation. He went to see first-hand, and study, the great works of sculpture throughout Europe.
In 1868 he left for Paris with his friend and fellow artist, the landscape painter and student of Frederick Edwin Church, Jervis McEntee. After a brief stay in the city of lights, the pair traveled to Rome and joined up with Church and another member of the Hudson River School, John Ferguson Weir.
Thompson then went on to Venice, where he met up again with McEntee, who had preceded him and had rented an apartment with his wife. He stayed with them for a while, one floor above the poet Robert Browning. Thompson then ventured on to Florence, where he visited the famous Irish-American sculptor in residence there, Hiram Powers.
Thompson then returned to Paris where he was received by the American illustrator Gustave Dore. He finished the tour in London, spending time at the Royal Academy, the British Museum and Windsor Castle.
After what proved a valuable and highly educational tour, Launt Thompson returned to New York City in 1869. The young sculptor was now to embark upon what was to become the most productive phase of his career. After completing a bronze portrait bust of Sanford Robinson Gifford, leader of the Hudson River School, he was selected to create a statue for the town of Pittsfield, Massachusetts depicting a Union Army color-bearer. He then produced a life-size portrait of Lieutenant General Winfield Scott, which was placed in front of the Old Soldier’s and Airmen’s Home in Washington, DC, of which Scott was a co-founder. The statue faces the Capitol Building. For this work Thompson was paid the then formidable sum of $15,000.00. While he was doing this he also completed a bronze statue of the Reverend Abraham Pierson, the first rector of Yale University, done posthumously.
It was during this time, flushed with success, that Launt Thompson married Maria Louisa Potter, daughter of Alonzo Potter, Episcopal Bishop of Pennsylvania, in St George’s Church, Troy, New York, a beautiful church which still has an active parish today.
It is not clear how they met, but Maria was raised by her grandfather in Schenectady, New York, not far from where Launt lived in his youth, so they may have met as young adults, their difference in age being six years.
Thompson, while working on a commission of a portrait bust of Union College professor and Civil War officer Isaac W. Jackson in Schenectady, visited Maria as often as possible at her grandparent’s home, her grandfather, Eliphalet Nott, serving at the time as president of Union College.
Maria was the youngest of nine children of Alonzo Potter and Sarah Maria Nott. Sadly, her mother died giving birth to her. For some unknown reason she was not raised with her father and siblings but initially with her godmother, Mary Garrettson, in Rhinebeck, New York, later moving in with her maternal grandfather. Her early childhood with her strict, religious godmother seems to have been somewhat unpleasant, but her life improved when her grandfather took over her care.
All of her brothers went on to distinguished careers, one, Henry Codman Potter, becoming the Bishop of New York, succeeding his uncle, Horatio Potter, and continuing his work as the founder of the Cathedral of St John the Devine. Another brother, Robert Brown Potter, became a Union General in the Civil War, and another, Clarkson Nott Potter, became a lawyer and served in Congress as Representative from New Rochelle, New York.
Shortly after the birth of their first child, named Lancelot after his father, the family moved to Florence, Italy, where Thompson could find better access to stone and bronze and also a supply of inexpensive labor for his work. He flourished in Italy doing many commissioned portraits. But if Launt did well, it was Maria who truly came into her own.
Italy became her adopted country where she would stay for the rest of her life. She became fluent in Italian. She found her niche as a gracious hostess, starting with her own family and then branching out to include visiting Americans and soon practically everyone else who passed through Florence. This is best described in a history of the Potter family written by her half-brother, Frank Hunter Potter in 1923: “Her apartment in Florence [109 via de Serragli, next door to what was the studio of the by then belated Hiram Powers] was a Mecca for the whole Potter tribe. . . . To say that we were welcome when we went to Florence is to understate it. . . I had the good fortune to spend many months practically in her household, and I never was happier.” He went on to say, “Her house became a resort of what was most distinguished and dignified in Florentine society. . . . Her weekly receptions were delightful affairs.”
While in Florence, the Thompsons had two more children, both daughters, Marie Benedict and Florence Howard. The sculptor kept busy with commissions from home and also turning out portraits of visiting Americans, such as Eliza Cross Pinchot, mother of his former roommate. He also kept up correspondence with his friends back home, especially the now very successful and famous Edwin Booth, who wrote regularly, keeping Launt appraised of the cultural life in America.
Launt was a close friend of John Wilkes Booth’s brother, Edwin Booth, who was, and still is, considered one of the best American actors of all time. John did not share his brother’s reputation. The two disliked each other but after Lincoln’s assassination Edwin’s home in Gramercy park was attacked by angry mobs, although he had nothing to do with it. Launt stayed with him during this period at his home which was (and still is) in one of the most fashionable neighbourhoods in New York City. The building still stands and is now home to the Players’ Club, a venerable actors’ association. There is a book of Edwin Booth’s letters of which numerous were to Launt Thompson. Launt was asked to secretly escort the Booths’ mother from NYC to Washington. Before the train left the station Launt discovered that John had been killed during his capture. It was Launt who delivered the news of her son’s death to his mother. Mrs Booth was actually relieved that he was dead and that he would not have to go through a trial and be hanged.
It was during this time that Thompson finished his only nude sculpture, entitled “Unconsciousness” (also known as “The Chief’s Bride”) which he worked on for many years, one of his few works that was not commissioned, done for his own satisfaction. It was based on a classic story of an American settler child kidnapped by Indians who was later found by her family but decided to stay with her adoptive tribe and marry its chief.
After six years in Florence, Launt Thompson returned to New York City in 1881, by himself. There seems to be no record of why he left his family in Italy, but the demand for art and sculpture was skyrocketing among nouveau riche Americans and Thompson may have felt the need to be physically there to effectively compete. He probably planned to stay for a while, as long as necessary to re-establish himself and his reputation, and then return to his family in Florence. In addition, Maria loved her life in Florence and role as a gracious hostess and may not have wanted to give it up. The Thompsons were well liked and accepted by their Italian neighbors, and Florence was the only home their children had ever known.
Monuments dedicated to the memory of the Civil War were very popular then, and Thompson was responsible for several: “The Eagle On The Globe” for the United States Regulars Monument in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and a statue of Admiral Samuel Francis Dupont, commissioned by Congress and first placed in Washington’s Dupont Circle but later moved to Rockford Park in Wilmington, Delaware. The most important one, however, was his only equestrian statue, that of General Ambrose Everett Burnside, ceremoniously unveiled in Kennedy Plaza, Providence, Rhode Island, on July 4, 1887.
His excessive use of alcohol before his arrest may have, as is often the case, led to some sort of permanent, irreversible brain damage.
After 1887 an inexplicable decline seems to have occurred in the life of Launt Thompson. There is a case for a combination of loneliness and overwork. From what little we know of Thompson’s personality, he seems to have thrived best while in the company of others, but the work of an artist is often a solitary affair. Without his wife and her active social circle, he retreated into himself. His commissions were not declining, which may have been a source of the problem: too much solitary work. At one point during this period he did a self-portrait, probably one of his only ones, in which he depicted himself as a kind of devil. This may have been an indication of his mental deterioration, if anyone who knew him were perceptive enough to spot it. Apparently no one was.
Things rapidly came to the surface, however, when he was arrested on December 2, 1890, at the behest of the artist John Snedecor, with whom he was sharing lodgings. Apparently, after a ten-day drinking binge, Thompson proceeded to wreck the premises, or as it would be termed today, “trash the place.” While being arrested, his behavior became even more erratic and there was an indication that he was suffering from delirium tremors. He was brought to the Jefferson Market Courthouse, accused of disturbing the peace.
His arrest was covered by the New York Herald, in an article entitled “Arrest of a Sculptor,” subtitled: “Liquor Drives Launt Thompson Crazy and a Policeman Has to Take Care of Him.” In fact, his arrest made just about every newspaper in the country, from big cities to small towns, as this piece from the December 11, 1890 edition of Michigan’s Bay City Times attests, “A few years ago Launt Thompson, the sculptor, was the lion of New York Society. He was the style, and while in the swim married a daughter of Bishop Potter. But social position, artistic ambition, success and a large income were thrown to the winds in the gratification of his appetite for strong drink, and a few days ago he was arrested for vagrancy and committed for a month to Blackwell’s Island, at the end of which time a commission will enquire concerning his sanity.”
While this article may have been rather unflattering, it indicates the fame, which Launt Thompson had throughout the country. While we don’t have the minutes of this commission’s meeting we do know the results. Upon completion of his sentence he was transferred to Central Valley Hospital of Orange County New York, a private sanatorium. It is unlikely that he could have continued to drink in jail so his decline at this point may have been due to progressive mental illness. His excessive use of alcohol before his arrest may have, as is often the case, led to some sort of permanent, irreversible brain damage. For unexplained reasons he was then transferred to the State Homeopathic Asylum for the Insane in Middletown, New York.
Apparently he was still creating art while confined because a newspaper published by the Asylum mentioned him: “The well-known and distinguished sculptor Launt Thompson has been sojourning among us for several months. He has finished a bas-relief profile of Supervisor Cook’s son, little Talcott. This is an admirable piece of work, and shows for the artist, that his brain is still active in conception and that his right hand has not forgot its cunning.”
This amateur entry seems to be the last thing written about Thompson while living, who had now fallen completely out of sight. The psychiatric records of his stay at the asylum are restricted due to privacy and confidentiality laws so it may be impossible to find out exactly what went on there.
The next news of him comes from the New York Times edition of September 27, 1894, entitled: “A Famous Sculptor. Death of Launt Thompson at Middletown, N.Y.” The brief article covers only the highlights of his professional life: “In 1858 he went to New York, and having shown a remarkable talent for medallion portraits, he found ample employment. He became an associate of the Academy of Design in 1859, and three years later his bust of “The Trapper” secured his election as an academician. . . . Yale conferred upon him the honorary degree of M.A. in 1874.”
The Times discreetly makes no mention of the circumstances of his death, which was attributed to throat cancer, heavy smoking being another one of his vices. His death was also covered by practically every major newspaper in America.
His decline leaves many questions unanswered. Was his wife kept informed of his condition? Did his family and friends try to help him? Had his antisocial and erratic behavior alienated them, or had he just become an embarrassment? Or was it simply that there was nothing which could be done. These and the other questions regarding his final days may remain forever a mystery.
Maria Louisa Thompson chose to spend the rest of her life in her adopted country, Italy. She became a writer of magazine articles with one book to her credit, The Legend of St. Gwendoline. She may have become a bit eccentric in her own way. When she died on July 17, 1916, in Florence, her death was covered by the New York Times, which called attention to the strangeness of her will, which was executed in 1910. The article, entitled “Feared Burial Alive’ bore the subtitle: “Mrs. Launt Thompson Asked for Cremation in Her Will.” The writer goes on to describe “an unusual will executed by Mrs. Launt Thompson, who died recently at Florence, Italy, . . . . filed in the Surrogate’s Court yesterday for probate. She was the widow of Launt Thompson, sculptor. One clause of the will says: ‘As I die a member of the Roman Catholic Church, if the permission of the church can by any possibility be obtained, I wish my body to be cremated as soon as possible after my death. If this cannot be done, I request that it be opened in such a way as to prevent my being buried alive, and that quick-lime be thrown upon it to consume it absolutely, and that my ashes be placed near the graves of my children.”
Perhaps she did not consider that cremation while alive or being soaked in quick-lime while alive would be equally as unpleasant as being buried alive. It is unclear when or why Maria Louisa, the daughter of an Episcopal bishop, converted to the Roman Catholic Church, and if Thompson, who never seemed to express any interest in any church, though most likely born into the Church of Ireland, had anything to do with it.
Launt and Maria’s only son, Lancelot, although born in America, considered himself a thorough Italian and during World War I he volunteered to fight for the Italian Army. He worked as a bookkeeper and when he was rejected for health reasons offered his services as such to the local regiment. Every night after his day job he would work into the night doing their paperwork. This took a toll on his frail constitution and he soon died. His death was attributed to overwork for the cause of the war. He had written a book in Italian on the history of Florence, Il Trentino, la Venezia Guilia e la Dalmazia nel Risorgimento Italiano, which his mother translated into English after his death.
The oldest daughter Mariette Benedict worked as a nurse in France throughout the war. Surviving numerous attacks and bombardments, she received the Croix de Guerre in 1919 for her courageous work. She later became a successful sculptor in her own right, exhibiting in Paris and New York. She moved to the United States, married American businessman Lawrence Hayworth Mills, Jr. and settled in Morristown, New Jersey. They later moved to Paris, where they became friends with many writers and artists, especially Marcel Duchamp and Constantin Brancusi.
Younger daughter Florence Howard used her fluency in four languages to assist displaced soldiers and families during and after the war. She married an Italian Count, Gian-Luigi Perticucci de Guidici and remained in Italy. Not much is known of her marriage except that it was not a financially successful one, as Maria wrote in her will: “I have left more to my dear daughter Florence than to my beloved Launt and Mariette because Flossie has married into wretched hopeless poverty, and I have wished to lessen so far as possible her hard privations.” It seems she was not a happy mother-in-law.
There may come a time when more light can be shed on the last, unhappy days of Launt Thompson, but his sad death in no way diminishes the triumphs of his life and the contributions he made to the development of nineteenth-century sculpture in America. The works sited here are only a portion of his voluminous output. He joins the ranks of the so many Irish-born artists and writers who grew, developed and prospered after arrival on American shores. Hopefully, his work will become more well-known and recognized by the contemporary American art public
Michael Burke, Biographer
Michael Burke is an Irish-American writer who specializes in biographical work on Irish born Americans, mostly from the nineteenth century, who achieved success and/or fame in America but are now mostly forgotten. He has published a biography entitled The Life of Fitz-James O’Brien, Irish Writer, American Soldier. O’Brien was born in Cork in 1926, came to New York in 1852, in ten yearsproduced over 400 pieces of work including short stories, plays, essays, literary and theatrical criticism, wrote a weekly column (the first in New York) called “The Man About Town” He was called the father of modern science fiction for his story “The Diamond Lens”. His work appeared in almost all New York based periodicals including “Harpers’ Weekly, “Vanity Fair and the “New York Times” A Captain in the Union Army, he died heroically in the American Civil War in 1862. Burke’s work appears regularly in “Irish America” magazine and the Journal of the New York Irish History Roundtable. He is currently at work on a biography of John Mackay, born in a Dublin slum in 1830 and before he died in 1902 was the 17th richest person in the world, through silver mining, the telegraph industry and banking. The book will also cover his son Clarence, whose daughter, Elin, married songwriter Irving Berlin (for which she was disinherited). Burke has written about many Irish born Americans including actors John Brougham and Matilda Heron, Lola Montez, Civil War Generals Thomas Sweeny and Thomas Francis Meagher, and, of course, Sculptor Launt Thompson. He has been interviewed concerning his work on radio and television. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife, Claire.
Thanks to Irish America Magazine