We’ve previously explored the life and work of other great, local landscape artists, so this week we turn to portraiture with a look at Randall Palmer (1807-1845).
Born in 1807 in Oneida County, Palmer was the second of nine children. Soon after his birth, the family moved to Spafford where, by 1816, his father had acquired a large farm at the southern tip of Skaneateles Lake. In 1825, at 18 years old, Randall married Meribah Ripley and the two began traveling around the state with Randall working as a portrait painter. He advertised in Syracuse, Penn Yann, and Seneca Falls, where he settled for a time before coming to Auburn. While in Seneca Falls he painted several portraits of the Van Rensselaer family and took on students to supplement his income.
By 1838 he was advertising in Auburn. In December of that year the Auburn Journal and Advertiser wrote a piece recommending a visit to his rooms on Beach’s Block to view his portraits. The reporter specifically says that Palmer’s portrait of Rev. J. Hopkins “is done to the life, as true a specimen of skill in imitating nature as is often seen.”
First Presbyterian Church
Hopkins was Reverend of the First Presbyterian Church in Auburn from 1830 to 1846. Born in 1786 in Vermont, Hopkins attended Middlebury College and spent several years working in churches around New England before coming to Auburn.
The First Presbyterian Church was organized in July 1811 and the first church building was located at the corner of Franklin and North streets. At first a colonial building, it was replaced by the church seen in this 1950 painting by an unknown artist.
The Church’s steeple was struck by lightning in 1947, replaced, but struck again in 1973. The second time, the church was so badly damaged it was necessary to demolish it. A new church was built at 112 South St. and is still used today. In 1976, the church purchased Theodore Case’s mansion next door which is now home to the Presbyterian Event and Retreat Center.
The Pirate of the Thousand Islands
While Palmer’s portrait of Josiah Hopkins was well received, his most popular work was a portrait of “Commodore” Bill Johnston (1782-1870) and his daughter Kate. Johnston was known as the Pirate of the Thousand Islands and was involved in attempts to liberate Canada from the English Crown. After he was captured in 1838, he was briefly brought to Auburn to face charges in the U.S. circuit court.
The Editor of the Rochester Democrat saw the Johnston painting on a visit to Auburn in 1838 and ran a story saying “The picture does great credit to the young artist Mr. Randal Palmer, and it will secure to “the commodore” a canvass existence, long after tyranny shall have been driven from the Canadas, and long after men shall cease to be hunted for daring to favor the cause of republicanism in the New World.”
Adding to Johnston’s almost mythical story, Johnston escaped after his last sitting for the portrait and the portrait itself later disappeared.
An Early End
As in Seneca Falls, Palmer took on several students while in Auburn, including George Clough and William McMaster who both became successful painters in their own right.
Palmer was interested in all art and was the first to introduce the daguerreotype to Auburn. It became known that Palmer could produce a person’s likeness in paint or photography, and his popularity can be seen by the fact that he was able to purchase several pieces of property around the city.
While Palmer was a painter by trade, one of his great loves was the outdoors. He could often be found hunting or painting and taking photographs of the landscape around Auburn. Tragically, one of these hunting trips proved fatal, with a fall ending Palmer’s life at 38 years old.
You can find other Randall Palmer paintings in the collections of:
Albany Institute of History and Art
Auburn Theological Seminary (now in connection with Union Theological Seminary)
Seneca Falls Historical Society