Before there was an Ashcan School, there were genre painters. Thomas LeClear’s most famous painting, Buffalo Newsboy, is dear to all who grew up visiting the Albright-Knox Art Museum. LeClear was contemporary with Honoré Daumier and Jean-François Millet but the difference between their worldviews is striking.
This difference derives not from talent or temperament, but from place. The French naturalists described a society where there was limited social mobility. The working poor expected to remain poor forever. LeClear, on the other hand, described the boundless optimism of a people who believed poverty was a transitory state and that anyone could go from rags to riches. LeClear’s newsboy is saucy, healthy, energetic, and not the least bit fazed by his low beginnings.
Buffalo Newsboy, c. 1853, by Thomas LeClear, is a favorite of Buffalonians. It harks back to when Buffalo was a boomtown.
LeClear painted some of his most famous canvases during the Civil War. By concentrating on children, he could obliquely point to difficult issues of democracy and emancipation. That he was able to retain his optimism during this cataclysm speaks volumes about his, and the nation’s, character.
Thomas LeClear was born in the village of Candor, Tioga County, New York. In 1832 his family moved to Ontario. A few years later LeClear became an itinerant portrait artist and decorative painter traveling in a range across New York and as far west as Green Bay, Wisconsin.
In 1839 he moved to New York City, where he studied with Henry Inman. By 1847 he had begun to win substantial recognition for his work. That year, he moved to Buffalo in a calculated move to increase his income. At the time, Buffalo was a boom-town and LeClear quickly acquired many wealthy patrons
In the early 1860s LeClear moved back to New York City. He was elected to full membership in the National Academy of Design in 1863. He became a prominent portrait painter as well as a genre painter.
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