Biography

b. 8 October 1808, Malta, Saratoga County, New York
d. 28 July 1892, Saratoga Springs, New York

Nelson Cook (rarely, Cooke, seen esp in Canada) was the son of furniture-maker Joseph Cook (b. ca 1768, Wallingford, CT - d. 22 Dec 1864) and Mary Ann Tolman (Tallman?), b. Guilford, MA; the parents moved to the Ballston Spa/Malta area of Saratoga County around 1800 from Wallingford. Cook's birthdate given here is derived from his death certificate, which, instead of indicating his birthdate, lists his age at death as 83y, 9m, 20d. This date is generally supported by census data. A number of sources report Cook's year of birth as 1817, but his death certificate, census data, and the logic of his career confirm the earlier year; the 1817 date may derive from an incorrect obituary entry in the Rochester Chronicle, 30 July 1892, and others.


Ransom Cook, ca 1850?
Photo courtesy of H. A. Eastman
Nelson was one of nine children: Ransom, Marcus, Andre, Mary Ann, Truman, and Julia, with Henry and Joseph dying young. We know little about the artist's early years, nothing of his schooling. For seven years, however, probably in the 1820s, Nelson was apprenticed to his brother Ransom (1794-1881), who was to become a well-known prison reformer and self-described "machinist and manufacturer." Ransom made furniture during his early years in Saratoga, and Nelson may have developed his interest and skill in painting by doing craft work, including stenciling, for a number of years in his brother's furniture shop. For example, Ransom's business apparently provided Saratoga establishments, including the United States Hotel and Congress Hall, with stenciled rocking chairs and servingware treated by a varnishing process known as "japanning"; records show Nelson assisted with this work. Decades of correspondence between Nelson and the better-known Ransom provide a great deal of the information we have about the painter; Ransom, who became wealthy through the invention, manufacture and distribution of hardware items ("bits and augers," etc.), would provide moral and financial support for his younger brother (and, apparently, for other family members) throughout much of their lives.

It was probably in 1832 that Cook left the Saratoga area for Canada, where he spent some seven years as an itinerant painter and business agent for brother Ransom, accompanied as far as we can tell by wife Esther. What little we know of this period is derived from conjecture from his portraits and from four letters to Ransom, now in the Library of Congress. He apparently spent time in Kingston, Upper Canada (Ontario), then perhaps in or near Cornwall on the St. Lawrence River [see Barnabas Dickinson and family, Parrit Blaisdell and Mrs. Blaisdell] before traveling downriver to Quebec City in Lower Canada [see Robert McVicar and Mrs. McVicar]. Eventually he settled in Toronto (called York until 1834) and may have purchased as many as 400 acres of land [letter, 2 Feb 1837]. There Cook painted subjects from prints (actors, classical works, etc.; see As a Portraitist) and individuals and families of both modest and more affluent circumstances. "My prospects are fair," he wrote to Ransom in 1837, "orders for portraits increase." Indeed, despite personal problems and political turmoil during the artist's years in Canada, his portraiture reflects steady improvement; the increasing sophistication of his technique is evident in the five years between Emily Dickinson (1832) and John Rolph (1837). In 1834, in the first exhibition sponsored by "The Society of Artists and Amateurs" of Toronto, Cook was among 18 artists -- including pioneers of Canadian art Paul Kane and James Hamilton -- who displayed 196 works.

Meanwhile Toronto was becoming a hotbed of rebellion as Reformers challenged the powerful and wealthy elite of the so-called "Family Compact" who, allied with the Anglican Church, maintained effective control of the British colony. Pinched by low farm prices, dominated politically by the Lt Governor and Legislative Council, and encouraged by insurrection in Lower Canada, locals under William Lyon MacKenzie rose in open rebellion in December, 1837. Marching on Toronto to seize arms, hundreds of rebels were quickly defeated by militia, many fleeing to the United States. Unwittingly Cook became something of a "painter of the Rebellion," as his sitters included both Reformers [see John Rolph] and highly placed Tories [see Sir John Beverly Robinson, Sir Francis Bond Head, Robert McVicar] -- indeed, it was the politics of Lt Governor Bond Head which apparently brought Cook and his work to the attention of the young Queen Victoria herself. That Cook was engaged to paint so many of the elite of Toronto suggests that his work was highly regarded.

From late 1836 to 1837, Cook tried to supplement his income as an agent for his brother Ransom and Ransom's business partner, Thomas Davenport, the latter a Vermont blacksmith who invented an "electro magnetic engine" which would one day receive the first US patent for an electric device. In the meantime Cook worked diligently to have the engine patented by the "Provincial Parliament" of Upper Canada, his letters to Ransom [see Letters from Canada, 1836-38] detailing his efforts. Despite the alleged sale of half of his acreage to support the campaign and his cultivation of Tory leadership (the Reformers, he wrote, "will all vote for it as a matter of course"), Cook would be unsuccessful, although it is likely that his legislative lobbying brought him some portrait commissions [see, eg, Robinson and Chief Assembly Clerk Alfred Patrick and his wife Tirzah Hopkins, herself the daughter of a legislator].

Perhaps frustrated by his failure as an agent, Cook wrote from Toronto in October of 1837, "Unhealthy place here -- health declining fast -- Esther says I will die soon -- both going home next summer, not to paint but to visit, gain health -- 3 or 4 months, time [with?] you all… -- must paint Parents portraits and last, not least, must paint you [Ransom], and have your picture wherever we are." Whether the Cooks made it to the USA for a visit in 1838 is not known, but family records say that the Cook's daughter, Marion, was born in Canada in 1839 (the 1860 census of Saratoga County, also place her birth there in the late 1830s). It was likely in 1839 that the family returned to New York, where Nelson continued his portraiture in various Upstate cities, especially Rochester. Here for a time he worked out of the Blossom Hotel and, later, the Crystal Palace Block on Main Street (he was able to move art materials from this location in advance of a fire which apparently leveled the area); for a short time he worked in Buffalo (ca 1853), where he had a studio at the Clarendon Hotel.

In the late '50s Cook returned to Saratoga for a time and may have taught art at Temple Grove Seminary, a school for young women on the eventual site of Skidmore College. Later he spent some twelve years in Rome, NY, where illness may have contributed to an ongoing decline in portrait commissions. Throughout his career Cook seems to have kept up with other artists, past and present. In a letter (New York, 1858) to Mansfield Walworth, in whom he apparently worked to create an appreciation of the arts, Cook cites Murillo's Madonna as the "most valuable work of Art in our country," one which reflected his own striving to capture on canvas "the human face divine." His personal art collection, apparently spare, included some works reflective of classical artists (eg, Titian, Carracci) and themes, as well as of more contemporary American painters such as Benjamin West and John Singleton Copley. His letters make occasional references, some not especially complimentary, to other contemporary portraitists (and their fees) who comprised his competition.


Esther Cook, ca 1853
Photo courtesy of H. A. Eastman
Cook's family life seems to have been close if austere and plagued by illness. His wife Esther (or Ester) Freeman, born in New York State and about the same age as Nelson, moved with Nelson from city to city and helped in his work by choosing colors, clothing textures, and background drapery in portraits (but see Special Note). He notes how he missed her help painting ladies' dresses when she fell ill, which seems to have been often; one of Nelson's letters (22 July 1877) mentions her failing health and a constant noise in her head. His Canadian-born daughter Marion apparently lived with or near the family for much of her life and, with her mother, made extended trips to Michigan (perhaps to stay with Nelson's brother Marcus, but certainly to Esther's cousin, lawyer Peter Morey, for four years that state's Attorney General with a home in the Tecumseh/Adrian area). Marion was taught at home by Esther and, at least for a time, at an Academy in Adrian, MI, learned to read French, and took piano lessons.


Prof Frank B. Ellenwood and son Louis,
date unknown
Photo courtesy of H. A. Eastman
On 26 (31?) July 1860 Marion married Frank B. Ellenwood (b. MA, ca 1829; he may have been one of her music teachers) at home in Saratoga Springs; the officiating clergyman was Robert C. Rogers of Bethesda Episcopal Church. Both Marion and her husband were concert pianists who performed at various local and state functions; Professor Frank Ellenwood taught music at Temple Grove Seminary, later at Skidmore College in Saratoga and Houghton Seminary in Clinton, NY, and was an organist at churches in Utica, Rome, Little Falls, and Saratoga. Marion and Frank gave Nelson four grandchildren, Ransom C. ("Ransie," b. ca 1866), Frank B. Jr ("Frankie," b. ca 1872), Est(h)er Marion ("Essie," 27 Mar 1874 - 7 May 1970), and Louis Nelson Ellenwood (died in his late 20s, date and cause unknown). Although Marion outlived her father, Cook's letters suggest that his daughter suffered from a long bout of mental illness that he found "hard to bear."


Esther Marion Ellenwood Eastman,
c. 1897
Photo courtesy of H. A. Eastman
Cook's letters (alone) make reference to some portraits he did of his family, including several of brother Ransom, Ransom's wife, Rachel Ayres Cook (an original and a much later copy in the 1870s?), and his mother. Indeed, Nelson probably used portraits of relatives, such as those of Ransom and his family and those proposed in 1854 (but completed?) of Esther's cousin Peter Morey in Michigan, to offer some compensation for the financial and other assistance they provided. His paintings could also be used to flatter: "Your portrait [a copy of an earlier work?]," Nelson told Ransom in 1877, "waked up people very much. And to wake up Rome [NY], is much like galvanizing a corpse." Also while in Rome (1879) Cook worked to restore a painting of his daughter Marion he had done earlier in Saratoga but which had become streaked by water leaking through the roof into the parlor. Cook also may have done at least two self-portraits, one as a young man in 1832 and, perhaps, one in 1856 -- this is an open question (you decide!). On 9 September 1840 in Saratoga Springs, Cook and his wife had their silhouettes "cut" by August Edouart (1789-1861). This Frenchman created thousands of cut-out 'silhouettes' -- he coined the term -- of prominent Europeans and (1839-49) Americans. Although much of Edouart's work was lost at sea, the Cook silhouettes may well be extant (see Jackson, Ancestors in Silhouette).

Like his immediate and extended family, the artist himself suffered from illness, although when younger he claimed he kept working as long as he didn't fall out of his chair. He complained of ill-health while in Toronto [see above], and the same letter to Ransom [19 Oct 1837] suggests he had become a "tetotalist" [sic] after what may have been a drinking problem several years earlier. The Rochester fire which took some of his painting "specimens" and nearly destroyed his studio exhausted him from "overexertion" for a period of time in 1854. During his years in Rome, NY, Cook was quite ill, complaining in 1875 of a "nervous disorder." However, by April of 1877 he admitted a weakness which made it hard for him to carry his satchel on a trip to the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. This apparently was the result of a hernia and internal abscess which led him to write Ransom (Nov, 1877) that he felt his "painting days are nearly over." The details of this affliction are gruesome: "My hernia is worse," he writes. "The number of times each day I am obliged to manipulate the intestines to get it out of the scrotum... and adjust the truss, increase. The intestine has greatly increased in size when out, so the manipulation gives me more pain. There appears to be no relief for scrotocele [a hernia in the scrotum], especially after the age of 70." The abscess broke on 6 Dec 1877, and Cook apparently recovered fully (but see below).

Money is also a constant theme of Cook's letters to his brother Ransom. His Canada letters suggest he lost money during his efforts to patent the Davenport engine, although his portrait commissions in these years apparently pulled him "near out of debt" [letter to Ransom, 19 Oct 1837]. But generally Cook portrays himself as chronically in debt, a circumstance not unusual for artists. Typically for those in his profession, Cook was forced to cultivate patrons in various locales to present his skills to potential sitters, preferably wealthy [see Alice Chester (1854)]. Although he claimed to be doing better than some of his competitors, the rates Cook charged for his work seem paltry by modern standards: In 1854 a "bust" (head and shoulders) of a child cost $35; an adult bust: $50; a full portrait: $70 or more; he told Ransom he earned only $1817 in a twenty-two month period between 1851 and 1853; rent for his studios in Rochester cost Cook $75 annually. Nelson regularly sought to borrow funds from Ransom, whose business evidently prospered; even after apparent failure in Canada, the artist apparently served as his brother's representative in New York cities while he sought portrait work. In 1854 Cook negotiated with his brother for a loan with which to purchase a piano for his daughter, Marion, suggesting that Ransom take a mortgage for the instrument and promising not to build on his property in Saratoga until the debt was paid. In 1875, while ill in Rome, NY, Cook pursued that financial gambit again, negotiating a chattel mortgage for $51.83 (perhaps $1000 today) on many of his personal possessions, including furniture, tableware, (some? all? of) his personal art collection (with an engraving of Sir Francis Bond Head), and artist equipment (a sitter's chair, paints, easels, etc.).


Cook parlor, date unknown
Photo courtesy of H. A. Eastman
Cook's letters suggest an embittered, even sycophantic individual as he aged, promoted perhaps by health and financial difficulties. He claims to be routinely cheated by his clients and others [see Charles Miller Williams and Alice Chester, both 1854]. "In evil, Saratoga is a paradise compared with Rochester," he wrote. "Half...of the merchants clerks here, steal -- and also their masters." In 1877 he tells Ransom his brother's portrait (which one?) is the best he has ever done and writes from Rochester: "However poor I may remain through life, I had rather you would make a fortune than any other man in the world." Earlier, in March of 1860, he had written: "...I am often reminded of the time when I was wadeing [sic] in the dark-rolling waters of the stream of life: And I sunk deeper and deeper...: and some sharks came around me, biting me until I bled; and they would have drawn me under and destroyed me; but you interposed, and protected me. I forget it not!... I trust that the time may come when I shall be able to ford the stream alone." Alas, that time never came....

His letters to Ransom reveal other aspects of Cook's personality, perhaps because he feels he can speak freely to his brother. By the mid-1850s he is clearly disillusioned with organized religion and is relentless in his criticism of the clergy, whom he accuses of "avarice, laziness, vain pride, egotism, Dogmatism, one-idea-ism, Dictatorialness, tyranny, cruelty, injustice, falsehood, slander, gluttony, intemperance, and libertinism" (all of which he admits he keeps from clients). To add to Cook's irritation, a churchman apparently had begun a portrait of Marion but left it unfinished to attend a revival -- was it this which led him to forbid Marion (for a time at least in 1854) to attend Sunday school or Bible class? To Cook the Catholic clergy is the most suspect, and he is distressed when some of Reuben Walworth's children, under the influence of the Chancellor's second wife Ellen (1857) convert to Catholicism. His attendance at church is rare, and the artist does not hesitate to paint on Sunday when pressed for time. However, before that decade was out he apparently had a change of heart: While in 1854 he deemed himself a "Deist," the records of the Bethesda Episcopal Church indicate he was baptized on 9 October 1857 and confirmed on 29 April 1858. It was about this time that Nelson gave to his daughter Marion an inscribed Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, a gesture which, like his baptism and confirmation, would seem to support a change of Cook's heart with regard to organized religion. (At some point he also gave his wife Esther a Bible.)

Cook's religious views apparently influenced his politics: In 1854 he said he had left the Whigs in favor of the "Know Nothing" or, later, the "American" Party. This was a significant admission (albeit to Ransom, whom he urged to join), since "Know Nothings" originally were a secret, oath-bound society based largely on nativist, anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant beliefs (Cook's claim at that time that he was "a democrat [small 'd']; and a Republican to the core" was apparently a general statement of philosophy, not yet reflective of affiliation with a political party). Is it a coincidence that ex-President Millard Fillmore became the American Party's presidential candidate in 1856 and that Cook may have painted (1845-52) Fillmore's son? In 1861 he expressed support for abolitionists and Lincoln, hoping southern rebels "will get their just deserts," and after the Civil War Cook cast his lot with the Republican Party. He complained to Ransom that brothers Truman and Marcus and brother-in-law Ira Millard (sister Mary Ann's husband) "still crawl with the Copperheads [northern Democrats with Southern sympathies]" and (out of sympathy with his clients?) scorned radical "Greenbackers." In 1880, the year before Ransom's death, Nelson and his brother took some comfort that they outnumbered their political opponents in the family "5 Republicans to 3 Copperheads." (It is interesting that brother Truman in Washington seemed not to return such apparent ill-will, saying of Nelson that his "heart always was open to the good and the true" [Truman>Ransom, 1870]).

Cook has been described as an "occasional poet," and he may have viewed poetry as his true calling. He apparently dreamed of publishing a volume of his verse, which he used to describe the pastoral scenes he missed painting as a portraitist -- perhaps in his mind more a business than a passion. But in an 1877 letter to Ransom, he mentions that he has painted a landscape (he dubbed it the Salvator, perhaps a reference to the 17th century Italian artist Salvator Rosa, whose "sublime" landscapes influenced Thomas Cole and perhaps other landscapists); during much of Cook's career portraits and not landscapes provided income for American artists, which may explain why Cook wanted to crate the Salvator and ship it to London.

His poetry appeared in newspapers of the day. These lines are from a sonnet of Cook's in the Saratoga Whig (4 Feb 1848), perhaps written during a visit to Clinton County to see Ransom, then working on the new State prison there:

Mount Dannemora! from thy towering hight,
O'er a wild country far down lookest thou:
Thy stately trees swayed before the night,
Of tempests for a century, doth bow
And yield at last....

The Rochester Daily Union published several of his poems during his extended stay in that city:
From "Summer," 24 June 1854:

'Tis early morn; the orient light
Begins to glow round Horus' car;
Waves o'er his steeds a banner bright,
Glad Herald in his path afar!

See, o'er the mountain's burnished height
The clouds with golden fringe unfurled;
Th' unwearied orb of day and light,
Ascends, exulting o'er the world!

From "The Hills of Corning," 14 September 1854:

A few short years ago the forest tall
Stood 'neath this sunny sky,
Where stately edifice and spacious Hall
Now greet the trav'ler's eye--
Where winds the blue Chemung,
Oft sweetly sung.

Upon the hill's broad slope a village stands,
And on the river's shore,
Where furious, harnessed in huge iron bands,
With Neigh and deaf'ning roar
The steam horse rushes by,
And seems to fly!

Clearly dissatisfied with limited newspaper exposure, Cook sought -- unsuccessfully, it seems -- publication in magazines (Harper's, Appleton's) and in 1871 asked Ransom to recommend him to an editor. He wrote some of his descriptive poetry based on information from others, and on at least one occasion this led to the inclusion of inaccurate poetic images and some serious self-criticism: "I have published so much trash," he wrote. "I sincerely repent of it. Yet I was not alone -- a vast multitude joined me in doing the same thing. It is a poor excuse however." Obviously serious about his poetry [See Alice Chester (1854)], Cook threatened to burn all of his poems in Ransom's presence; while it is not clear whether he actually followed through, family archives do suggest that he continued to versify. When daughter Marion gave birth to Esther (27 March 1874), an obviously proud "Grandpa" wrote "A New Arrival":

Although we nothing knew about
The 'fingers' or the 'curl,'
We both are glad as glad can be,
To learn it is a girl...

The letter brought that lock of hair --
It is a pretty brown;
And is so fine, a breath of air
It feels, like cygnets down....

Her little arms and shoulders are --
And face -- developed well:
The graceful figure she may have,
The coming years will tell.


Nelson Cook, date unknown
Photo courtesy of H. A. Eastman
Cook's final years were spent in Saratoga Springs, where for a time he seems to have moved between various lodgings and finally into a home at 102 Woodlawn Avenue; the City Directory of 1892 still lists his occupation as Artist. It appears, too, that Ransom's estate after his death in 1881 paid Nelson a monthly (?) stipend of at least $20. Obituaries and death notices of his passing in Saratoga Springs appeared in a number of newspapers, including the Albany Argus (31 July 1892), Rochester Chronicle (30 July 1892), Utica Morning Herald (29 July 1892), Albany Evening Journal (30 July 1892), Rome Daily Sentinel (28 July 1892), and Boston Transcript (29 July 1892), the latter apparently suggesting to some that his place of birth was Boston. His death certificate gives the time of death as 9:30 am and his age as 83y, 9m, 20d; he died of chronic nephritis (inflammation and possible destruction of internal structures of the kidneys) with jaundice; a Dr. Humphrey attended Cook from 24 May - 27 July 1892. A private funeral service was conducted by the Rev. Joseph Carey of Bethesda Episcopal Church in Saratoga; the funeral director was Holmes Funeral Company. Esther Cook was buried on 18 February 1893 at a given age of 85, according to church records; daughter Marion Ellenwood passed away in Saratoga in 1927.

The precise gravesite of Nelson Cook and his immediate family is unknown, perhaps obscured by misplaced records and even vandalism. The search continues, however. It is nearly certain that he is buried in Greenridge Cemetery in Saratoga (his death certificate places his grave there), although probably not in the "seashell" enclosure designed by Ransom for much of the Cook family. Nelson, forever the poet, wrote verses to "Greenridge Cemetery" as he and Ransom philosophized about old age and death (1880):

How blest is the place where the forms now remaineth,
Which once walked before us, in beauty and bloom...


Gravesite of many of the Cook family in Greenridge Cemetery, Saratoga Springs, NY. The unusual tombstone in the shape of a seashell was designed by Ransom Cook; the names of family members are carved on the ribs of the shell, although they are badly worn and illegible to the naked eye. It is not known whether Nelson, Esther and Marion rest here; investigation to confirm their gravesite(s?) continues.

Known Home & Work Addresses:


102 Woodlawn Avenue, Saratoga. Nelson Cook apparently spent his final months here and it is likely that he died in this house. Daughter Marion Ellenwood and her husband Frank may have lived here after the artist's death.