Aurore Eaton's Looking Back: Edward Custer: A life lived for the sake of art
The Swiss-born artist Edward L. Custer got his early start in Manchester as a "decorative artist," painting business signs and ornamental details on steam fire engines.
In 1860, at the age of 23, he set off for Europe to study painting in Germany and Switzerland. Under the tutelage of accomplished masters he learned how to translate nature's beauty to the canvas. After two years of study, he returned to Manchester to begin earning his living as a fine artist. Edward took several portrait commissions and began to sell his delicate landscapes of New Hampshire and Vermont scenes to eager patrons.
In 1864 Edward established a studio in downtown Boston near the Park Street Church, and he also married his childhood friend, Ruth A. Porter. Ruth was a cultured and accomplished young lady. She was born in Vermont and had come to Manchester at the age of 10 with her family. Here she attended public schools and graduated from the high school with high honors. She then continued her studies at the Normal School in New Britain, Connecticut. After graduating, she moved to New Haven, Connecticut, to take a teaching job. She returned to Manchester in 1847 to teach grammar school. Edward and Ruth enjoyed life in Boston but also kept in close contact with friends and family in Manchester.
A parade of patrons traveled to the Boston studio to sit for their portraits. Edward's representations of his subjects were admired for their fidelity to both to physical appearance and personality. He completed formal portraits of prominent judges, politicians, businessmen and other well-known people in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. These included future governors of New Hampshire Frederick Smyth, Moody Currier and Person C. Cheney. Edward also painted women and children with a particular delicacy. He sometimes took commissions to paint portraits of people who had passed away. He was admired for his ability to portray an accurate and sensitive likeness of a deceased person from a photograph, even it was faded or damaged. He liked animals, and was able to depict them in a delightful manner. His paintings of cattle were particularly prized.
In 1870 Edward and Ruth spent a year in Europe, so that Edward could work on improving his painting technique. The couple visited art museums and galleries in several cities in Germany, Holland and Italy. Edward was greatly inspired by the trip, and his paintings began to take on a new maturity and energy. According to the 1903 book State Builders, "On his return to America his work began to exhibit a style and vigor beyond the expectations of his warmest friends."
Sadly, Ruth took ill from tuberculosis, and after two years of suffering died in February 1878. The funeral was held at the home of Dr. Emil Custer on Hanover Street in Manchester. The casket was surrounded by floral tributes, including arrangements of lilies, azaleas, petunias and roses. An oil portrait of Ruth painted by her husband hung in the room, decorated with vines and flowers.
Edward spent a few months in Europe in 1879, and in 1880 he married his second wife, Mary McLure of Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was in the prime of life and extremely busy, juggling several portrait commissions simultaneously. In early January 1881 Edward suddenly began experiencing terrible headaches. On January 9 he collapsed and died at the age of 44. His death was mourned by everyone who knew him. In his obituary in the Boston Evening Transcript, it was stated, "To his friends Mr. Custer was more than the popular and successful painter; he was a man to be esteemed as a friend, to be loved. He was as simple as truth itself, prone to no artifice, vanity or envy…there are many homes where he will be missed like a brother. It is difficult to realize that we are no more to see his face, nor feel again the grasp of his honest hand."
Three of Edward L. Custer's portraits of Manchester people are currently on view in the Millyard Museum in the temporary exhibit, "People You Should Know: Portraits from the Collection." Also, a self-portrait and a painting of Ruth Custer are on view in the Manchester Historic Association headquarters building.
Next Week: A Valley Cemetery Story — The highly accomplished Dana family.
Aurore Eaton is executive director of Manchester Historic Association; email her at firstname.lastname@example.org