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Early engraving of Tompkins H. Matteson's painting, Spirit of '76, an oil painting created by Matteson in 1845.

Matteson opened a painting studio in New York City during the 1840s and within a few years, sold his first painting, The Spirit of ’76, to the American Art Union, establishing his career. His personal idiosyncrasies brought him additional notoriety, such as his fondness for wearing an unusual steeple-crowned hat and short mantel, which led to the nickname the Pilgrim-Painter.  Matteson’s success with the American Art Union prompted the 1847 painting of the interior of the Tabernacle, an enormous Congregational Church on lower Broadway, where the Union’s annual prizes were announced and distributed (see below).

By 1850, Matteson tired of New York and moved upstate to Sherburne, New York. He married, raised a large family, and became an active member of the community, serving as President of the School Board, Representative to the State Legislature, and the local Fire Chief, while also painting.