Although George Washington Mark, Artisan, lived and worked most of his lifetime in his adopted town of Greenfield, Massachusetts, practically none of his authenticated paintings exist in that vicinity. His gallery collection of thirty-three paintings was purchased in 1935 by a New York department store, and today these paintings are in museums and notable private collections.
Mark was born in Charlestown, New Hampshire, in 1795. Prior to his arrival in Greenfield in 1817, he was a sailor on a coasting schooner. He must have learned the rudiments of painting previously, for in 1818 he advertised in the Franklin Herald that he "has commenced House Painting in its various branches and pledges that nothing on his part shall be wanting to give satisfaction." He added that he also did sign and fancy chair painting. Considering that so little is known of his earlier years, it is fortunate that Mark believed in the worth of advertising. Because of his consistent advertising through the years, we are able to follow his progress to a certain extent and obtain an insight into his character and idiosyncrasies. Just when he began painting portraits and landscapes is not known, but from advertisements it is reasonable to assume that his ambition to become more than a house and sign painter may date from the twenties.
Greenfield in those days was visited by many traveling entertainers and itinerant artists, who stayed as long as business warranted. The continuous influx of artists, including Augustus Fuller and later Joseph Goodhue Chandler as well as many others, may have had something to do with Mark's decision to try his hand at landscapes and portraiture, the latter a phase of painting that he found did not pay. From the portraits available for study one might conclude that he was unable to reach a satisfying formula. A painting of a little girl stepping through the doors shows an uncertainty in the handling of the facial features which may account for his failure as a portraitist, though the over-all aspect is charming.
An advertisement of January 1820 shows that Mark was plagued with the difficulties and trials that are ever present in business. To his regular announcement he adds, "I would also inform those who are owing me small accounts, that my paint scraper is about worn out and they must pay me so I can get a new one." His life was never very easy, and the demands of earning a living required him to be a signpainter until his death.
Mark possessed a remarkable vocabulary, which confirms the fact that he is said to have been well read. His November 1821 advertisement reveals his intellectual side, his idealism, a flair for the dramatic, and some degree of egoism, as well as an underlying hint of having found the public non-appreciative of his efforts:
ENCOURAGE THE ARTS
I lay this down as a fundamental maxim of State policy. Show me the nation that has practiced upon this Precept, and I will point you to a people distinguished for their wealth and prosperity. Time was when the efforts of the Pencil and Chisel were regarded and produced works that were the admiration of the age; — but that was at a period when merit was encouraged and genius rewarded — But how is it in this country — Here the inspirations of genius are chilled by the frosts of indifference, avarice and neglect. But I will not yet despair of my country, she will yet be just — encouraged by this hope, I again offer my services to the public as a Painter, and solicit their patronage. Having devoted some time in studying the recipes of the ancients and claiming some knowledge of the properties and affinities of paints, I have no hesitation in saying, that I think I can produce those delicate shades - those unfading tints and colors that give such celebrity to the Grecian Pencil. This has long been considered a desideration in modern painting, and the advantages of it in Coach, Sign and House Painting are obvious. At present I am in want of a quantity of Hog's Bristles, for which I will pay a liberal price, in any work in the line of my profession.
Subsequent advertisements dealt with different phases of his work, including the imitation of stone and wood and also scenery painting (possibly fresco work). In December 1848 he announced the opening of his gallery, situated where the Mansion House now stands - our first real indication that he was engaged in other than commercial work. In view of the fact that the exhibition included twenty-six paintings, it would seem that Mark had been working on canvas for some time. He announced to the public:
MARK'S GALLERY OF OIL PAINTINGS
The Dying Greek and twenty-five other Paintings, forming the present gallery will close in three weeks more. Admittance 25 cts. The second exhibition will be the most magnificent mountain, bay and river scenery in America, forming the largest collection ever offered for public inspection. Single admission 12 cts. Season ticket 25 cts. N.B. The gallery will be warmed Tuesdays and Fridays through winter.
By 1849 he had issued a catalogue listing thirty-three paintings by number and in some cases a title as well. The numerals were painted on the front lower right corner or the back of each canvas. If he signed a painting - which was unusual - it was G.W. MARK on the reverse side. In the catalogue some titles were followed by a verse, as was the case with his ‘Dismal Swamp’ now owned by Walter P. Chrysler, Jr., considered one of his best presentations. All had similar frames, six inches wide and covered with burnt orange velvet with gilt half round borders.
Mark's choice of subject matter reveals his love for this country and its past history. He may have resorted to prints and other paintings for the basis of many scenes, but he painted them in his own way, with his individual feeling for form, composition, and color. Some of his works are quite lacking in perspective, while others show surprising depth. As a rule he was inclined to vivid colors, but the canvases that are limited to varying shades of two or three colors, like his ‘Pasamaquoddy Bay’ in which brown shades predominate, have considerable appeal. During his later period, many of the elder residents of Greenfield recall Mark. To them he was more familiarly known as "Count" Mark, a title that was undoubtedly apt because of his fastidiousness as to dress and perfection of manners. General Frederick E. Pierce, greatgrandson of Samuel Pierce, the well-known Greenfield pewterer, lived as a boy in the house opposite Mark's home and workshop. He describes Mark as a very tall, thin man with side whiskers, invariably wearing a linen (luster and carrying a yellow umbrella lined with green silk. Under his workbench Mark kept a metal coffin, purchased eight years before his death, which weighed some seven hundred pounds. Today Mark's eccentricities predominate in all recollections concerning him.
Mark was twice married. His first wife, Mary Ann (her last name is not known), came from Williamstown. His second marriage in 1862 was to Mary Torrey Temple Ball of Deerfield, an attractive twice-widowed woman. He had no children, but his great affection for them led to his adopting two girls and a boy. When Mark died, July 29, 1879, the obituary stated that in many respects lie was more than a man: he was one of the institutions of Greenfield.
In his own day there was a considerable difference of opinion as to the merit of Mark's paintings. The primitive nature of most of his work caused many to feel that he would do better to confine his efforts to the sign and other commercial painting in which all agreed that he excelled. An example of Mark's work as a sign painter is the large, colorful sign from the old Ahaz Tavern in Greenfield, which now hangs in Memorial Hall, Deerfield, together with a painting of the Indian House in Deerfield, both attributed to Mark with good justification. Certainly Mark was a versatile artisan. Unlike many of the lesser-known artists his efforts were not entirely in vain, for he won a posthumous acclaim that entitles him to a place among the more interesting primitive painters of the nineteenth century.