Erastus Dow Palmer was born on April 2, 1817, in Pompey, N.Y. He was one of seven children to Gershom Palmer, a carpenter, and Ruth Randall. They lived on his grandfather’s farm until 1826 when they moved to Utica where he quit school and apprenticed for his father. Throughout his childhood, Palmer showed signs of his artistic talent and was known to carve animals out of wood. These skills came useful when he was asked to design the staircase for a church in Dunkirk off the coast of Lake Erie in the late 1830s.
In 1839 he married Matilda Alton of Dunkirk. The following year she gave birth but died as a result of childbirth, with their son dying shortly as well. Heartbroken he returned to Utica where he remarried in 1843 to Mary Jane Seaman. Together they had one son and two daughters. Palmer continued to make carvings in his spare time and eventually do a cameo of his wife out of a conch shell, which had become a popular art form in the 19TH century.
He took his carvings to a local art collector, Thomas Walker, who became his first patron and commissioned him to do a cameo of his wife. Walker persuaded him to look at other forms of carving, like sculpture; in 1846, he financed a trip to for Palmer to visit New York City. During the trip Palmer purchased art materials and met Walker’s cousin, the painter Samuel F.B. Morse, and president of the National Academy of Design. Morse later became known for inventing the telegraph and co-develop the Morse code. Walker also introduced him to the marble carver Robert Launitz, as well as educator and patron of the arts Edward Salisbury. Salisbury’s collection of neoclassical sculpture immediately influenced Palmer’s work.
He worked for a time in New York City; however, he struggled to find a client base in New York and returned upstate. His 1848 conch cameo “Virginia” gave him the title “pre-eminent executor of cochiglia portraits” but began to branch out the following years focusing on full-length figures. His first sculpture was of his daughter and is titles Infant Ceres. He went on to a full-length pieced which he called Mariner’s Wife which resulted in him shifting his work in this medium. Palmer went on to establish a studio in Albany and was referred to as “the sculptor of the city” by the Albany Evening Journal. He hired several apprentices, many who later served successfully are careers on their own; Charles Calverley, John Scott Hartley, and T.H. Matteson. For a time Charles’ brother worked for him but died as a fatality in the Civil War.
Some of his pieces followed in the neoclassical style, like Indian Girl or Dawn of Christianity(1855). The piece received so much acclaim that under the suggestion of Asher Durand and William Cullen Bryant, Palmer mounted his first solo exhibition. Twelve of his pieces were on display at the Church of the Divine Unity in New York City and proved to be financially successful to Palmer. In addition to Indian Girl, one of the sculptures shown in the exhibit was titled, Erastus Corning.
Palmer went on to do numerous other pieces: White Captive (1858), Memory (1859), Little Peasant (1859), and Immortality(1859). During the Civil War, one of his pieces was titled Peace in Bondage (1863). His most controversial piece came in 1865 which is on the grounds of Albany Rural Cemetery near the Corning family plot. Angel at the Sepulchre was done for the wife of Robert Lenox Banks, treasurer of New York Central Railroad. His sculpture caused a great deal of attention as the angel was a male and Palmer’s critics argued that angels were either female or cherubs. He reputed their claim citing that archangels Gabriel and Michael, and at one point Lucifer, were all male angels.
He received an honorary degree in from Union College in 1873 which shifted a tranistion from marble to bronze. He was commissioned to do a bronze statue of Robert Livingston, who helped negotiate the Louisiana Purchase while serving as the U.S. Minister to France. Completed in 1874 two statues exist of Livingston, on in the U.S. Capitol Hall of Statues, and another in the New York State Court of Appeals. Some of his other pieces include include The New York State of Arms (1886), The Fort Orange Club Arms (1886), Thomas W. Olcott (1886), and one of his last pieces Thomas McCredie (1892).
Palmer died on March 9, 1904, and buried in the Reynolds family plot, with their monument designed by Marcus T. Reynolds. His son, Walter Laurent Palmer, followed in his father’s footsteps as an artist, working as an American Impressionist painter and studied with Charles Loring Elliott, a family friend.