Thomas Hovenden overcame a difficult childhood to become one of the most successful American artists of the late nineteenth century. Born in Dunmanway, Ireland, at the age of six Hovenden lost his parents to the potato famine and grew up in an orphanage in County Cork. Hovenden was apprenticed to a master gilder and carver who, recognizing the teen’s skill, encouraged him to enroll in the Cork School of Design in 1858. Five years later, Hovenden immigrated to the United States, where he was reunited with his older brother. He enrolled in night classes at the National Academy of Design and became an illustrator for Harper’s. In 1874, Hovenden made his way to Paris, where he studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in the studio of the French academic painter Alexandre Cabanel (1823-89). Hovenden also spent time at the American artists’ colony at Pont-Aven, Brittany, painting rural subjects. Hovenden returned to the United States in 1881, and the following year he was elected a full member of the National Academy of Design. After Thomas Eakins was forced to resign his teaching post at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Hovenden succeeded him, teaching there from 1886 until 1888, and becoming a mentor to Robert Henri, founder of the so-called Ashcan School. Hovenden reached the pinnacle of his success in 1893, when Breaking Home Ties (1890, Philadelphia Museum of Art) was voted the most popular painting at the fair. Two years later, Hovenden’s life was tragically cut short when he was struck by a train while trying to rescue a child from the tracks.
Study of a Man with a Grindstone belongs to a lineage that includes William Sidney Mount’s Who’ll Turn the Grindstone (1851, Long Island Museum), Francis W. Edmonds’ The Scythe Grinder (1856, The New-York Historical Society), and Eastman Johnson’s Sharpening the Scythe (ca. 1865, Brooklyn Museum of Art). The three latter canvases, which all depict a young boy turning the grindstone for a grown man, derive from the story by Charles Miner (1780-1865) first published in 1810, entitled Who’ll Turn Grindstone, in which an adult flatters a young boy into doing the hard work of turning the wheel, causing him to be late for school. In Hovenden’s study, however, there is no boy to turn the grindstone, and the implement of labor ironically becomes a thing of leisure, providing a perch for the old farmer to rest upon.