Genesee County has been home to many great artists over its 200-plus year history. The arts community within Genesee County truly coalesced in the early to mid-20th century. However, someone that is often overlooked began his career much earlier in the 19th century. His name was Noah North, and he became one of the more well-known artists of the early American folk movement during the 1830s and 1840s.
North was born on June 27, 1809, in Alexander, soon after his parents had purchased land from the Holland Land Company. The family was originally from Connecticut before living for a short time in Syracuse. Noah North, Sr. was a farmer and was heavily involved in the local civic affairs of Alexander and Genesee County. Most notably, he was instrumental in establishing a public library in Alexander. The North’s grew to be successful farmers, which was represented by the number of prizes they would win at the agricultural fairs throughout the county, which included livestock, produce, and even textiles. Noah, Jr. would carry on this tradition of community involvement well into his adulthood.
North, however, would first follow his interest in art and painting and began studying and training under established local artists beginning in his early twenties. His first teacher was a man by the name of Van Rensselaer Hawkins, who was an itinerant painter and art teacher who had moved to Alexander around 1830. North later became a student of Milton W. Hopkins, a native of Albion, whose style he followed very closely. Hopkins and North were very similar in their trades and interests. Hopkins was also a farmer and teacher, whose artistic talents manifested in many forms including: house and sign painting, gilding, glazing, and chair making. He was also heavily involved in church and civic affairs even operating a stop on the Underground Railroad upon moving to Cincinnati.
Noah North would eventually leave Alexander and went on to work in Ohio as a portraitist in the late 1830s. His career as a portrait painter was short only lasting through the 1830s, as there are no signed paintings beyond 1840. However, the call of home would bring him back to New York in 1841. That year he married Ann C. Williams of Darien, and moved to Mount Morris. It was there that he began advertising his services as an ornamental painter. North soon became infatuated with a new medium, the daguerreotype, the first widely available photographic process. The technique had just been recently established and North soon learned the technique staying on the cutting edge of the portrait taking business. He opened his first daguerreotype gallery or studio on Main Street in Mount Morris in 1845. In his later years, he would focus less on his artistic and business pursuits, and more on his family, farm, and community projects. Noah North died on June 15, 1880, in Attica. He was described then as a “farmer, manufacturer of lumber, painter and teacher, who served on the board of education.”
Noah North’s paintings are often seen in major folk art exhibitions across the country. Some of his works have been on display at the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester, Genesee Country Museum, and the New York State Historical Association in Cooperstown. His works are also part of the collections of the National Gallery of Art, the Museum of American Folk Art, Shelburne Museum in Vermont and Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts.
Ryan Duffy is executive director of the Holland Land Office Museum in Batavia. His column appears twice a month in The Daily News.