Although born in England in 1780, John Wesley Jarvis was the son of an American mariner who moved his family back to the United States by the mid-1780s. At the end of that decade, the Jarvises settled in Philadelphia, where the artist spent his childhood and began his artistic training. He is known to have frequented the studio of the aging Matthew Pratt and he knew the Danish painter, Christian Gullager, but his formal instruction did not begin until around 1796, when he became apprenticed to Edward Savage. Jarvis later claimed that he learned little from his disagreeable master; his time spent with David Edwin, an English engraver also employed by Savage, proved much more beneficial.
Jarvis moved to New York with Savage by 1801, but within a year he was working on his own as an engraver. In 1803 he entered into a partnership with Joseph Wood which lasted seven years. Together they executed engravings, miniatures, and larger portraits. Jarvis had learned the technique of miniature painting from Edward Malbone, and by the time of the Wood partnership, he was also producing his first oil paintings. In addition, he operated a drawing school for a time and executed inexpensive silhouette portraits.
In 1809 Jarvis married Betsy Burtis (who died four years later, leaving him with two children). Within a year of his marriage, however, he parted with his family in order to seek portrait commissions in Baltimore. Although he made occasional trips back to New York, he remained in Baltimore for several years. While New York always remained his home base, he continued his habit of extended residences in other cities for most of the rest of his life. During the 1820s and 30s, for example, he sought work in South Carolina, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Washington, Virginia, Ohio, and Georgia. His apprentice, Henry Inman, probably accompanied him on these trips until his term of service ended in 1822.
Jarvis had risen to the top of his profession in 1814, when he took over an unprecedented commission for six full-length portraits of the naval heroes of the War of 1812 for the City of New York (Gilbert Stuart had given up the important project after a dispute with the patrons). For over a decade, he remained the premier portrait painter in New York, with important ties to the political, mercantile, and cultural elite. Yet Jarvis was also something of a social outsider, known for his ostentatious dress, flippant manner, and propensity to consume alcohol. He was celebrated as a hilarious story-teller, and his ties to the theater world were many. As early as the 1820s, however, he received some personal setbacks; in 1823 he was sued successfully by his apprentice John Quidor for breach of contract, and the following year he lost custody of his children in a court battle with his estranged second wife. A decade later, in 1834, he suffered a debilitating stroke while in New Orleans. Partially paralyzed and mentally incapacitated, he spent the rest of his life in New York City, cared for by his sister, Elizabeth Child. He died in 1840. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published, or to be published, in the NGA Systematic Catalogue