George Ropes, born in Salem, Massachusetts, was a deaf mute. He was one of nine children of a sea captain, George Ropes, Sr., and Seethe (Millet) Ropes and had one sister who suffered from the same affliction as he. The artist lived in Salem almost his entire life, except for the years 1798 to 1801, when his father decided to try his hand at farming in Orford, New Hampshire. He was apparently not successful and brought his family back to Salem.
The first reference to George, Jr., as a painter was in 1802, when he was only fourteen years old. The diary of William Bentley, an indispensable document for any study of Salem history, states: “Mr. George Ropes’ dumb boy is very successful at painting. He is instructed by Cornè, an Italian artist in Salem.” Michele Felice Cornè (1752-1845) was born on the island of Elba and came to America in 1799, settling in Salem until 1806, when he moved to Boston. Cornè is known for portraits, landscapes, depictions of naval engagements, ship portraits, fireboards, and mural decorations. Like his master, Ropes preferred landscape, ship portraiture, and marine subjects, but he is not known to have painted likenesses. The young painter followed his teacher’s example closely, copying Cornè’s works directly on at least two occasions. Although he never quite attained Cornè’s proficiency, perhaps because his career was brief, his works at their best have sometimes been confused with his mentor’s.
In mid 1807 Captain Ropes died at sea, leaving George, Jr., to support the family. To supplement his income, he took up sign and carriage painting, yet he continued to produce marine views and landscapes as well as paintings documenting events in Salem history. George Rope’s career was cut short by consumption, which took his life, at the age of thirty.
Many of Ropes’ paintings have remained in Salem, where he is represented in the collections of the Peabody Museum and the Essex Institute. His most successful works are treasured for their historical accuracy and wealth of minute detail. [This is an edited version of the artist’s biography published, or to be published, in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]