George Washington Mark, sometimes called “Count Mark” or “The Count”, was born in Charlestown, New Hampshire, one of seven children of John and Hannah Mark. Mark may have served on a schooner before settling in the Connecticut Valley town of Greenfield, Massachusetts, in 1817. Shortly after his arrival there, he married his first wife, Mary Ann Skinner of Gill, Massachusetts. Mary Torrey Temple Ball, from Deerfield, Massachusetts became his second wife in 1862.
In Greenfield Mark first advertised his services as a house painter. As the years went by he added to his repertoire the occupations of sign and furniture painting, wood and stone imitation, picture framing, and other related activities. Mark’s advertisements from the period reveal an extensive vocabulary and talent for persuasive writing that suggest that he was well read.
It was perhaps in the 1830s, when Mark’s business was thriving and he had four house painters in his employ, that he indulged in art for the first time. Although it is not known precisely when he began, he apparently had been making pictures for some time before December 1848, when he announced the opening of an art gallery in his home devoted exclusively to his own paintings. His first exhibition, which ran for three weeks, was advertised as “The Dying Greek and twenty-five other paintings.” The artist charged visitors a quarter for admission. The following year Mark staged another exhibition, increasing the number of paintings to thirty-three and printing a catalogue, of which no copies are known today. The catalogue for Mark’s third exhibition, held in 1850, lists seventy-six works.
Although many of the works listed in the 1850 catalogue have been lost, the checklist sheds light on Mark’s subjects. The largest number are landscapes, some from his own experience such as Greenfield Street by Moonlight of 1848, and others, for example “six small Chinese paintings of Italian scenery,” likely based on prints. Second to landscape, Mark seems to have favored historical subjects. Less frequent were biblical themes, genre and literary subjects, and portraits.
The audacity of Mark, an untrained artist, presuming to charge twenty-five cents admission to view his work, earned him a reputation as a local oddity. By the time of the 1850 exhibition word had even traveled as far as New York City, and an art critic from Knickerbocker Magazine journeyed to Greenfield to see the show. The critic made scathing remarks deriding Mark’s incompetent rendering of the figure and his improper use of perspective and scale, all the while ridiculing the artist’s professional seriousness. These comments so wounded Mark’s pride that he closed his gallery and destroyed several paintings that had been vehemently criticized. No works dated after this time have been discovered. Little is known about the late years of Mark’s life except that he became decidedly more eccentric. He supposedly purchased his seven-hundred pound metal coffin eight years before his death, so as not to burden anyone else with such a detail, and used the top of it as a work table. He died in Greenfield on July 18, 1879. [This is an edited version of the artist’s biography published, or to be published, in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]