John Carlin (1813–1891)

Pioneering Deaf Painter, Writer, Poet, and Public Sign-Speaker

By Amy Spencer

The success of Carlin’s colorful and detailed portraits allowed him to campaign successfully for the advanced education of deaf people in the United States.

I. Biography
II. Chronology
III. Collections
IV. Exhibitions
V. Memberships
VI. Notes
VII. Suggested Resources

I. Biography


Painter and writer John Carlin, who was profoundly deaf from early infancy, was a ground-breaking advocate for the advancement of deaf and mute people in America. Born in the early nineteenth century, Carlin studied art in the United States, England, and France, before returning to the United States to launch a successful career as a painter of portraits, landscapes, and genre scenes. Carlin also produced poems and other verse, which were highly regarded.

Carlin was born in Philadelphia in 1813. His father was a cobbler who struggled to find work to support the family. Carlin became deaf in infancy and, without the ability to communicate with or understand instruction from his parents, was left to roam the streets of Philadelphia.

In the late 1810s, a merchant and philanthropist named David Seixas founded an informal school for deaf children in his Philadelphia home. In 1820 Seixas found Carlin on the streets and brought him to his school. Around the same time, Seixas hired pioneering deaf teacher Laurent Clerc to help the fledgling school. Carlin thrived at the Mount Airy School (now the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf), learning reading, writing, sign language, and painting, which he loved.

After graduating in 1825 at the age of 12, Carlin supported himself as a sign and house painter. He continued to study and draw in his spare time and by age 19 had mastered five foreign languages. In 1834 Carlin studied portrait painting with John Neagle for four months. He also took additional evening classes under John Rubens Smith. In December 1834 Carlin set up his own studio at 17 Queen Street and was soon exhibiting portraits and genre scenes at the Artists’ Fund Society. For the next few years, Carlin painted mostly miniature portraits, producing up to thirty works a month.

Carlin sailed to London in 1838 where he studied the British Museum’s collection. He then travelled to Paris to study portraiture under academic painter Paul Delaroche. During his three years in Paris, Carlin created sketchbook illustrations for Paradise Lost and Pilgrim’s Progress. These drawings demonstrate that he had become a competent figure drawer under Delaroche’s instruction. Carlin also wrote his own verse while living in Paris and acted as a translator, using a pad and pencil, for other American students who could not speak French.

Carlin returned to America in 1941 and set-up a studio in New York. He returned to his work as a portraitist specializing in miniatures on ivory. Some of his first patrons were among prominent families of New York and through these connections he became friends with prominent figures such as Jefferson Davis, First Lady Jane Pierce, Senator Seward, statesman Hamilton Fish, and political advisor Thurlow Weed. Between 1841 and 1856, Carlin completed nearly two thousand miniatures. One of Carlin’s most famous portraits is of his teacher, Laurent Clerc. This painting was commissioned by the Kentucky School for the Deaf, and it still hangs in the school today.

In 1843 Carlin married Mary Wayland (a relative of President Abraham Lincoln's Secretary of State, William Henry Seward) who was also deaf. The couple raised five children together, none of who were hearing-impaired. Three years after his marriage, Carlin published his poem, “A Mute’s Lament” in the first issue of American Annals of the Deaf. He went on to publish many poems in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine and various newspapers. Carlin also wrote and illustrated a children’s book The Scratchside Family, in 1868. He also published an article, “The National College for the Deaf,” in The American Annals of the Deaf in 1854.

From the early 1850s, Carlin began actively participating in deaf community affairs in addition to painting. Carlin helped raise $6,000 to build St. Ann’s Episcopal Church for the Deaf in New York. Erected in 1852, this church was founded by Reverend Thomas Gallaudet, and was the first church for deaf people in the United States. Carlin was a member of this church for the next forty years.

Carlin was also secretary of the committee in charge of financing a monument to Thomas Gallaudet at the American Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb in Hartford, Connecticut. At the monument’s unveiling in 1858, Carlin gave an oration using sign language that was translated into speech. The New York Times commented on this notable event:

Mr. Carlin’s address occupied an hour in the delivery, and was listened to with close attention. The address of Mr. C. was a fine composition, consisting chiefly of a recapitulation of the introduction, rise and progress of the sign language – the good which it has done and is doing - and the life and services of the man to whose labors its success is owing in the United States. Mr. C. occasionally branched off to other themes indirectly connected with the subject of sign language, showing himself to be a man of general knowledge, a thinker and a lover of the beautiful.1

Carlin produced a bas-relief panel for the Gallaudet monument showing Gallaudet teaching deaf children finger spelling (these panels are currently installed in the lobby of the school).

As photography became increasingly popular in the late 1850s, demand for miniatures diminished. In a response to this decreasing market, Carlin began to focus on creating landscape and genre paintings. He was successful in both and known to have painted over sixty-five genre scenes over the course of his career. One of Carlin’s most famous works is After a Long Cruise (1857; The Metropolitan Museum of Art), which depicts a comical New York dock scene. Carlin’s extreme attention to detail in this painting attests to his work as a miniaturist. With works of this detail and precision, Carlin won admission to exhibit at the National Academy of Design between 1847 and 1886. He also entered his works into exhibitions at the American Art Union and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. After a prosperous life, Carlin contracted pneumonia and died on April 23, 1891. He was seventy-eight years old.

As a largely self-educated man—he had only four years of formal schooling––Carlin’s career as a painter and public figure was remarkable. His skill in miniatures earned him respect in a society that previously either ignored or pitied deaf people. Carlin then passionately utilized this recognition to advance the cause of higher education for deaf people. His New York Time’s obituary read, “In his efforts to better the condition of deaf-mutes Mr. Carlin was untiring . . .By those similarly afflicted he was greatly esteemed for his work on their behalf.”2 Today Carlin’s paintings are held in the collections of the New-York Historical Society, The Metropolitan Museum, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Smithsonian American Art Museum.

II. Chronology

1813 Born June 15 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
At a few years of age becomes deaf (Carlin’s younger brother Andrew also becomes deaf in infancy)
1820 David G. Seixas, a crockery merchant, founds the Mount Airy School (now the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf); Carlin and fifteen other deaf children become members of the first class
1825 Graduates from school and works as sign and house painter to support himself while studying art history and languages in his spare time
1834 Studies portrait painting with John Neagle for four months and takes evening drawing classes at John R. Smith’s academy; in December, opens his own studio at 17 Queen Street
1838 Sails to London and studies classical sculpture and old master paintings at the British Museum; later travels to Paris to study under Paul Delaroche
Illustrates Paradise Lost and Pilgrim’s Progress while attempting to create his own verse
1841 Returns to America and moves to New York City where he sets up a studio dedicated to miniature portrait painting
1842 Travels to Springfield, Massachusetts where he meets the Reverend B. O. Peabody who advises Carlin on his poetry
1843 Marries Mary Wayland of the family of President Abraham Lincoln's famous Secretary of State, William Henry Seward (the couple have five children together, none of who has a hearing impairment)
1847 Publishes “A Mute’s Lament” in the first issue of American Annals of the Deaf
1854 Publishes article, “The National College for the Deaf” in The American Annals of the Deaf
1864 Delivers an address in sign language at the inauguration of Gallaudet College (now Gallaudet University) in Washington, DC
Receives first honorary degree granted by Gallaudet College
Founds the Manhattan Literary Association of Deaf Mutes
1873 Heads the committee to raise funds for the building of the Gallaudet Home for the Aged and Infirm Deaf
1891 After several months of ill health, dies April 23, in his home at 212 West 25th Street

III. Collections

Cincinnati Art Museum
New-York Historical Society
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Maryland Historical Society
Smithsonian American Art Museum

IV. Exhibitions

1934 “International Exhibition of Fine and Applied Arts by Deaf Artists,” Roerich Museum, New York, NY
1989 “The Art of Trenton Falls,” Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, Utica, NY

V. Memberships

Manhattan Literary Association of the Deaf

VI. Notes

“The Deaf and Dumb; Interesting Ceremonies at Hartford. Convention of the Deaf and Dumb. Completion of the Monument to Gallaudet.” The New York Times, September 7, 1854, p. 4.
“Obituary”, The New York Times, April 24, 1891, Page 5.

VII. Suggested Resources

Caldwell, John, et. al, American Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Volume 1: A Catalogue of Works by Artists Born By 1815. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1994.
Lang, Harry G. and Meath-Lang, Bonnie, Deaf Persons in the Arts and Sciences: A Biographical Dictionary. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995, pp. 67–70.
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