William Rimmer, who lived between 1816 and 1879, was, among important American artists, the least amenable to esthetic or historical classification. This has blocked recognition of his striking genius, since the art historical establishment--critics, professors, museum curators, etc.-- are made uneasy by works that refuse to fit into established esthetic categories. Thus Thomas F. Stebbins, curator of Amen* can art at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, mourns the impossibility of locating Rimmer "within the context" of other mid-nineteenth-century American art.
Explanations of Rimmer's peculiarities can be found if we look outside the acceptable scope of esthetic criticism. His father considered himself the rightful king of France, and the artist as the eldest son was in succession to the crown.
During the Terror, Louis XVII and Marie Antoinette were publicly guillotined, but their heir, the Dauphin, was said to have died in prison. It was, however, rumored that he had been spirited off and hidden away by royalists who hoped eventually to put him on the throne. But, in the need for secrecy and in the revolutionary confusion, he had got lost. This situation permitted many individuals--including Audubon--who judged themselves superior to their supposed birth, to wonder whether they were not "the lost Dauphin." Usually, this speculation, as in Audubon's case, was taken more or less lightly, a spice to living. But Rimmer's father made this self-identification into the core of his and his family's being.
After Napoleon had been defeated, the elder Rimmer waited hourly for the messenger who would kneel before him--but venal politicians crowned instead his "uncle" Louis XVIII. In despair the elder Rimmer married an Irish serving-girl, set up as a cobbler, and drifted to America. When the future artist was ten, the family settled in a Boston slum. Believing that they were in daily danger from Louis XVIII's assassins, they lived in utter isolation, moving behind locked doors in a private world. The father made each of his seven children a silver flute, read them romances, and urged them to re-enact old battles. Poverty tattered