Thomas Hovenden was known for his paintings that conveyed the value of everyday activities involving community, home and family. He was born in 1840 in Ireland and placed in an orphanage at the age of six after the death of his parents who died during the Irish Potato Famine. In 1855 he began an apprenticeship in a carving and gilding shop, where his innate creativity was soon recognized. He began formal training at the Cork School of Design, where he honed his drawing skills and immigrated in 1863 to the United States. In New York, he studied at the National Academy of Design School where he supported himself by coloring photographs and making frames. After moving to Baltimore, Hovenden met the prominent collector William T. Walters, whose encouragement and support persuaded him to study in France. In 1874 he enrolled in the École des Beaux-Arts and studied with renowned neo-classical painter Alexandre Cabanel, with whom he developed his abilities in painting the figure.
While still in France, Hovenden met Helen Corson, a young artist from a distinguished Philadelphia family who was then studying art at the Académie Julian. The couple returned to the United States in 1880, and that same year participated in the Philadelphia Society of Artists’ Second Annual Exhibition, held at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA). Corson and Hovenden married in 1881, settling on the Corson estate at the intersection of Germantown Pike and Butler Pike in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania.
The Corson estate originally comprised three buildings: a house, barn and meeting house known as Abolition Hall. Before the Civil War, Abolition Hall served as a stop on the Underground Railroad and was a frequent meeting place for anti-slavery meetings where activists such as William Lloyd Garrison and Lucretia Mott spoke. Hovenden used Abolition Hall as his studio, painting scenes from American history and becoming one of the nation's most famous artists. There he painted his famous works, Breaking Home Ties, now in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which was voted the favorite painting at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago; and The Last Moments of John Brown, on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Abolition Hall still stands today.
Hovenden was an established figure in the Philadelphia art scene at the end of the 19th century. He was appointed professor of painting and drawing at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1886, replacing Thomas Eakins, who had been forced to resign. His students included Alexander Stirling Calder and Robert Henri. He died suddenly in 1895 in a train accident.