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Phineas Staunton was born in Wyoming, New York on September 23, 1817, the eldest son of a sheep and horse farmer. Largely a self-taught artist, in 1838 he registered at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts for “improvement of drawing.” Staunton enjoyed considerable success as a traveling portrait artist. In 1847 he married Emily Ingham of Le Roy, New York, and their extended honeymoon abroad served as a study tour for the artist to copy the great masters.

For many years Staunton taught painting at the Le Roy Female Seminary, a women’s college that his wife founded. In 1853 the artist changed the spelling of his name from "Stanton" to "Staunton." When the Civil War broke out, he joined the 100th Regiment of New York Volunteers, serving from 1861-1862. He fought at the Battle of Fair Oaks, obtaining the rank of lieutenant colonel. Throughout his career, Staunton pursued portraiture, and executed several paintings of Henry Clay—including a full-length portrait from life in New Orleans in 1847.

Staunton’s life ended prematurely at age 49, just one year after he completed Henry Clay in the U.S. Senate for the Kentucky competition. During an assignment as the illustrator for a prestigious scientific expedition to South America sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution, he contracted yellow fever and died in Quito, Ecuador, on September 5, 1867.