Portrait painter Washington Cooper was born near Jonesborough on September 18, 1802, the third of nine children. The family moved frequently, and young Cooper lived near Carthage and Shelbyville. He briefly received some art instruction in Murfreesboro before settling in Nashville in 1830. The next year Cooper went to Philadelphia to study and returned to Tennessee in 1832. According to his account books for the years 1837-48, Cooper averaged 35 portraits per year. At this rate he would have produced 2,100 portraits during his working life, perhaps making his sobriquet, “the man of a thousand portraits,” too modest by half.
In 1839 Cooper married Dublin native Ann Litton, who bore four children: James (1840-1843), James Litton (1844-1924), Kate (1846-1919), and Joseph Litton (1849-1936). A portrait of the last three children painted by their father is on exhibit at the Tennessee State Museum. The family still owns a portrait of Ann Litton Cooper, painted circa 1842. More introspective than his other work, this atypical portrait shows his wife in profile, seated and reading. The setting was most likely suggested by Fragonard's A Girl Reading, which Cooper may have seen as a print.
Cooper completed three large sets of commission portraits. The Tennessee Historical Society commissioned him to paint portraits of the Tennessee governors whose images were known, and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and the Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of Tennessee also commissioned portraits of their leaders. The governors' portraits are exhibited in the Capitol and in the Tennessee State Museum. The Masonic portraits are in the Grand Lodge in Nashville, but the bishops' portraits burned during a fire at Vanderbilt University in 1905.
The Tennessee State Museum has more than 50 works by Cooper. One of the most interesting is a self-portrait which he completed in 1885 and bequeathed to the Tennessee Historical Society. He died of pneumonia on March 30, 1888.