Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Jervis McEntee: Last Leaf Fallen

Jervis McEntee is by no means the greatest of Hudson River School painters but he is to me the most fascinating. Like John Vanderlyn a Kingston-born prodigy who took formal instruction only in adulthood, McEntee stood in a direct line of descent from Thomas Cole, whose only pupil had been Frederic Church, and from Church, whose second pupil and lifelong friend McEntee became. When the term “Hudson River School” became one of scorn in the 1870s as American tastes shifted to the luminous and crisply detailed Parisian and Munich styles, McEntee persisted in the old ways of addressing the emotions rather than the intellect, in an often anachronistic but always affecting evocation of season and place.

Unlike Cole and Church and such grandiloquent landscapists as Albert Bierstadt, McEntee rejected the Sublime, instead documenting the Commonplace. In 1874 he wrote: “Perhaps what would mark my work among that of my brother artists is a preference for the soberer phases of Nature, the gray days of November and its leafless trees as well as the Winter landscape.” Think of McEntee as a JMW Turner in grayscale.

When McEntee exhibited The Melancholy Days in 1860, the painting that won him full admission to the National Academy of Design, he appended to the painting these lines from William Cullen Bryant:

The melancholy days are come, the saddest of the year,
Of wailing winds and naked woods and meadows brown and sere,
Heaped in the hollows of the groves the withered leaves lie dead,
They rustle to the eddying gust and to the rabbits tread.

So, you well might ask, what is it about this dour second-tier painter that one might term interesting, let alone fascinating? A depressive personality, unhappy in art and perpetually fretting about money, he was nonetheless fortunate in his choice of a wife and beloved by his friends and family. His diary, kept meticulously from 1872 to his death in 1891, chronicled the art world of the period and provides us with much of what we know about the rise of the business affairs and relationships among the artists living in the mecca of nineteenth century art, the now destroyed Studio Building at Tenth Street in New York City.

As one who earlier wrote about the sad figure of Vanderlyn dying in want in Kingston in 1852, long past his time of acclaim, I had been struck by the parallels between Vanderlyn, the historical painter and panorama exhibitor accused of being “Frenchified,” and McEntee, the downbeat landscapist who struck a blow for a distinctly American form of art yet succumbed to the public’s fancy for the Beaux Arts and the Barbizon School. These painters viewed art from different ends of the spectrum -- indeed, the public deserted Vanderlyn’s historical style for McEntee’s landscape style -- yet were united in their ultimate inability to meet the public halfway. And only this week did I come upon an unsigned reminiscence of the aged painter of Ariadne and Marius in Putnam’s Magazine of June 1853 in which I now recognize the pen of the youthful McEntee. His eulogistic remarks about Vanderlyn reveal that this misunderstood genius, dying from “the melancholy effects of penury and want, silently endured,” set the psychological course for McEntee’s entire life in art.

Born in Rondout (since 1870 a part of Kingston), Jervis McEntee was named for John Jervis, the famous chief engineer of the Erie Canal, under whom his father had worked. Educated in Clinton, New York, he returned to the Rondout and commenced a lackluster commercial career there in 1851. (It was not Jervis but his brother and brother-in-law who founded the McEntee & Dillon Rondout Iron Works on Garden Street. The McEntee and Dillon mark may still be seen in the cast-iron pilasters ornamenting what is today the Mariners’ Harbor restaurant.) At the same time, Jervis McEntee commenced his training with Church and by 1853 exhibited a painting at the National Academy. His father’s wealth permitted a Calvert Vaux design and construction of a studio/residence in the “Weinberg” (the hill atop Broadway, roughly Chestnut Street) for Jervis and his new wife, the former Gertrude Sawyer. However, Jervis was slow to come into his own as a painter, if rapid in his business failure. In Vaux he made a lifelong friend and, happily, another brother in law. (McEntee’s studio no longer exists but a woodcut of it survives in Vaux's Villas and Cottages; its former location has been assessed as the west side of what is now called Dietz Court.)

McEntee took summer sketching tours of the Catskills and in 1857 set up in New York along with Church as one of the charter tenants in Richard Morris Hunt’s Tenth Street Studio Building. This experiment in group housing for artists was an instant success. As Thomas Bailey Aldrich wrote in 1866, “on the ground floor are the studios of Whittredge, Bradford, Dana, Beard, Thompson the sculptor, Le Clear, Guy, and Bierstadt. The second floor is occupied by Church, McEntee, Leutze, Hays, Hart, and Gignoux. Mr. Tuckerman, the author, has a pleasant study and library on this floor. On the third story are Gifford, Hubbard, Suydam, Shattuck, Thorndike, Haseltine, de Haas, Brown, Casilear, and Martin. Here they are all together,-- historical figure, portrait, landscape, marine, animal, fruit, and flower painters.”

Since many of these men were either bachelors or commuters, and since McEntee was the only married member of the “fraternity” and his wife was a lively, well-liked hostess, the couple became the center of a spontaneous salon within the Studio Building. Their apartment was the only one that had a kitchenette, and a summons to dinner was highly prized. The McEntees stayed in New York in the winter months, returning to Rondout or the West for the summer to sketch or paint in plein air. In 1868 they went to Europe with Church and his wife, there meeting Sanford Gifford and an army of American expatriates. “Americans are as plentiful here as ants in an ant hill,” Church wrote to his patron William Henry Osborn. American subjects were already on the wane by this time in fashionable art circles, and European subjects seemed commercially prudent.

Church and McEntee and friends wandered and sketched in and around the Roman countryside. Together with George P. A. Healy, the two started working on The Arch of Titus, which was completed back home in 1871. The large oil depicts the three painters in the foreground with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and his daughter in the distance. But this was an uncharacteristic and uncomfortable endeavor for McEntee, whose previous paintings in the 1860s had borne such titles as The Melancholy Days, Indian Summer, and Late Autumn. It would not be long before he returned to his muted palette in such works as October Snow (1870); Sea from Shore (1873); and Autumn, Old Mill in Winter, Autumn Day, Wood Path, and Winter in the Mountains (all from 1878). Like Vanderlyn a generation before, McEntee was painting for a market that had slipped away.

When Gertrude died on October 14, 1878 at the age of 44, McEntee stayed on at the Studio, an increasingly morose bachelor. His lifelong tendency to depression, hinted at in the essay on Vanderlyn he wrote in the year of his marriage, took fierce hold of him, as is revealed in his diaries and copious letters. A few months before her death he wrote in his diary, “I am more unhappy than I have ever been before for I have not the faith and hope I once had. It seems a sad conclusion that after twenty years spent in New York during which I had won some distinction to find myself today actually unable to pay my rent and my living.”

In 1876 McEntee had inscribed in his diary, “My Salvation is going on and improving my pictures and it is fear that I may not be able to do this, that often caused me anxiety. There is great danger that a man in need of money will be induced to work for popular favor and so prevent him from following out his own ideas. An artist above all men should be free from money troubles and I think constantly of how I can order my life so as to be independent in this respect.” More than twenty years earlier, writing of Vanderlyn, he had mused: “Too often the melancholy effects of penury and want, silently endured, mark on the surface of fine and sensitive natures, hard and repulsive lines, even while the soul wells up genially and kindly as before; and smothered griefs and disappointments, borne alone and unshared, have often so completely shut out from the sympathy of their fellow-men, the most generous and beautiful of characters, that they for ever moved among them like frowning clouds along the open sky, or glittering icebergs across a summer sea…. Here was the companion of kings and emperors, the friend of Madison and protégé of Burr, with the frost of almost eighty winters upon his head, a heartbroken suppliant in the very village where he was born, and upon which he had reflected so much honor, discouraged and disheartened by the coldness and indifference he had everywhere met, come back to die in the place of his birth, to lay down his reverend head, a beggar among his ungrateful countrymen.”

Like Vanderlyn, McEntee seemed, as in Oliver Wendell Holmes’s poem on the subject, a “last leaf.”

And if I should live to be
The last leaf upon the tree
In the spring,
Let them smile, as I do now,
At the old forsaken bough
Where I cling.

This 1831 poem was written about Thomas Melvill, a hero of the Boston Tea Party who had wandered into old age still wearing his tricorn hat. This defiant if confused gentleman was grandfather to Herman Melville, author of Bartleby the Scrivener, about whom I will write next.

--John Thorn


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