Elliott in Skaneateles by John Barrow


A paper read before the Onondaga Historical Association Feb. 8th , 1897 By John D. Barrow

The world cares little for most of us, but it cares a good deal for the few who become eminent in any walk, and it likes to hear all that can be said about them. Whether such men like all that is said, is another matter, but they cannot help it. That Charles Loring Elliott was eminent there is no question, nor can there be much question that he was a great genius and a great artist.

His early life and studies were in this our city, where many of his works are, and where he is held as one of your distinguished sons.

He was called from you for a time to Skaneateles, and it may be of some interest to you to have a short sketch of his life and work there if haply I can recall them.

In looking back to Anno Domini 1834 – Sixty-two years ago, with the village of Skaneateles as a back ground for a portrait of Elliott, we must see or imagine something different from what is there to-day. There was then scarcely a brick building in the place, and there was not a flag sidewalk nor a yard of macadamized road. Railroads had not reached as far westward, and Sherwood’s stages gave the only opportunity of getting to or hearing from the rest of the world, and they made the main stir and excitement of the place. Poplar and locust trees shaded most of the streets, the old native trees had disappeared from the village, though outside thick woods were still close to it. What were known as Austin’s Woods reached with their primeval depths and shadows to what are now inhabited streets, and extended northward, unbroken, almost, for two or three miles. One monumental elm however stood at the junction of Main and Onondaga Streets, a reminder of ancient splendor, but it had to succumb to the order and ax of an improving street commissioner. Some of our present streets were then unopened and were not dreamed of.

There were customs, ways of life, of business and social feeling and intercourse, long since forgotten. As a manufacturing and business place it was more flourishing than now. Most of the people who met and knew Elliott have long since passed away, and now those who remember him can be very easily counted. Two or three whom he painted are still with us, but the rest are all gone, their joys and sorrows, their hopes and fears, their triumphs and defeats, all equal now.

Among other unknown and undreamed of things in 1834 were photographs, daguerreotypes even not being then known. This aid in securing the shadow ere the substance faded not being available, there was an urgent call for a portrait painter. Mr. Richard Talcott, a prominent merchant, who lived where the DeZeng mansion was afterwards built, lost a young child by death. Wishing to have a likeness of his boy, he made enquiries where an artist could be found. He had in his employ a young man named Addison Jerome, who answered that the knew of a young painter in Syracuse who was already getting a reputation there, as a maker of telling likeness. Jerome was sent for the painter and brought him back with him. I hardly need tell the people of Syracuse that Elliott was then twenty-two years old, that he was born in Scipio, Cayuga County, had passed his early days in Auburn, until his father removed to this city. You probably know all about his early life, how the feeling for art stirred within, how he painted great things at first, the burning of Moscow being one of his earliest attempts. At any rate he had got started, and if I am not telling a twice or thrice told tale, we may follow him to New York and see him a student of painting in the studio of John Quidor. Quidor was a prominent artist, a somewhat eccentric character, a great stickler for his own methods and theories and a truculent fighter against the academy. He was a painter of figures, both historical and humorous, and drew his subjects mainly from Knickerbockers History of New York. It is a singular fact that his pupil Elliott had a like admiration for that same history, and chose most of his figure subjects from it. Shall I venture to tell here Elliotts rebuff from Col. Trumbull, then the most eminent artist in the city, how Elliott took some of his work to ask Trumbull’s opinion and advice. The latter must have had the blues worse than common that day, for he seemed to see but little promise in the examples before him. He had had his discouragement and found art a hard road. He advised Elliott not to follow it, an said it was deemed more honorable, and proved to be more profitable to make shoes than to paint pictures. Elliott owned afterwards that he was down-hearted and almost believed Trumbull, but you know the end, how the latter made ample apology for his former advice, and cheered Elliott accordingly. But we are forgetting that child’s picture in Skaneateles.

It was finished with about the life and likeness usually obtained in that way. It could not be called a success artistically, but it was accepted as portraiture. The picture is still in Skaneateles, I believe.

Elliott had then a better chance to show what was in him, for he was immediately engaged to paint his first patron, Mr. Talcott. The picture shows to this day the artist’s promise as well as performance. It was a telling likeness, with all the originality of Elliott’s treatment, in color, drawing, and all else that went to make up his later most brilliant work. Then he painted Mr. Talcott and two grown daughters. At this time the artist kept a journal in which he noted all his work, when begun and what he was paid for it.

This record can be seen now in the library of the Academy of Design in New York together with other relics, such as his palette, painting robe, etc. Then business, or patrons began to seek him, though they were neither burdensome nor very remunerative.

Among the first after the Talcott family were the portraits of Judge F. G. Jewett, his wife, and brother-in -law, Mr. Warner. It is hard now to name the pictures in the order in which they were painted, but they were all painted between 1834 and 1838. These were his sitters, if not placed I the right order of time: Spencer Hannum and wife, Harrison B. Dodge and wife, Henry Allen, wife and two daughters, William H. Jewett, Samuel Francis, Captain James Hall and wife, William Gibbs, Samuel Rhoades, Henry Austin, Warren Hecox, Dorastus Kellogg, Charles Pardee, David Hall and son Daniel, Frederick V. D. Horton, Miss Horton, George F. Leitch and wife, Gurdon Porter and wife, Hosmer Newton, William V. Porter, Mrs. Laura Horton, Samuel Francis, jr., Thomas W. Hecox, and a copy of Spencer’s portrait of Daniel Kellogg for the bank of Auburn. He painted some portraits that were burned with his studio, among them those of Dr. Evelyn H. Porter and Augustus Kellogg.

There were a few other portraits in Skaneateles by him but they were probably painted at a later date in New York. Among these were Captain Nash De Cost’s, Mrs. E. N. Leslie’s, Mrs. Samuel Roosevelt’s and Mr. David Kellogg’s. These are about all he painted in or for Skaneateles, though it is possible a few were taken away and are forgotten here.

Though portraits were his specialty and success, he was never blind to the charm of landscape, and he showed in the few attempts he made in that branch that he had both an eye and a hand for it. There is now in our Skaneateles library a picture by him of the head of our lake that has great merit and beauty. There is his picture, evidently from nature, of Fall Brook Cascade, owned by Mr. Cook of Auburn. Of still more merit and beauty. It is masterly in execution, and as telling in light, shade and color as any of his portraits.

He painted another landscape of, or on Apple Tree Point, with a figure or figures in it, that was burned in the fire before mentioned. Mr. Frederick Horton had a small sketch of the Hemlock Island. These comprise all the landscapes I have ever seen or heard of by him.

As a background for a portrait of Elliott was sketched in the beginning of this story, I ought now to add the portrait thereto as far as I am able, but you will have to be satisfied with an impressionist sketch.

He was at that time twenty-two, as I said before, of medium height and of very bright and intellectual look. His hair and eyes were black and he wore the former in the fashion of the day. Beards or mustaches were not then allowed, even for an artist. How shocked the society of Skaneateles would have been to have seen them. Elliott broke all such laws afterwards, and the present or after generations will have sight of him only as a long haired and bushy bearded man. After the fifties this had become the usage of many artists. I never saw or heard of a portrait of him at this time, but there are three of him painted by himself, one now in the Academy of Design, with full black beard and hair closely cut. This was an excellent likeness of him when probably thirty or thirty-five. There was, and probably is now, another in the Metropolitan Museum, a little later in years when gray began to show in hair and beard. He also painted one for Mr. Walters, of Baltimore, when he was past fifty. This had his large cavalier hat on his head, and his gray shawl round his shoulders. George Baker painted a half length of him from life at about the same time, and it is now owned by the Academy of Design. Launt Thompson and Charles Calverly also made fine busts of him in marble. These may help you some, by making allowances for time and change, to fill out my sketch of him in Skaneateles in 1834.

He had his studio in the upper part of a building in about the center of our business block, which was burned in the winter of 1835-6. He had one after that in the Hecox building, then a new structure, and in which is now or village postoffice. He boarded most of the time in the hotel afterwards known as the Lake House.

As portraits were not very pressing he had plenty of leisure forced upon him, which he accepted philosophically and made the most of . As collapsible tubes for the keeping of colors were not then invented, he had to grind his own pigments and prepare this own canvas. He also would make most of his stretchers, as he had a liking and aptitude for mechanic tools. He liked to haunt the shops of the wood workers, blacksmiths, platers, painters, and others in the flourishing carriage manufactories of the place. No wonder a man with his eye was easily interested in the true and artistic work by human hands before machines took so much of it away from them.

As is fit for a painter, he had a great love for out-door life, for sailing our lake, camping on its shores, and roaming the fields and woods. Besides, it is said he was an ardent angler and a lover of all the quieter sports and pastimes. There are many traditions of his expeditions with the Skaneateles band to neighboring villages, and of one memorable fishing expedition to Cold Brook. This was successful in fun and incident but not in fishing. He had for a companion in his campings, Mr. Bishop Burnett, a retired English naval officer.

Once, while in camp on Appletree Point they heard that a Perfectionist (whatever that may be), was to deliver a lecture on his doctrine at the school house in New Hope, a hamlet on the hill above the point, and they determined to hear it. During the discourse Mr. Burnett seemed both amazed and amused. He asked Elliott if he should answer it and Elliott said – yes. He then rose with fine effect and said: ” I am a cosmopolite, a citizen of the world”, and told of the opportunities that travel had given of knowing many peoples and their religions. Then after alluding to dancing dervishes, Indian hermits, Hottentot feasts, and most of the diabolical superstitions of the world, he ended saying he had never heard uttered anything so utterly preposterous and absurd. It is too bad we do not know how the Perfectionist and the citizens of New Hope received it all. Burnett and Elliott afterwards fell out, as the saying is, but wherefor or how it ended is forgotten to-day.

It may not be clear to us now just what our community thought of Elliott, or how they esteemed his art or purpose. He was a new character and experience to them which they could hardly comprehend. Art was a stranger there, and it looked to most of the wise as a non-paying freak, though there were others who knew better; even if they might be few. Some thought it an unmanly pursuit at best, or a way of shirking labor and getting an easy living by wits and not by work. There were a few left of the a very old school who thought it next to , if not quite sinful, as it broke the second commandment against making the likeness of anything in heaven above, or earth beneath or in the waters under the earth. Some knew it was something more than common and looked at its results in great wonder, but even then they did not know how high it was until they afterwards heard from abroad.

He once told a company in New York how some one at that time asked him as a friend if he did not think it was time he got into some respectable business, but such men can yet be found in other places than Skaneateles. But he went on unheeding in study and in work, generally trusting in his genius and believing in his success. But he was forced to despondency sometimes and his leisure was heavy upon him. That leisure was not his own fault, but it made him seem lazy and indifferent to the workers around him, who prophesied breakdown and the poorhouse as sure. There was never the least meanness, jealousy, nor hypocrisy about him. What human failings he had were never of that order. It is very sure that he made warm and lasting friendships among the people he met. These amiabilities of his character were conspicuous in all his after life.

Like most of his associates he took warm interest in the politics of the day, was an ardent Whig and a strong admirer and cheerer of Henry Clay.

He showed a healthy and deep love of literature, as well read in Shakespeare, and was enthusiastic for Scott and Byron, then in the zenith of their fame. He loved, too, our American authors, Irving and Cooper, and knew them well. Though he could never be called a great student of books, he had study otherwhere. He was familiar with what was best in English literature and knew clearly its truth and beauty.

But the book of nature was his chief study, and that is one that is so full, so engrossing and so wonderful that he loved and read it before all others. But it was his love of literature after all that made him later the intimate and friend of the brightest literary society in New York. The old pages of the Knickerbocker Magazine will bear witness to this if you need it.

It is said that though he dearly loved music, particularly vocal, he had neither ear nor voice to make it practical for him. It was told how he was peremptorily bidden to stop when he attempted once to join in a familial and merry chorus.

But we must not forget that among his bright days there were dark ones; he had discouragements and obstacles to overcome, and fame seemed slow. He had only occasional work, and that not very remunerative; he was nearly always in arrears, and it is no wonder he had the blues. Even later, in New York, when he began to get reputation, portraits were not rapidly called for, and he could not compel for a long time the prices the fashionable artists were getting, nor the adulation society gave them.

Most artists know what these clouds are, and many never get from under them, but “drop into the grave unpitied and unknown.” But Elliott got bravely from under them and had fame’s clear skies to the end of his days. It may now be asked did the people of Skaneateles have any idea of the great artist they had among them. Were they always satisfied with his work and proud to possess it. It is to be feared not, till afterwards. Some of his pictures were called failures at the time, and the merits of the best were not immediately recognized. It must be admitted his pictures were unequal, as all men’s art work is, but the best at that time will stand in any place and in any company. Then, as ever afterwards, his best work was in his male heads.

It may be of some interest to know how much he earned in those four years and what commercial value his talents had, — all things, almost, come to that test in this world. Knowing nearly the number of his pictures and the prices paid for them, he could not have earned more than three hundred dollars a year. Men who paid him fifteen dollars for a portrait heard afterwards that he got a thousand dollars for the same sized canvases and five times a thousand for a full length. But a story lives that shows he was somewhat appreciated. One of our carriage builders had made a most gorgeous sleigh and wanted a fitting ornament for its back. He told Elliott to paint something fine, and a picture of Napoleon crossing the Alps, after David’s famous work, was the result. The manufacturer was pleased with it and asked the price. He was astonished when the answer was five dollars, and declared he would not pay it. Elliott quietly took up some rags and moved toward the picture as if to wipe it out, but was suddenly bidden to hold on, and he got his pay.

Elliott has now been dead twenty-eight years, almost a generation, and many men who were nearly as eminent as he are now utterly forgotten, and many of us have been fearful that it will be so with him. It is said the world’s verdict in these matters is final and right. I do not know whether this be so or not. It has forgotten some of its greatest men for a time, as it did Shakespeare for a hundred years. Critics and wise men are fond of telling us whom the world will remember, and naming those of our contemporaries whose “sounding footsteps shall echo through he corridors of time.” They make mistakes sometimes, so that we have both hope and fear for our heroes, our favorites, and our loves. Some carpers I know are doubtful of Elliott’s lasting fame, and claim that his is now comparatively little known, and little spoken of. There are reasons for this, at the present at least. The men to-day have to talk of their own work and that of their fellows and of the undoubtedly good art of the times.

Besides that, there are now schools and new faddists, whose theories and methods are far from Elliott’s, but they make great clamor and demand hearing. And there are now skilled artists who were born since Elliott died and have not yet learned him.

It is no wonder that , as so many of the last generation are so utterly forgotten, silence should settle for a time even over Elliott’s fame. Yet it is not forever. Think of Romney’s present fame, and what it was soon after his death. Then at an auction of his pictures, they bought only two or three pounds apiece, and one sold a few weeks ago for something more than ten thousand guineas. Gilbert Stuart’s case is another like it. He died in poverty after a hard struggle. His remains lay long n almost a pauper’s grave, unmarked and forgotten.

But how his fame shows brighter and clearer as time goes on. How proudly we remember him now, as does also his country. It will be so with Elliott, a man who won eminence so fairly in his lifetime and whose works are what they are cannot be forgotten. At any rate we can be content to-night to remember ho famous he has been, how his art was acknowledged and honored by the whole world of artists, and how like a pillar of American art he stood.

And as we can remember too, how his portraits for year after year on the walls of the Academy dimmed all others, we need not think that it was only for a day. If anyone says so, the people of Onondaga have no need to believe them.

There is one thing we should think of now, though it may not be strictly historic. When Elliott came to Skaneateles not much more than a boy, and could then paint as he did, we can then but wonder how he learned to do it.

There were no means of instruction except very rudimentary drawing schools of which he probably did not avail himself. He must have seen very few pictures of any kind and no superior one. The latter kind had hardly come to Cayuga or Onondaga counties. Perhaps he had seen some good art in New York where he had intercourse with Trumbull and Quidor, but he could have hardly learned much from them. It is true he could have seen the works of Stuart, Morse, Vanderlyn and Inman, and the landscapes of Cole and Doughty. But what was all that compared with the advantages of to-day or the European study that is now so available and a matter of course. It would be of some interest for us to know at what time he obtained that portrait by Stuart that we have heard so much about. This must have been an inspiration for him as it was one of Stuart’s finest works. But there is no sign of its having the least influence on Elliott’s style or technique. The latter’s manner was from beginning to end entirely his own, he was no man’s pupil. This alone is proof of his genius. It is common enough for artists to be original but they also may be bad, but to be both original and great is rare indeed, and this Elliott was without chance of denial. With the fewest advantages and far removed from any art atmosphere he had formed and mastered a style that he brought afterwards to highest triumph. It is not claimed that at his visit to Skaneateles he had reached his highest power but he gave sure promise of it. In a few years after, he had been able to paint such pictures as Sanford Thayer’s and others that you know. About 1847 or 8 he was able to paint such pictures as the two Hammersleys, and it seems to me neither he nor any other man painted anything much better. If I were an art critic I would enlarge on these, but I am only a local historian.


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