Francis William Edmonds
(Hudson, New York, 1806 - 1863, Bronxville, New York)
During the nineteenth century, Americans sought an art that was distinctly American and provided a sense of national identity. Because America lacked a rich cultural heritage like that of Europe, artists were encouraged to turn to America’s natural resources. Asher B. Durand, Thomas Cole, and Frederic Edwin Church did just that and created some of the most magnificent vistas of American landscape. Other artists, like Francis William Edmonds, chose to represent America through scenes of everyday life, known as genre painting. Inspired by seventeenth-century Dutch masters, Edmonds created paintings that were distinctly American in their modest depictions.
Francis William Edmonds was the son of Samuel and Lydia Edmonds, born in Hudson, New York, in 1806. His father was a strict military man, and his mother a strict Quaker and member of the Society of Friends. Edmonds’ parents opposed his pursuance of a career in the arts, but because the Quakers preached tolerance, they allowed their son to practice art. In addition, Edmonds showed enthusiasm for spelling and math—an encouragement to his parents that he might consider other fields.
By thirteen, Edmonds was buying and grinding paints, attempting to prepare canvases, copying engravings, and even trying to work directly from nature. At fifteen, he wanted to become an engraver, but his hopes were squelched by outrageous apprenticeship fees.(1) In 1823, Edmonds’ uncle, Gorham A. Worth, offered him a position as an under clerk at the Tradesman’s Bank in New York City, where he was a cashier. Edmonds later claimed he only took the job out of necessity and was upset that he had to stop drawing. However, by 1826, the artist was not willing to sacrifice art altogether, and he began drawing once again.
At the urging of George W. Hatch, a student of Asher B. Durand, Edmonds enrolled in evening classes in the Antique School at the National Academy of Design. Edmonds met other artists such as William Sidney Mount (1807-68), wood engraver Joseph A. Adams (c. 1803-80), William Page (1811-85) and Raphael Hoyle (1804-38). While at the school, Edmonds was a serious student—taking extensive notes from lectures and discussions with other artists about artists such as Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828), Thomas Sully (1783-1872), and Sir Henry Raeburn (1756-1823). Edmonds’ notes primarily focused on questions of color, shadow, glazing, and scumbling.(2)
Unfortunately, most of Edmonds's early work is unlocated. His first experience painting was short lived, as in 1830, he was appointed cashier to the Hudson River Bank, and then married Martha Norman. In total, the artist had a two year hiatus from painting. When Edmonds resumed painting again in the mid-1830s, he felt that he had lost his knack for it. In 1835, he paid his friend William Page to paint his portrait and teach him at the same time. Again, Edmonds took extensive notes, and it helped him to regain the skill he thought he had lost.
In 1836, Edmonds entered a painting into the National Academy of Design annual exhibition. Still unsure of his artistic talent, Edmonds entered "Sammy the Tailor" (1836, The Art Institute of Chicago) under the pseudonym, E. F. Williams. The painting depicts a middle-aged tailor sitting partially cross-legged working on his books. He balances an account book on his left knee with his left hand and dips his quill into an ink well with his right. To his right are various papers and scissors. Curiously, Edmonds placed Sammy in a box-like structure, so that right ankle and foot hang over the edge. This format of a box, will evolve into a theater setting in his later works. "Sammy the Tailor" was greeted with enthusiastic reception at the exhibition, and Edmonds was encouraged to continue to paint. However, he was not quite prepared to reveal his true identity.
Edmonds exhibited at the National Academy in 1837 and 1838, and was elected associate for the second time in 1838. However, his paintings in 1838 did not receive acclaim as with his previous works. The criticism was directed towards all American artists in general, as art critics suggested that all young artists should concentrate more on painting from nature. The critics argued that because American artists had no Old Masters to study, they should build a school for themselves built upon nature. They urged artists to depict the indigenous subjects of their young nation. As a result, many artists, such as Cole and Durand, would do exactly this – focusing on landscape and forming the Hudson River School. However, Edmonds was more interested in interiors and genre scenes, and instead turned to the seventeenth-century Dutch masters for inspiration.
As art historian H. Nicholas B. Clark notes, seventeenth-century Dutch society and that of nineteenth-century America were quite similar. Both saw the rise of a strong mercantile class following closely on newly won independence; both republics saw the emergence of a strong sense of national pride and a quest for national character, and both thought this could be supported by literature and art. Furthermore, a financially strong and politically influential middle class dominated the patronage of the arts in both societies. In fact, many American collectors and painters recognized Dutch achievements and modeled their efforts on their European counterparts. And they supported their artists’ goals of recording activities of daily life. Americans were attracted to the matter-of-fact view of the world they saw in genre painting and believed national character could be drawn from these pictures.
In 1840, Edmonds’s wife died, and he left for Europe a few months later. Before he left, however, the artist submitted two paintings that revolved around courting to the National Academy of Design. "Sparking" (1839, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute) and "The City and the Country Beaux" (c. 1839, Sterling and Francis Clark Art Institute) must have held special meaning for the mourning artist. "Sparking" was painted just before Edmonds’ wife died. The painting depicts a young couple sitting in front of a fire. The young woman peels fruit while the young man gazes at her intently. Through a doorway at the right side of the canvas, a woman who is presumably the girl’s mother washes dishes. The painting certainly recalls seventeenth-century Dutch genre painting. The scene is indirectly lit by the fireplace at the left side of the canvas and provides a warm glow to the action inside the room. It is an intimate setting, and the doorway revealing another figure recalls the works of Dutch artists like Jan Vermeer. And Edmonds also employs the theater-like setting, whereby it is as if a wall has been removed and viewer is watching a scene play before him. The young lady is believed to be a portrait of Edmonds’s wife, the chaperone her mother, and the young man Edmonds himself.
When Edmonds arrived in London, he immediately went to see the Old Masters at the National Gallery. His initial reaction was disappointment, as he thought the paintings were dingy, lacking in color and design.(3) Edmonds then traveled to Paris where he caught up with fellow artist John Kensett. Edmonds main destination however, was Southern Europe. When he arrived in Rome, he met with Asher B. Durand and the two men began sight-seeing and sketching in various locations in and around Rome. Edmonds also traveled to southern Italy, particularly, Naples, Herculaneum, Pompeii, Paestum, and later north to Florence. Throughout his trip, Edmonds paid particular attention to the Dutch and Flemish schools, wherever he encountered them. He also began to buy engraving and prints. By the time he arrived back in Paris, apparently he had amassed an impressive collection. Unfortunately, the collection is either undiscovered, or does not survive today. On his way home through London, Edmonds visited the National Gallery again, and this time, his opinion of the Old Masters was quite different from his initial reaction. He later said that “I was satisfied that a love of the old masters to a certain extent, like old wine, is an acquired taste—my first impressions were unfavourable, my last favourable—In other words I relished paintings now that I could not relish then.” (4) In the six months spent traveling through Europe, his tastes had considerably matured.
Edmonds returned to America in the middle of 1841, and in November, he married Dorthea Lord. The artist didn’t immediately begin painting. When he arrived in New York, he had a backlog of banking work and was he was not fully recovered from an illness he had suffered with during his trip. By 1843, Edmonds's role as a banker and lobbyist took precedence over his art, as he only exhibited one painting that year. In 1844, Edmonds created his best-known work, "The Image Peddler" (New York Historical Society).
"The Image Peddler" is an icongraphically complex painting. The work reflects Edmonds’ political tendencies, based as they were on egalitarian principles and underscored concern for the common man. The painting depicts a peddler attempting to sell his wares to a rather large family. An elderly man sits at table in front of a window with a bust of George Washington. He leans over to a young boy and talks to him about the bust. A young man sits at the table, observing the scene. The women– one who is washing dishes, another with a baby, and the yet another stops her sewing–listen intently to the peddler. Edmonds clearly draws the line between traditional male and female roles, as the women concern themselves with household chores and the men concern themselves with more worldly issues such as explaining to their youth the virtues of the country’s founders. As Clark explains, the trio of male figures represents the three ages of man as they study the bust of Washington, who represents the pinnacle of their ideals. The image of the open window is a metaphor for freedom.(5) When exhibited at the National Academy, the painting received high praise, especially his rendering of still lifes. Filling a scene with household objects and necessities became a trademark of the artist. However, critics noted one shortcoming—Edmonds inability to render individual characters. Often times, the faces of his figures were quite similar, and it was a problem that plagued the rest of his career.
Throughout the 1850s, Edmonds found it increasingly difficult to paint, producing as little as one painting a year. His life was becoming consumed by banking, and it was more and more difficult to manage both professions. In 1853, Edmonds became a city chamberlain of New York, a chairman at the New York Clearing House, and in 1854, he became active in the Episcopal Church. The paintings that Edmonds did complete during this period continued to show an influence of Dutch genre painting and were still concerned with everyday American life. Courtship remained a favored theme, and it was during this period that the Museum’s "Time To Go" (1857) was painted.
In the last years of his life, Edmonds turned to painting for solace and refuge. He was embroiled in a scandal with the Mechanics Bank, there was growing tension over the impending Civil War, and the economic collapse brought on by the Panic of 1857 made matters worse.(6) Edmonds’s works in the last years of his life represented country and farming life. Often times a couple was represented in the interior of their home, surrounded by objects of their labor. Clark suggests that this agrarian American ideal reflected an increased amount of time Edmonds was spending in the rustic confines of his house in rural Bronxville.
Edmonds later work was also noted for his sympathetic depiction of African Americans, which was, for the time period,unusual. During the nineteenth century, African Americans were often portrayed in subservient roles. Edmonds however, took a different approach. For example, in "The Flute" (c. 1859, Amon Carter Museum), Edmonds depicts two African-American children spellbound by a white boy playing a flute. The African-American children are dressed in nice clothes—although patched, they are not shabby. The scene is backlit by an unidentified light source, and there is an air of quiet dignity that resounds. The scene also reinforces his assimilation of Dutch spatial organization and his ability to render still life.
Edmonds oeuvre represented the every day life of hard-working Americans. His scenes of domestic interiors and agrarian lifestyles depicted not only a segment of the country, but his own egalitarian beliefs as well. While strongly influenced by seventeenth-century Dutch genre scenes, Edmonds work remains distinctly American.
(1) During the 1820s, engraving constituted one of the primary vehicles for gaining entry into the art profession. Edmonds was unable to apprentice, but he was able to create designs for wood engravers.
(2) Scumbling is a technique in which the artist makes color less brilliant by covering with a thin coat of opaque or semiopaque color. It is also a technique in drawing where one can soften the lines of colors by rubbing lightly.
(3) Edmonds’ view is shocking, however, one must keep in mind that in the nineteenth century, museums did not have the conservation knowledge that we do today. Some paintings may indeed have appeared “grungy” or “dingy.” One must only recall how Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling appeared before its cleaning in the 1990s – the figures and colors were “dingy” and muted. However, the cleaning revealed the exact opposite – the colors were in fact bright and vibrant, almost leaping from the ceiling when viewed from below.
(4) Clark, H. Nichols B. Francis W. Edmonds: American Master in the Dutch Tradition (Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988):65.
(5) Ibid, 76.
(6) For more, see Clark, pp.33-4.
- Letha Clair Robertson, 2/2/04
Image credit: Asher Brown Durand (American, 1796–1886), Francis William Edmonds, 1841, graphite on tan wove paper, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York, Sheila and Richard J. Schwartz Fund, 1987, 1987.196.1, Photograph courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, © CC-by-PD