Joseph Rusling Meeker
(Newark, New Jersey, 1827 - 1887, St. Louis, Missouri)
Joseph Rusling Meeker was a painter active in St. Louis, Missouri, during the mid-nineteenth century. He remains most closely identified with landscape painting, particularly with distinctive images of swamps and bayous of the Mississippi River Delta. As a leading figure within the art world of St. Louis in his era, he served as a teacher, art critic and organizer of artists’ organizations, including the St. Louis Art Society in 1872 and The St. Louis Sketch Club in 1877. (1)
Meeker was born in Newark, New Jersey on April 21st, 1827, and in 1828 moved with his family to Auburn, New York where he grew up. Two members of his mother’s family (Meeker’s maternal grandfather and an uncle) were apparently at least amateur artists, and he informally began the pursuit of an art career by the time he was sixteen, sharing a studio with another student and taking the counsel of a local decorator and carriage painter, Thomas J. Kennedy. (2) His professional training occurred in 1845 when he secured a scholarship to the National Academy of Design in New York City.
At this time the president of the National Academy was Asher B. Durand (see 1969.17), a successful and admired landscape painter in the Hudson River School tradition. The Hudson River School was the first truly indigenous American art movement, focused specifically on the depiction of the American landscape. Prominent artists such as Thomas Cole and Durand were encouraged and supported by the patronage of a financially prosperous middle and upper class in the Northeast. It is likely that Meeker’s interest in landscape as a subject dates to his experience in New York in the mid-1840s. While at the National Academy, however, Meeker was obliged by the academic protocols of the day to pursue the broadest course of study and took a full range of training, including portraiture with Charles Loring Elliott (see 1940.21). (3)
After returning home to Auburn in 1848 for a year, Meeker went to Buffalo, New York, where he remained until 1852. While in Buffalo, he sold works to the American Art Union. (4) Still searching for a supportive artistic climate, he relocated to Louisville, Kentucky for seven years, painting portraits and teaching to earn his living. In 1859, he moved for the last time to settle in Saint Louis, where over the next twenty-five years he became one of the best-known painters and members of the art community in the city. His life as a painter in Saint Louis was characterized by periods of travel to gather source material for landscape paintings, including visits to Minnesota, Colorado, the Wyoming Territory, the New England coast and locally along the Meramec River. (5)
Meeker’s most productive travel for the purposes of his art and his long-term reputation was during his period of service in the Union Navy during the Civil War. Assigned as a paymaster aboard a Union gunboat of the Mississippi Squadron, he traveled the length of the Mississippi River, sketching the scenery he encountered, including the riverbanks, bayous, swamps and the distinctive flora and fauna that would serve as his chief subject for the remainder of his career. He produced these bayou images for more than twenty years, with his style evolving from a tightly painted and detailed approach reminiscent of the aesthetic of the Hudson River School artists, to more painterly, romantic, and literary-minded evocations designed to convey a mysterious and somber mood.
In a biographical sketch in The Art Journal (N.S. v. 5, 1879) the author notes, “The literary tastes of Mr. Meeker are not less marked than his artistic tastes. He is a writer for the magazines as well as landscape-painter.” Meeker published two articles of art criticism in The Western—“Some Accounts of Old and New Masters” (1878) and “Turner” (1877)—in which he articulates his philosophy of art as reflected in his paintings. As an admirer of both the English painter J. M. W. Turner and the critic John Ruskin, he exhorts the artist to follow their dictates; to be inspired directly by nature and to strive to make his art reflect natural grandeur both through its color and composition. Specifically, Meeker expresses his admiration for Turner’s practice of traveling and documenting through sketches the environments he visited. “Turner, early in life, set out to rival the much-lauded productions of Claude [Lorraine], and to that end he devoted his life, scarcely ever allowing himself an idle moment…. He wandered far and near; anon amongst the glaciers of the Alps, and then Italy’s sunny clime found him transferring her skies of gold to his precious sketchbook.” (6) Meeker mimicked this practice of Turner’s in traveling extensively throughout his career to experience and record natural sites for use in compositions created in his Saint Louis studio.
Meeker is certainly best known for these landscapes, particularly those that he made subsequent to the Civil War and throughout the 1870s and the 1880s. Many works exhibit evidence of his training under the influence of the Hudson River School, as well as his adherence to the teachings of Ruskin, in their attention to accurate depiction of topography and flora. Also, the artist displays his interest in antiquarianism and literature with references to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem of 1847, Evangeline. (7) A work such as The Land of the Evangeline (1874, Saint Louis Art Museum) offers a display of beautiful native flowers and vines, in the shadows of great live oaks and cypress. A second work, related by subject, is Acadians in the Achafalaya, “Evangeline,” (1871, The Brooklyn Museum), showing a similarly detailed depiction of trumpet vines, cattails and water lilies beneath a moss-laden oak tree. While works of this period show an attention to atmosphere and light creating a sense of the tropical, it is the later paintings of the 1870s and early 1880s that prompt scholars to relate Meeker’s works to those of the nineteenth-century Luminist painters.
(1) Meeker’s date of death has been erroneously cited in many sources as 1889. The date of 1887 is confirmed by a newspaper obituary in the collection of the Missouri Historical Society, The Republican, Thursday, September 29, 1887, np. Photocopy located in the MMFA Artist’s File.
(2) The Art Journal, 1879, N.S. v. 5, New York: P. Appleton Co., p. 43.
(3) J. A. Dacus and James W. Buel, A Tour of St. Louis, or Inside the Life of a Great City (St. Louis: Western Publishing Company, 1878), p. 72.
(4) The American Art Union was an organization that purchased paintings from American artists and provided prints of these works to their paying members. Each year a lottery was held to award original works of art.
(5) William Gerdts, Art Across America: Two Centuries of Regional Painting 1710–1920, volume three, New York: Abbeville Press, 1990, pp. 45-46.
(6) J. R. Meeker, “Some Accounts of Old and New Masters,” The Western, January-February, 1878, 74.
(7) For further discussion of Meeker’s interest in Longfellow’s poem see Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Joseph Rusling Meeker: Images of the Mississippi Delta, essay by C. Reynolds Brown, (Montgomery, AL: Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, 1981), 16.