(New York, New York, 1836 - 1923, Rome, Italy)
Elihu Vedder was born in New York City in 1836, the son of a physician who begrudgingly supported his son’s preparation for an art career. (1) He studied painting in New York City with Thompkins H. Matteson (b. 1813), a genre painter, then in Paris with Francois-Edward Picot (1786-1868), a neo-classicist who had trained under Jacques-Louis David. Between 1858 and 1860, Vedder completed his art education in Italy, where he was influenced by Renaissance masterworks and the art of the Macchiaioli, Tuscan painters who were contemporaries of the French Barbizon school and who painted “macchie” (patches or spots of color) as the French Impressionists would soon do.
Vedder returned to the U.S. and during the Civil War executed several visionary paintings with exotic subjects such as "The Questioner of the Sphinx" (1863) and the "Lair of the Sea Serpent" (1864), both of which reflect the mystical character of contemporaneous Symbolist art. He later created numerous decorative works, including murals for the Library of Congress (1895), which exemplify the influence of the international Aesthetic Movement and the Arts and Crafts Movement in the U.S. during the American Renaissance (1876-1917). (2) After 1867, he spent most of his long and productive life in Rome.
The artist gained fame in 1884 with the publication of Edward Fitzgerald’s 1859 translation of "The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam". Vedder designed the cover and typeface, and he drew the fifty-five imaginative illustrations which provided him with thematic material for subsequent projects. (3) The publication made his studio in Rome a popular stop on the Grand Tour for many wealthy Americans. Vedder preferred to stay in Rome, but he also travelled often to the United States, France, and England. He built a summer house on the island of Capri in 1900, but continued to live in Rome the rest of the year, remaining active with writing and painting until his death in 1923.
(1) The standard biographical sources for Vedder are Regina Soria, Elihu Vedder: American Visionary Artist in Rome (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1970), and Regina Soria, Perceptions and Evocations: The Art of Elihu Vedder (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press for the National Collection of Fine Arts, 1979).
(2) For contextual studies, see Richard Guy Wilson, The American Renaissance: 1876–1917 (New York: Brooklyn Museum, 1979); Eileen Boris, Art and Labor: Ruskin, Morris, and the Craftsman Ideal in America (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986); Robert Judson Clark, ed., The Arts and Crafts Movement in America, 1876–1916 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972); and Wendy Kaplan, "The Art That Is Life": The Arts and Crafts Movement in America, 1875–1920 (Boston: Bullfinch Press, 1987).
(3) In Pursuit of Beauty: Americans and the Aesthetic Movement (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1986), 477.