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Our History: Queens’ bucolic past preserved on canvas

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Historians of our island home owe a debt of gratitude to two artists native to the area who preserved for future generations in their paintings the landscapes, buildings, and vistas which have now disappeared over time.

One was William Sydney Mount (1807-1868), who documented in his genre paintings the life of his own times, while Charles Henry Miller (1842-1868) preserved in his paintings a part of the island’s past, in particular, Queens County.

When some years ago I was employed as an editorial assistant at Columbia University Press, I was privileged to work on Bartlett Cowdrey’s comprehensive book about the 19th century Long Island artist, William Sydney Mount, and he has been a favorite artist of mine ever since.

Born in 1807 in Setauket, Long Island, Mount’s first job was as an apprentice in New York City where he worked for his brother, Henry, as a sign and ornamental painter.

A short time later he began to study painting at the National Academy of Design. By 1830 he had achieved notice for his intimate scenes from every such day life. He soon became one of the leaders of the school of “genre” painters with his scenes of Long Island barns, and of banjo players, fishermen, and farmers in their ordinary daily life, at work and play.

In a time when it was the custom for ambitious young artists to study abroad, Mount preferred to study and paint the familiar agrarian scenes surrounding him, and he became known in Europe as the painter who portrayed to its citizenry what life in our country and its people was all about.

By mid century, Goupil’s, a major lithography firm in Paris, produced lithographs of Mount’s paintings and recognized him as a truly original talent. Engravers here were to select some of the central figures in his painting, “Long Island Farmer Husking Corn,” and use them as national symbols on bank notes juxtaposing them with images of George Washington

One of his most famous paintings, “Farmers Nooning,” shows farmers resting in a field during a work break. Mount’s rural themes and character types influenced greatly the work of other American artists, and he is considered by many the most important American genre painter of the 19th century.

It is interesting to note that the initial acclaim for Mount's work coincided with the mayoral term of Cornelius Van Wyck Lawrence, the first popularly elected mayor of New York City, who is buried in Bayside’s Lawrence family graveyard.

The rural beauty of Long Island and the charm of its countryside and surrounding waters prompted writers such as Walt Whitman, William Cullen Bryant and James Fenimore Cooper to write about it, and Charles Henry Miller, through his love for “this continent, Long Island,” recorded and chronicled its picturesque scenes in his paintings in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He was, for his time, a unique “artistic preservati­onist” known for his devotion to capturing the essence of the Long Island he knew, which was even then fast disappearing.

By the 1840s and ’50s it was evident that Long Island was changing. With the coming of the Long Island Railroad and its continuing expansion, even the most remote communities were soon affected, and artists and writers began to decry the changes on Long Island wrought by the advancement of rail service as destroying the “quaintness, seclusion, simplicity, and its peculiarit­ies.”

In the post-Civil War period Long Island was made even more accessible with improved roads as well as expanded rail lines. It was during this period that Charles Henry Miller entered the scene. The Long Island landscape was central to his work and remained a preoccupation throughout his lifetime.

Miller’s architect father discouraged his son’s interest in art, determining that Charles should pursue a career in law or medicine. But the young Miller, at age 18, despite his father’s disapproval, sent a painting to the National Academy of Design which was well-received.

Miller did complete the requirements for a degree in medicine in 1863. But his interest in art was revived when, as a surgeon on an emigrant ship, he was able to use his free time to visit galleries and museums in London, Paris, and Antwerp. When he returned to New York he abandoned the practice of medicine to become an artist, and while studying in Munich chose to paint in the genre style.

Two years after his return from Europe, he exhibited the first of a series of Long Island scenes at the National Academy of Design, entitled “A Long Island Mill Pond.” It was commended as bringing attention to “the hitherto neglected scenery of Long Island as a subject for a picture.” In 1875 he exhibited two pictures at the Academy, one of which was a view of Alley Pond painted in 1874, called, “Washing Sheep on Long Island.”

In the 1870s and 1880s, Queens was still mostly verdant farmlands and pastures, picturesque enough to tempt the brush of Charles Henry Miller. While other artists of the period gravitated to the Hamptons, Miller made our area his particular province, and Queens and its environs became his artistic territory.

Though he had a studio in Manhattan, most of his paintings were made in and around Queens. He maintained a home in Queens Village, known as “Queenslawn.”

Highly acclaimed in his day, Miller was relegated to obscurity after his death in 1922. He remained so until 1979 when a retrospective show of his work placed him among the important American artists.

A man of many talents, his literary interest led him to capture in paint the homes of famous literary lights associated with the Island, including Walt Whitman, William Cullen Bryant and John Howard Payne.

Among Miller's paintings of local scenes are:

“Old Settler” (Foster House) Bayside, 1890

“Alley Pond Mill,” Bayside, 1880

“ Indian Summer at Creedmoor, L.I.,” 1880s

“Clam Gathering at the Head of Little Neck Bay,” 1880

Both William Sidney Mount and Charles Henry Miller deserve to be held in special favor for preserving in their artistic endeavors contributions of a documentary nature which serve as chronicles of our past heritage.

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