Chances are, you know the big names behind the Hudson River School: Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, and Asher Durand, the leaders of America’s first distinctive, home-grown art movement. But another lesser-known fine painter is almost as important—for a different reason.
Jervis McEntee was a respected member and close friend of the Hudson River School’s original class of landscape painters, however his legacy is grounded more in the journals he kept. His writings paint a clear picture of the era—better than any of his canvases did. Though his work now hangs in major museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC, his journals have been invaluable to historians, helping them to understand his work, his connection to other artists, and the art business of his day.
McEntee was born in Rondout in 1828, which later became part of Kingston. His father, James, moved there to work on the D&H Canal, and became an engineer. Jervis was named after his father’s mentor, civil engineer John B. Jervis, known for his work on the Erie and Delaware & Hudson Canals and designing the Croton Aqueduct.
McEntee was educated at the Clinton Liberal Institute in Clinton, near Utica, where he began his journaling. He was interested in art, too—in 1848, he asked Durand, unsuccessfully, to be his tutor. But by 1850, McEntee had become successful. He sold four paintings to the American Art-Union and had a painting accepted by the National Academy of Design. That winter, Church agreed to take him on as a student.
In 1851, he returned to his parents’ new home, the first on what would become West Chestnut Street in Kingston. He built an art studio on the property in 1854, which was designed by the esteemed architect Calvert Vaux, who shortly thereafter married his sister, Mary McEntee. (Soon after that, Vaux designed Church’s majestic Olana, Central Park in New York, and more noteworthy commissions.) McEntee married Gertrude Sawyer in 1854, and, gradually, they expanded the studio into a home. In 1855, he became a full-time artist, placing an ad in the Kingston newspaper announcing, “J. McEntee… Landscape Painter…Studio at his Residence on the Hill… Rondout N.Y.” He kept a second studio at the famed Tenth Street Studio Building in New York, where he and Gertrude became close friends with many of the other artists there.
McEntee’s other claim to fame—journaling—began in the early 1870s. He wrote about his creative friends and their daily lives, successes, failures, and challenges. He covered the social, political, and economic realities of the art world, including his own struggles with money, fame, and status. And he wrote about the decline of the Hudson River School’s popularity in the face of Impressionism.
He also described the long walks he took from the family homestead. The excursions afforded views that he would later draw or paint, and his surviving works show views that are recognizable today: the Hudson River, Hussey Hill, and scenes along the Rondout and Esopus creeks close to uptown Kingston and Hurley.
The McEntees lived a happy life until Gertrude died unexpectedly in 1878, when she was just 44. Jervis continued painting and traveling, to Mexico and the American West, through the 1880s. In 1890, he grew ill, most likely from kidney disease, and died on January 27, 1891. He is buried in the family plot in Montrepose Cemetery in Kingston.
Why was McEntee less successful than his peers? Perhaps because his paintings were moodier and more introspective than the joyful style of Church and other Hudson River School painters. McEntee was troubled by that. “Some people call my landscapes gloomy and disagreeable,” he wrote in his journal. “But this is a mistake. Nature is not sad to me but quiet, pensive, restful.” Five volumes of McEntee’s journals are stored in the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution.
David Levine is the author of The Hudson Valley: The First 250 Million Years, now in paperback.