For a painter, Jervis McEntee was a fine writer. Normally, that would be considered a backhanded compliment. In McEntee’s case, however, it illustrates the fact that, though he was indeed a highly skilled and respected member of the Hudson River School’s original class of landscape painters, his legacy is grounded in the journals he kept during his lifetime. Those journals paint a clearer and more lasting picture of the lives and times of the era than any of his canvases ever did.
In fact, even though he was a friend and peer of the Hudson River School’s leading figures — Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, and Albert Bierstadt, among others — McEntee, a native of Kingston, had never received a major museum exhibition until this year. The Friends of Historic Kingston (FOHK) is mounting Jervis McEntee: Kingston’s Artist of the Hudson River School through October 31. A companion exhibition at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art, SUNY New Paltz, runs through December 13.
“The art itself is beautiful and touching, and his family story is also quite compelling,” says Ward Mintz, a museum administrator and FOHK board member. “He would not be forgotten as a painter, because his paintings are in major museums — the Met has his works. But he is more famous for the journals among a broad range of arts and cultural historians. This is a man everyone has turned to. The journals are absolutely critical to understanding his work, his attitude, his connection to other artists, art making, and the art business.” He also kept a lifelong residence in Kingston, Mintz says, and “his continued devotion to the area and to Ulster County, for us at FOHK, that was a very significant thing.”
Jervis McEntee was born in Rondout, which later became part of Kingston, on July 14, 1828. His Scots-Irish grandparents had immigrated to the Utica area, and his father moved to Kingston to work on the D&H Canal, where he became chief engineer. Jervis was named after his father’s mentor, John B. Jervis.
He was educated at the Clinton Liberal Institute in Clinton, near Utica, where he began his journaling. His writing, according to an essay penned by the FOHK exhibit’s guest curator, Lowell Thing, “suggests a playful and self-confident young man with a special interest in writing, languages (Latin and French), and politics, but no evidence of any formal art training.” He must have been interested in it, however, because in 1848 he asked Asher B. Durand, unsuccessfully, to be his tutor.
By 1850, McEntee was already successful. He sold four paintings to the American Art-Union and had a painting accepted by the National Academy of Design, two of the nation’s most prestigious art institutions. That winter, Frederic Church agreed to take him on as a student. McEntee rented a studio in the Art-Union Building, near Church’s. But in 1851, he returned home to his parents’ new, large homestead, the first on what would become West Chestnut Street in Kingston, and became a businessman. He also built an art studio on the property in 1854, which was designed by the estimable Calvert Vaux, who soon thereafter married his sister, Mary McEntee. (And soon after that, he designed Church’s majestic Olana, Central Park in New York, and a few other noteworthy commissions.) McEntee married Gertrude Sawyer that year, and, gradually, they expanded the studio into a house. 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 also kept a studio at the famed Tenth Street Studio Building in New York, where, as the only married couple, the McEntees became the center of a salon for the other artists and well-known writers and creative types of the day — including America’s most famous actor, Edwin Booth, brother of John Wilkes Booth. After President Lincoln’s assassination, the McEntees openly supported Edwin against the public backlash (and may have offered a hiding place for Booth to escape scrutiny for a while). Booth so appreciated the help that, in later years, he occasionally gave them money when times were tough.
McEntee’s other claim to fame — journaling — began in the early 1870s. He wrote about his artist 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, a movement he despised.
He also described the long walks he took from the family homestead. These walks 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 wonderful life, even spending a year traveling to Europe, until Gertrude died unexpectedly in 1878, when she was just 44. Jervis was “devastated,” Thing writes, but continued painting and traveling, to Mexico (with his good friend Church as a companion) and the American West, through the 1880s. In 1890, he grew ill, most likely from kidney disease, and died on January 16, 1891. He is buried in the family plot in Montrepose Cemetery in Kingston.
Why was McEntee less successful than his peers? “We scratched our heads about this,” Mintz says of the group that put the current exhibit together. His paintings were certainly distinctive — moodier, less glorious, more introspective. At the time, the nation was looking for paintings that emphasized the grandeur of the American landscape and spirit. “Church is perfect for this; McEntee, less so,” Mintz says. “The majesty he presents is more intimate. I still think his landscapes are beautiful and make you want to experience the space, but it is a very different thing.”
McEntee also continually traveled between New York and Kingston, which put him at the forefront of another movement. “He was probably one of the first commuters,” Mintz says. “He’d take a steamboat to New York to spend the week, then go back to Rondout on weekends.” But that may have dampened his sales and reputation. “The way people saw and bought your work was by going to your studio,” Mintz says. If he wasn’t there, he couldn’t sell.
Whatever the cause, McEntee was troubled by it. “He complained a lot about money and not selling enough,” Mintz says. He also disagreed with others’ vision of his work: “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.”
For the first time ever, thanks to the Friends of Historic Kingston, now you can see for yourself. “It’s rare, when one thinks about artists who worked outside of New York, to see the work in the city in which they did it,” Mintz says. “I think visitors will be very moved and touched by his art.
Jervis McEntee’s journals and personal papers are kept by the Archives of American Art, a research center within the Smithsonian Institution. Five volumes of these diaries, which date from 1872 to 1890, have been digitally scanned, transcribed, and can be browsed in their entirety online. In almost 4,500 diary entries, he writes about the art market, patrons and collectors, his working arrangements and residence in the Tenth Street Studio Building, and the impact of European painting on American artists.
Jervis McEntee: Kingston’s Artist of the Hudson River School includes paintings and drawings by the artist; photographs of McEntee family members and close friends, including Edwin Booth; and illustrated books by the artist. It also features a recent donation: a sketchbook created by McEntee between 1871 and 1884 containing 26 individual studies of the coast of Maine, the East End of Long Island, and Mink Hollow in the Catskills. Two of the sketches will be on view in the exhibition.
Friends Gallery, Kingston. Open Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m., and by appointment. For further information, contact the FOHK at 845-339-0720 or visit www.fohk.org.
Jervis McEntee: Painter-Poet of the Hudson River School includes approximately 80 paintings and works on paper from private and public collections. It runs through December 13, 2015.
The Morgan Anderson and Howard Greenberg Family Galleries, Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art, SUNY New Paltz. For more information, call 845-257-3844 or visit www.newpaltz.edu/museum.
You can access the archives at www.aaa.si.edu/collections/diaries/mcentee.