James Augustus Suydam (1819–1865)

Well-connected Luminist recognized for his serene landscapes

By William Tylee Ranney Abbott

The work of James Augustus Suydam, characterized by idealized tranquil landscapes and seascapes illuminated by softly sunlit skies, is emblematic of the American Luminist movement of the nineteenth century.

I. Biography
II. Chronology
III. Collections
IV. Exhibitions
V. Memberships
VI. Notes
VII. Suggested Resources

I. Biography

James Augustus Suydam was born on March 27, 1819 in New York City. Suydam’s family was of Dutch decedent, tracing their ancestry back to the early days of New York, and his father, was one of the city’s most prominent merchants. In the 1830s and 40s, Suydam was a student at the University of the City of New York, today New York University. His early studies where based in medicine, but Suydam later transferred his focus to architecture. In 1842, after the death of his father a year earlier, Suydam traveled to Europe where his artistic development began. Traveling with one of his brothers, the young aspiring artist arrived in Florence in 1843. Here, without any practical knowledge of art but a keen appreciation, Suydam met and befriended the American artist Miner Kilbourne Kellogg. Over the next few years, Suydam accompanied Kellogg throughout Europe studying the artistic treasures that the continent had to offer, including works by the Carracci family, Guido Reni, Correggio, and Guercino. During these years he also ventured beyond Italy to Switzerland, Germany, and France. In 1844 Suydam followed the taste of his drawing instructor and traveled to Constantinople, Turkey and then on to Malta. Departing Malta in early 1845, the artist, his brother, and Kellogg sailed to Naples before making their way back to America.

Upon his return to New York in 1845, he initially did not practice painting, but instead joined his brother in partnership in the family dry goods business. During this time Suydam lived at his family home at 25 Waverly Place, near Washington Square Park. Records also note that Suydam owned property outside New York City in Pelham, near modern-day New Rochelle. In 1849 his modest early work had begun to be appreciated and he was elected to the prestigious Century Association, which also claimed the poet William Cullen Bryant, painters Asher Brown Durand, Winslow Homer, John Frederick Kensett, and architect Stanford White as members.

In the 1850s Suydam took up painting more seriously and became good friends with Durand and Kensett, who both offered informal lessons. Some of the earliest works collected by Suydam were by these important American artists. By the spring of 1856 Suydam had completed a painting in the White Mountains of North Conway, New Hampshire, (unfortunately now lost) which was selected for exhibition at the National Academy of Design’s Annual Exhibition. North Conway had become a popular destination and subject for artists of Suydam’s time, including his good friend Benjamin Champney, and Suydam regularly worked from this location during the early years of his professional career.1 One such image from New Hampshire was Conway Meadows, which was exhibited at the National Academy in 1858 (this title was likely an abbreviation for the painting View of Mt. Washington from the Conway Meadows (Private Collection)).2 This canvas was highly regarded and acquired by Kensett, remaining in his personal collection until his death in 1872 when it was sold to Daniel Huntington for $155. 3

Not only was Suydam an active painter at this time, but he was also an active supporter of the arts: in 1857 he purchased a number of works at an exhibition organized by Goupil & Co. at the American Art Union. The wealth and social status inherited by Suydam from his father allowed him to both collect art and to practice his artistry in an unimpeded gentlemanly manner. Although he was often branded an amateur—mainly because he did not rely on art for a living—Suydam was held up as a model to other wealthy men for his dedication to the subject. It has been argued that Suydam’s ability to rely on his inherited wealth for sustenance had positive impact on his art because it allowed him to experiment in his work in ways that his colleagues, bound by the tastes of their clients, were not.4 This being so, his success as a painter was validated by his close relationship with the National Academy, to which he was elected an honorary member in 1858. In this same year he was requested to join the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad’s “Excursion for Artists”, a trip that invited prominent artists and writers to travel by rail from Baltimore throughout New England, stopping at important places along the way for the artists to work. In the summer of this year, the painter worked in Rockland County, New York and at Narragansett, Rhode Island with Kensett. With his considerable artistic success during 1858, Suydam thought it necessary to establish himself full time as a painter and began to rent studio space in the Tenth Street Studio Building. At the time the Tenth Street Studio Building, located at 51 West 10th Street in New York, housed numerous other prominent artists including Winslow Homer, Frederic Edwin Church, and Albert Bierstadt among others.

The following year, 1859, Suydam spent most of his summer with Kensett, sketching landscapes in upstate New York and seascapes along the coast of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. It was here, on the shores of New England, that Suydam established himself as an accomplished painter. The style he practiced during these years, depicting landscapes in gentle compositions and gradual tones that exude natural harmony, became a staple of the Luminist movement.5 However, Suydam did not abandon the wooded wilderness and later that summer, accompanied Durand to Geneseo and Mount Morris, New York, where they continued to work.

Suydam spent the remainder of his life travelling throughout New England, from landscape to seascape, in search of subjects for his art, often in the company of his friends Kensett and Durand. In the early months of 1860, Suydam traveled with Kensett to Baltimore for the wedding of Louis Rémy Mignot. During this year, Suydam also completed his well-known Paradise Rocks, Newport (1860, National Academy Museum, New York) which depicts a rural scene along the Rhode Island shore. The work is one of his most acclaimed paintings and is representational of his artistic style embodied by colorism and natural tranquility. Paradise Rocks, Newport further represents Suydam’s work in its idealized landscape and its architectural, natural features, which met Luminist ideals and served to validate the natural monuments of a relatively young America against the historic monuments of Europe. Evidence of this is seen in the dramatic increase to the proportions of the actual rock formation, which is approximately 400 percent taller in the painting.6 Towards the end of 1860, Suydam traveled again with Kensett on a three week trip to Lake George. By 1863 his hard work as an artist manifested itself in the form of an appointment to Treasurer at the National Academy of Design’s Fellowship Fund, which opened the Academy to outside membership in an effort to raise funds necessary for managing the building and furthering the purpose of the Academy.7

In 1864 Suydam’s mother Jane Mesier Suydam passed away. The next year Suydam continued his painting-driven travels with a trip to Newport, Rhode Island and to Nahant, Massachusetts. While on a sketching trip in North Conway, accompanied by Sanford Robinson Gifford, James Augustus Suydam contracted dysentery and passed away on September 15, 1865.

Suydam’s premature death at the age of forty-six leaves unanswered questions about his potential as a fully mature artist. Showing his commitment to collecting, painting, and the National Academy of Design, Suydam bequeathed $50,000 along with his collection of art to the Academy. The Suydam Collection was exhibited by the National Academy at the Annual Exhibition the very next year. The collection had been carefully amassed by Suydam over his career as an artist and included twenty-eight European works by artists including Émile Charles Lambinet, Narcisse-Virgile Díaz de la Peña, Jules Achille Noël and Alexandre Calame, and fifty-five American paintings by some of his closest friends including Kensett, Gifford, Durand, Kellogg, Church, William Hart, Jasper Francis Cropsey and others.8 The importance of Suydam’s gift to the National Academy cannot be overlooked for it was one of the first to establish a serious permanent collection at an American institution.9

II. Chronology

1819 Born in New York City on March 27 to John and Jane Mesier Suydam
1830s-40s Studies medicine and then architecture at University of the City of New York
1841 Father dies
1842-45 In Europe, begins formal artistic studies under Miner Kilbourne Kellogg
1845-54 Joins brother John in dry goods business
1850s Befriends and studies with Asher Brown Durand and John Frederick Kensett
1856 First exhibition; From North Conway at the National Academy of Design Annual Exhibition
1857 Participates in the Sketch Club; purchases French works at Goupil & Co., American Art Union
1858 Becomes Honorary Member of the National Academy of Design; travels on the Baltimore & Ohio “Excursion for Artists;” paints in Rockland County, NY and Narragansett, RI with Kensett; rents studio in the Tenth Street Studio Building
1859 Continues to work in upstate New York as well as the Massachusetts coast, often with Kensett; travels to the New York Finger Lakes with Durand
1860 Joins Kensett at the wedding of Louis Rémy Mignot; continues to work with Kensett near Lake George
1863 Elected Treasurer of the National Academy’s Fellowship Fund
1864 Mother passes away
1865 Dies September 15 while working in North Conway, NH after a summer painting at Newport, RI and Nahant, MA
1866 Makes bequest of $50,000 to the National Academy; work is exhibited in the Academy under a funeral canopy

III. Collections

National Academy of Design
Century Association

IV. Exhibitions

1856 National Academy of Design
1861–2, 65, 67 Brooklyn Art Association
1863–4 Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
2006 National Academy of Design, Taft Museum, Hyde Collection, Telfair Museum of Art

V. Memberships

Century Association
National Academy of Design
Sketch Club

VI. Notes

1 “Gallery Chronicle,” The New Criterion, October 2006.
2 Katherine E. Manthorne, “Becoming A Landscape Painter,” in Katherine E. Manthorne and Mark D. Mitchell, Luminist Horizons: The Art and Collection of James A. Suydam (New York: George Braziller, 2006), p. 28.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid., 23
5 David C. Huntington, “Church and Luminism: Light for America’s Elect,” in American Light: The Luminist Movement, 1850-1875, ed. John Wilmerding and Lisa Fellows Andrus (Princeton: University of Princeton Press, 1989), p. 184.
6 Paul Shepard, “Paintings of the New England Landscape: A Scientist Looks at Their Geomorphology,” College Art Journal 17, no. 1 (Autumn 1957): 32–33.
7 Winifred Eva Howe and Henry Watson Kent, A History of the Metropolitan Museum: With a chapter on the early institutions of art in New York (New York: Gilliss Press, 1913), p. 56.
8 “The National Academy Airs Some Lesser-Known Work,” The New York Times, April 28, 1989.
9 The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Corcoran Gallery of Art were founded nearly five years after Suydam’s bequest. Manthorne, p. 26.

VII. Suggested Resources

“National Academy Sells Two Hudson River School Paintings to Bolster its Finances,” The New York Times, December 6, 2008.
Howe, Winifred Eva and Kent, Henry Watson. A History of the Metropolitan Museum: With a chapter on the early institutions of art in New York. New York: Gilliss Press, 1913.
Huntington, David C. “Church and Luminism: Light for America’s Elect,” in American Light: The Luminist Movement, 1850-1875, ed. John Wilmerding and Lisa Fellows Andrus. Princeton: University of Princeton Press, 1989.
Manthorne, Katherine E. “Becoming A Landscape Painter,” in Katherine E. Manthorne and Mark D. Mitchell, Luminist Horizons: The Art and Collection of James A. Suydam. New York: George Braziller, 2006.
Novak, Barbara. American Painting in the Nineteenth Century: Realism, Idealism, and the American Experience. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
Shepard, Paul. “Paintings of the New England Landscape: A Scientist Looks at Their Geomorphology,” College Art Journal 17, no. 1, Autumn 1957.
Wilmerding, John. “The Luminist Movement: Some Reflections,” in American Light: The Luminist Movement, 1850-1875, ed. John Wilmerding and Lisa Fellows Andrus. Princeton: University of Princeton Press, 1989

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