Elihu Vedder

Artist Biography

American Symbolist Painter

By Mary L. Urban

Expatriate painter, poet, and book illustrator, Elihu Vedder is best remembered for his decorative and visionary paintings, as well as his revival of mural painting in America. Dreams and the subconscious inspired every aspect of Vedder’s art throughout his life.

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

I. Biography

Elihu Vedder, born in New York City on February 26, 1836, would become one of the most imaginative painters among American expatriate artists in the second half of the nineteenth century. Vedder’s father was a dentist working in Cuba while Vedder went to boarding school in New York and spent summers with his grandfather in Schenectady, New York. Vedder’s first foray into art was training under genre painter Tompkins Harrison Matteson. In 1856, he traveled to Paris for the first time to study with François-Édouard Picot. The following year, Vedder went to Florence where he studied under Raffaello Bonaituti. While in Florence, Vedder was introduced to and influenced by the macchiaioli, a group of artists who rebelled against academic painting and drew inspiration from macchie, or marks, similar to those used by the impressionists. After painting his first landscapes, Vedder explained, “I loved landscape but was eternally urged to paint the figure; and the figure suffered by my constant flirting with the landscape.”[1]

Vedder established a career in New York, doing illustrations for Vanity Fair and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper while at the same time becoming intimate with the literary and artistic scene of the city. His companionship with writers such as Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, and Fitz Hugh Ludlow inspired Vedder to merge the literary and symbolic in his painting. In 1864, Vedder was named an Associate of the National Academy of Design and the following year gained full membership as an Academician.

After marrying Elizabeth Caroline Rosekrans in Glen Falls, New York in 1869, the two honeymooned together in England. This first visit to England had a tremendous effect on Vedder’s already mystical style: the influence of paintings by Pre-Raphaelites inspired Vedder to shift to a more classical artistic style, using symbolism to explore faith and morality in art. Vedder’s art would continue to reflect his focus on the search for the beautiful in art while employing Italian Renaissance and Pre-Raphaelite tendencies.

Back in New York, Vedder inaugurated his participation in the decorative arts in America by designing Christmas cards in the early 1880s. He became a member of the Tile Club and The Century Association, designed publication covers for both groups, and in 1882 worked with Louis Comfort Tiffany designing stained glass for the residence of A. H. Barney. Vedder would decorate with astrological subjects which continually drew inspiration from the themes of fate and chance. Vedder’s culmination of his interest in literature came in 1884, when he illustrated the English translation of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. In the early 1890s, Vedder used his decorative art in mural painting, doing murals for the Walker Art Gallery Building at Bowdoin College, Collis Potter Huntington’s New York dining room, and the Library of Congress.

Vedder left the United States for the last time on March 22, 1901 and divided his time between Rome and his villa on the island of Capri. Writing poetry was a great solace to Vedder after the death of his wife Carrie in 1909, and later his son Enoch in 1916. Vedder published his autobiography The Digressions of V (1910), followed by Miscellaneous Moods in Verse (1914), and Doubt and Other Things (1922). Vedder died January 29, 1923 in Rome. Vedder remained faithful to the exploration of his own dreams and perceptions in his art as influential art critic Diego Angeli wrote, “Elihu Vedder was one of the most thoughtful painters.”[2] It was Vedder’s search for meaning fueled by the exploration of his own subconscious that gave his decorative art visual significance. The dream-like imagery in his paintings secured Vedder’s legacy as a brilliant and visionary artist.

II. Chronology

1836 February 26, born in New York City
1855 Begins formal artistic training in New York
1856 First trip abroad to Paris
1857 First trip to Italy where he stayed until 1860
1860 Visits father in Cuba and returns to New York
1865 Travels to Boston, aware of artist John LaFarge and architectural firm McKim, Mead and White
1866 Rents a studio in Rome at 33 Via Margutta, making Rome his permanent address from then on
1869 Marries Elizabeth Caroline Rosekrans on July 13 in Glen Falls, NY
1870 Travels to London where first child is born
1879 For the first time in ten years returns to New York
1883 Began work on fifty-five illustrations for Edward Fitzgerald’s The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, which is published in 1884
1890 Works on various mural paintings over the next ten years
1901 Leaves the United States for the last time, where he divides the rest of his life between Rome and his villa on the island of Capri
1923 Dies January 29 in Rome

III. Collections

The American Academy of Arts & Letters, NY
Art Institute of Chicago, IL
Brooklyn Museum, NY
Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, DC
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, CA
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Reynolda House Museum of American Art, NC
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC
Wellesley College, MA
Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT

IV. Exhibitions

1862–82 National Academy of Design
1863–72 Brooklyn Art Association
1867 Venice Biennale
1873, 1876, 1880–81 Boston Art Club
1880–85, 1893, 1898–99 Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, annuals
1889 Paris Exposition, prize
1901 Panama-America Exposition, Buffalo, New York, medal
1912, 1919 Corcoran Gallery, biennials
1913 Art Institute of Chicago
1979 National Collection of Fine Arts, Smithsonian Institution and Brooklyn Museum
1998 The Museums at Stony Brook
2008 Smithsonian American Art Museum

V. Memberships

American Academy of Arts & Letters
Century Association
Mural Painters
National Academy of Design, Academician, 1865
Society of American Artists
Tile Club

VI. Notes

1. Elihu Vedder, The Digressions of V (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1910), 332–3.
2. Perceptions and Evocations: The Art of Elihu Vedder (Washington, DC: Published for the National Collection of Fine Arts by the Smithsonian Institution Press, 1979), 12.

VII. Suggested Resources

Elihu Vedder Papers. Archives of American Art and New York, American Academy of Arts and Letters, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

Perceptions and Evocations: The Art of Elihu Vedder. Washington, DC: Published for the National Collection of Fine Arts by the Smithsonian Institution Press, 1979.

Soria, Regina. Elihu Vedder: American Visionary Artist in Rome (1836–1923). Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1970.

Reich, Marjorie. “The Imagination of Elihu Vedder as Revealed in his Book Illustrations.” American Art Journal 6 (May 1974).

Vedder, Elihu. The Digressions of V. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1910.

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