John Henry Hill

Artist Biography

American Pre-Raphaelite

By Amy Spencer

Working in watercolor, gouache, oil, and engraving, Hill focused primarily upon natural subjects as influenced by the writings of John Ruskin.

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

I. Biography

John Henry Hill was a painter and engraver of the American pre-Raphaelite movement. Pre-Raphaelitism in America meant an emphasis on meticulous detail in depicting observed, as opposed to imagined, nature. At the height of his career, Hill was at the center of this movement; painting grand vistas and delicate still lifes with pre-Raphaelite clarity, while also pioneering the investigation of etching in America in the late 1860s (he etched more than 70 plates in his life). During his later years Hill, who never married, retreated from society and lived a hermit-like life in the Adirondacks and West Nyack, New York.

Hill came from a family of artists; his father and grandfather were topographical artists and they both––confusingly––also had the first name John. Hill’s grandfather, John Hill (1770–1850) was born in London and, as an established aquatint engraver, moved to America in 1816. He worked on commissions creating sets of prints from famous images, such as William Guy Wall’s The Hudson River Port Folio (1820–25). His son, John William Hill (1812–1879), learned how to draw and engrave through assisting his father in the preparation process. Father and son moved to West Nyack in 1836 and, three years later, the third generation in this line of artists, John Henry Hill, was born.

John William Hill had a profound influence upon his son, John Henry Hill’s artistic education. While the elder Hill was a talented engraver, he was also an accomplished draughtsman and watercolorist. Around the mid-1850s John William Hill first read John Ruskin’s influential Modern Painters (1843). This book, and its subsequent volumes, gained great attention in America, as young artists were attracted to Ruskin’s idea that painters should document nature as they saw it. Painting precisely from nature in the open air was a revelation to William Hill who had came to disapprove of the mannered style of copying and mechanical tricks his father taught him.1 After reading Modern Painters, William Hill became one of the key members of the American pre-Raphaelite movement.

Following the lead of his father, John Henry Hill grew up embracing the principles of Ruskin; drawing and painting en plein air as truthfully as he could. Hill’s earliest studies from the 1850s are small works often depicting humble subjects––flowers, weeds, rocks––in exacting detail. Hill also often took his dedication to truth and nature to a literal-minded conclusion with studies of dead birds (preferable to “artificial” taxidermy ones) as still life subjects. Hill had his first work exhibited at the National Academy of Design in 1856, at age seventeen, and he became a member of the Academy three years later.

In January 1863 Hill and his father became founding members of the Society for the Advancement of Truth in Art. The group’s basic philosophy was to return to simplicity and practicality in art as described in Ruskin’s writings. The group held meetings to discuss the reform of American art and architecture; its members included lawyers, geologists, architects, and artists such as Thomas Farrar (who trained under Ruskin at the Working Man’s College in London), Charles Herbert Moore, Henry Roderick Newman, and William Trost Richards. From this society emerged the journal The New Path.

From 1864–65, Hill spent eight months in England where he studied the paintings of Joseph Mallord William Turner, an artist who Ruskin admired. Hill was also impressed by the works of the British Pre-Raphaelites and their associates such as William Henry Hunt, John Frederick Lewis, John Brett, and William Dyce.

Upon his return to America, Hill moved to Ashfield, Massachusetts, where he joined a group of Ruskinian artists. While in Ashfield Hill produced twenty-four etchings that illustrated his theories on drawing and painting from nature. These prints were published in a volume called Sketches from Nature (1867).

In 1868 Hill spent the summer in Clarence King’s United States Geological Survey exploration of the fortieth parallel as a staff artist. King, who was also a member of the Society for the Advancement of Truth in Art, led the surveying party through California, Nevada, Idaho, and Utah. Hill sketched places such as the Yosemite Valley, Shoshone Falls, and Mount Shasta (some of the paintings were commissioned by King himself). Hill joined a second King expedition in 1870.

Hill eventually returned to New York and moved into a cabin on Phantom Island in the Narrows of Lake George. Hill had previously visited the Adirondack on short trips; however, as of the fall of 1870 it became his principal home for the next six years. From December 1870 to March 1874 Hill kept a diary describing his daily life on Phantom Island. This diary is in the collection of the Adirondack Museum.

During his first year on Phantom Island Hill mostly dedicated himself to paintings based on his sketches from King’s surveying expeditions. As time passed, Hill increasingly began to depict local landscapes in watercolors and oils. Hill painted some topographical landmarks including Sabbath Day Point, Fort Ticonderoga, and Shelving Rock Falls. He sold these works to tourists passing through the region and also took commissions from local landowners who wished to have paintings of their summer homes.

Hill also had a printing press on Phantom Island which he hauled from Bolton’s Landing over the ice of the lake in the winter of January 1871. Hill produced around ten etchings during his time on Phantom Island. Many of these works are very experimental in their technique and attest to Hill’s contribution to an etching revival in America.2

In 1875 a guidebook by Seneca Ray Stoddard, Lake George: A Book of Today, was published that described Hill and his island retreat: “Phantom Island… is the home of the ‘hermit of Lake George,’ of whom rumor hath many tales, dark and mysterious to tell, although, in fact, the subject is an inoffensive, modes, and gentlemanly appearing individual.”3 The resulting publicity from this exposure saw a slight increase in Hill’s sales; however, the unwanted attention from curious tourists was eventually too much for the introverted artist to bear. He suffered a breakdown and was removed to an asylum for a short time in 1876.

In 1878 Hill return to the United Kingdom where he worked in Wales and London. During the summer of 1879 Hill spent several months travelling around continental Europe following an itinerary proposed by Ruskin, with whom he had entered into a sporadic correspondence.

Hill returned to American in 1879 upon news of his father’s death. Living in his family home in West Nyack, New York, Hill resumed painting in the studio built by his father. In 1880 Hill’s work was featured in the first volume of The American Art Review. With this encouragement Hill returned to etching (he had not worked with the medium since his time on Phantom Island). In 1888 he wrote and illustrated An Artist’s Memorial (1888) with etchings after his father’s paintings. Hill lived in West Nyack until his death at age eighty-three in 1922. He is buried beside his father and grandfather.

The American artists associated with the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood are almost all obscure today; however, this brief movement had a great influence upon sharpening an awareness of specificity––emphasizing the real rather than the ideal––for American landscape artists of the second generation Hudson River school and onwards. Exhibitions such as “The New Path: Ruskin and the American Pre-Raphaelites,” held at the Brooklyn Museum in 1987, have sought to contextualize the importance of the American Pre-Raphaelite artists within the broader context of American art. Nevertheless, there is, undoubtedly, a lot more to be learned from Hill and his peers. Today, Hill’s charmingly detailed works are in the collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and New-York Historical Society.

II. Chronology

1839 Born in West Nyack, New York to artist John William Hill and Catherine Smith, older brother is astronomer George William Hill
1854–55 Joins father on first sketching trips working directly from nature
Sketches in Maine, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Niagara, New Jersey, and New York
1856 Exhibits first work at the National Academy of Design
1857 Makes first etchings
1864–65 Spends eight months living in London studying the work of Joseph Mallord William Turner
1867 Returns to America and lives in Ashfield, Massachusetts
Publishes Sketches from Nature, a folio containing twenty-four etchings
1868 Spends summer as working artist in Clarence King’s surveying party in California, Nevada, Idaho, and Utah
1870 Spends another summer with King’s party
1870–76 Lives in a cabin on the isolated Phantom Island in Lake George, New York
1876 Suffers a breakdown and is temporarily institutionalized
1878 Returns to the United Kingdom and works in Wales and London
1879 Spends several months in summer travelling around continental Europe following an itinerary proposed by Ruskin
Returns to America when father dies
1888 Publishes a memorial portfolio for his father
1922 Dies in West Nyack on December 18

III. Collections

Adirondack Museum, Blue Mountain Lake
Brooklyn Museum
High Museum of Art, Atlanta
Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College, Hanover
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
New-York Historical Society
Princeton University Art Museum

IV. Exhibitions

1856 National Academy of Design
1857 National Academy of Design
1858 National Academy of Design
1860 National Academy of Design
1861 National Academy of Design
1862 National Academy of Design
1863 National Academy of Design
1864 National Academy of Design
1865 Brooklyn Art Association (exhibits here regularly until 1885)
1866–76 American Society of Painters in Water Colors
1871 National Academy of Design
1872 National Academy of Design
1874 National Academy of Design
1875 American Society of Painters in Water Colors
1876 National Academy of Design
1878 National Academy of Design
1881 National Academy of Design
Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts
1882 Boston Art Club
National Academy of Design
1891 Boston Art Club
National Academy of Design
1932 Museum of Modern Art, NY
1973 “John William Hill and John Henry Hill,” Washburn Gallery, NY
1976 “Drawings and Watercolors: John William Hill and John Henry Hill,” Washburn Gallery
1987 “The New Path: Ruskin and the American Pre-Raphaelites,” Brooklyn Museum, NY
1988 “The American Watercolor Movement, 1860-1900,” Brooklyn Museum
1995 “Life Lines: American Master Drawings, 1788-1962, from the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute,” Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute, NY
1998 “Masters of Color and Light: Homer, Sargent and the American Watercolor Movement,” Brooklyn Museum
“For Beauty and for Truth: The William and Abigail Gerdts Collection of American Still Life,” Mead Art Museum at Amherst College, MA
2001 “A Family Album: Brooklyn Collects,” Brooklyn Museum
2005 “Marks of Distinction: Two Hundred Years of American Drawings and Watercolors from the Hood Museum of Art,” National Academy Museum, NY
2006 “American Etchings from the Parrish Art Museum,” UBS Art Gallery, NY

V. Memberships

American Water Color Society
National Academy of Design
New York Etching Club
Society for the Advancement of Truth in Art (or The Association for the Advancement of Truth in Art)

VI. Notes

See John Henry Hill, John William Hill. An Artist’s Memorial. New York, 1888.
See Nancy Finlay, “The Hermit of Phantom Island: John Henry Hill’s Etchings of Lake George,” in Adirondack Prints and Printmakers: The Call of the Wild, Caroline Mastin Welsh (Syracuse, N.Y.: The Adirondack Museum/Syracuse University Press, 1998), pp. 105–124.
Seneca Ray Stoddard, Lake George: A Book of Today (Albany: Van Benthuysen Steam Printing House, 1875), p. 96 in Finlay, pp. 105.

VII. Suggested Resources

Ferber, Linda, and William Gerdts. The New path: Ruskin and the American Pre-Raphaelites. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Brooklyn Museum, 1985.
Welsh, Caroline Mastin (ed.). Adirondack Prints and Printmakers: The Call of the Wild. Syracuse, N.Y.: The Adirondack Museum/Syracuse University Press, 1998.

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