Levi Wells Prentice

Artist Biography

A talented American artist best known for his Adirondack landscapes and detailed still-life paintings.

By Chelsea DeLay

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

I. Biography

Levi Wells Prentice was born on December 18, 1851 in Harrisburg, New York, and was raised on a farm in nearby Lewis County. By the 1870s, the Prentice family was living in Syracuse, where the artist began painting the Adirondack Mountains. Later, at the age of twenty-three, Prentice formally declared himself a landscape painter.(1) He was essentially a self-taught artist; in 1873, a reporter from the Syracuse Journal wrote, “Mr. Prentice has thus far been his own master. Whatever of development his rare genius has received has come through his own efforts.”(2)

Prentice’s early approach was influenced by the methods and ideas of Hudson River School painters, including Asher B. Durand, Thomas Cole, Frederic E. Church, and Albert Bierstadt. Like these great artists, Prentice often used rough sketches and photography to preserve images of the landscape he planned to portray, which he referred to while painting the final piece in his studio. Despite the fact that Prentice made only four visits to the North Woods between the years of 1873 and 1877, he produced more than seventy meticulously detailed scenes of the lakes, mountains, and woods throughout the area and became well-known as a talented Adirondack artist. His paintings are infused with a quiet sublimity and magnificence that echoes an appreciation for the raw beauty of the natural, rugged terrain that was shared by leading Hudson River School artists. His landscapes often incorporate several characteristic elements, including remnants of tree trunks, stylized rocks, local flora and fauna rendered with extreme detail, and birch trees with brittle and unfurling bark.(3)

During the late 1870s, Prentice supplemented his income by taking on additional projects. Although his landscapes were bringing him recognition, he also painted portraits, decorated residential ceilings, and designed furniture and houses.(4) Around 1883, Prentice and his wife moved to Brooklyn, where his work underwent an important stylistic transformation; he shifted away from scenes of the American landscape and became almost entirely focused on still lifes. His arrival to Brooklyn was well-timed with the city’s renewed interest in still-life painting. American art scholar William H. Gerdts notes the resurgence of the genre’s popularity, writing, “One of the most distinctive aspects of Brooklyn painting in the late nineteenth century was the predominance of still lifes. This was no doubt due to the easy life that Brooklyn offered to the sedentary painter, who could work within the comfort of his own home and studio, often one and the same.”(5)

Prentice’s still lifes typically fall within one of four categories: simple table-top arrangements of fruit set in an undefined interior, elaborate tabletop arrangements in an identifiable interior, scenes of fruit tumbling out of a basket onto the grass, and living fruit growing outdoors in its natural setting.(6) All of his still lifes utilize the trompe l’oeil effect, a technique that he may have seen in still lifes by William Harnett. Prentice’s favorite still-life subject was the apple. He produced more than forty scenes of the fruit in a myriad of ways: in bowls, in woven baskets, in metal pails, piled under a tree, and next to a ladder or a fence. In these apple paintings, as well as his others, there is one common element that the artist employed—“rustic unpretentiousness.”(7) Gerdts notes Prentice’s loyalty to an honest representation of his subjects: “His fruit is brilliantly colored but often pitted with spots or holes.”(8)

In addition to his career as a painter, Prentice worked as a teacher and also crafted and gilded his own frames. He passed away on November 28, 1935, and his obituary in the Philadelphia Journal of Commerce remembered him as “a landscape painter and interpreter of the best in American natural scenery. . . He was known and honored wherever art is worshipped for his unusual talent in depicting the Adirondacks particularly.”(9) There was a resurgence of interest in Prentice’s artwork during the 1970s, and again in the 1990s, when The Adirondack Museum hosted a commemorative retrospective of his work. Examples by the artist are included in the permanent collections of the Carnegie Museum of Art, Detroit Institute of Arts, Hudson River Museum, Montclair Art Museum, Shelburne Museum, and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

II. Chronology

1851 Born in Harrisburg, New York on December 18 to Samuel Wells and Rhoda S. Robbins Prentice
1870–79 Resides in Syracuse, New York; visits the Adirondack region four times
1873 Takes a five-week sketching trip to the Adirondacks
1877 Travels to Blue Mountain Lake on two separate occasions
1879–ca. 1883 Resides in Buffalo, New York
1882 Marries Emma Roseloe Sparks
ca. 1883 Moves to Brooklyn; stylistic shift towards painting still lifes
1903 Leaves Brooklyn
ca. 1907 Settles in Philadelphia
1923 Undergoes cataract surgery in Philadelphia at the age of seventy-two
1935 Passes away on November 28 in Philadelphia

III. Collections

Adirondack Museum, Blue Mountain Lake, New York
Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
The Dayton Art Institute, Ohio
Detroit Institute of Arts, Michigan
Everson Museum of Art, New York
Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire
Hudson River Museum, Yonkers, New York
Louisiana Art & Science Museum, Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Montclair Art Museum, New Jersey
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts
Onondaga Historical Association, Syracuse, New York
Philbrook Museum of Art, Tulsa, Oklahoma
Rahr-West Art Museum, Manitowoc, Wisconsin
Roberson Museum and Science Center, Binghamton, New York
Shelburne Museum, Vermont
Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut

IV. Exhibitions

1882 Social Art Club of Syracuse, New York
1993 The Adirondack Museum, Blue Mountain Lake, New York, retrospective

V. Memberships

Brooklyn Art Association

VI. Notes

1. Syracuse Journal (Dec 2, 1873) quoted in Barbara L. Jones, Nature Staged: The Landscapes and Still Life Paintings of Levi Wells Prentice (Blue Mountain Lake, New York: The Adirondack Museum, 1993), 22.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid., 27.
4. Peter Hastings Falk, “Levi Wells Prentice,” in Who Was Who in American Art, 1564–1975: 400 Years of Artists in America 2 (Madison, Connecticut: Sound View Press, 1999), 2659.
5. William H. Gerdts, Art Across America I (New York, New York: Abbeville Press, 1990), 140.
6. Falk, 2659.
7. Jones, 55.
8. William H. Gerdts and Russell Burke, American Still Life Painting (New York, New York: Praeger Press, 1971), 162.
9. “Death Claims Levi W. Prentice,” Philadelphia Journal of Commerce LX (December 7, 1935), 9.

VII. Suggested Resources

Falk, Peter Hastings, ed. Who Was Who in American Art, 1564–1975: 400 Years of Artists in America. Vol. 2, G–O. Madison, Connecticut: Sound View Press, 1999.
Jones, Barbara L. Nature Staged: The Landscapes and Still Life Paintings of Levi Wells Prentice. Blue Mountain Lake, New York: The Adirondack Museum, 1993.

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