Lockwood de Forest

Artist Biography

Key Figure of the American Aesthetic Movement

By Amy Spencer

De Forest was a landscape painter and designer who introduced the East Indian craft revival to America during the Gilded Age.

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


I. Biography

Lockwood de Forest was a landscape painter, amateur architect, and interior designer who was a key figure in an American Renaissance in decorative arts at the turn of the 19th century. As a young man, de Forest first worked as a painter, taking the lessons of his Hudson River School contemporaries and applying them in a unique manner, creating unpretentious landscapes that were rich in atmosphere. In 1879 de Forest began his career in the decorative arts working at Associated Artists along with Louis Comfort Tiffany, before starting his own decorating business that he ran for thirty years. Upon his retirement de Forest moved to Santa Barbara where he returned to his love of painting while still taking design commissions from local patrons.

Lockwood de Forest was born in New York in 1850 to a prominent family, which had made its money in South American and Caribbean shipping. He grew up in Greenwich Village and on Long Island at the family summer estate. Encouraged by his parents, Henry Grant de Forest and Julia Mary Weeks, Lockwood and his three siblings developed lifelong interests in the arts; the eldest son, Robert Weeks (1848–1931) served for seventeen years as the president of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; their sister, Julia Brasher (1853–1910) wrote a book on the history of art; and their youngest brother Henry Wheeler (1855–1938) was an avid art collector and amateur landscape architect.

During a visit to Rome in 1868, nineteen-year-old de Forest first began to study art seriously, taking painting lessons from the Italian landscapist Hermann David Salomon Corrodi (1844–1905). On the same trip Lockwood met the American painter (and his maternal great-uncle by marriage) Frederic Edwin Church (1826–1900) who became his mentor. De Forest accompanied Church on sketching trips around Italy and continued this practice when they both returned to America in 1869. In 1872 de Forest took a studio at the Tenth Street Studio Building in New York. During these formative years de Forest counted among his friends artists such as Sanford Robinson Gifford (1823–80), George Henry Yewell (1830–1923), John Frederick Kensett (1816–72), Jervis McEntee (1828–91), and Walter Launt Palmer (1854–1932).

Over the next decade de Forest experienced moderate success as a painter. He exhibited for the first time at the National Academy of Design in 1872, and made two more painting trips abroad, in 1875–76 and 1877–78, traveling to the major continental capitals but also the Middle East and North Africa. De Forest’s works from the 1870s are generally modest-sized canvases depicting low-key views in an evocative painterly style.

In his mid-twenties de Forest became interested in decoration and architecture after browsing Church’s extensive library at his Persian-style home, Olana, in New York. De Forest’s first major interior design project was to remodel his parent’s New York townhouse in 1876. For the next thirty years de Forest explored interior design, with a specific interest in Indian woodworking.

In 1879, de Forest became a partner of the design firm Associated Artists, with Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848–1933), Samuel Colman (1832–1920), and Candace Wheeler (1827–1923) where he directed the production of architectural woodwork. While Associated Artists lasted only four years, the firm was one of the most influential decorating companies in the nineteenth century and at the forefront of the American Aesthetic Movement emphasizing hand work, intricate color and texture, and tasteful but exotic design themes.

The same year he joined Associated Artists, de Forest married Meta Kemble and the newlyweds visited British India on their honeymoon. During what became a two year trip, de Forest collected furniture, jewelry and textiles as he traveled with his wife through Bombay (Mumbai), Surat, Baroda (Vadodara), Ahmadabad, Agra, Delhi, Amritsar, Lahore, and Srinagar. In Ahmadabad de Forest met Muggunbhai Hutheesing, a philanthropist with an interest in the arts, and together the two men opened the Ahmadabad Woodcarving Company. This studio became crucial to supplying Associated Artists with carved architectural elements and furniture. While in India, de Forest also became good friends with John Lockwood Kipling (father of Rudyard Kipling), who shared de Forest’s passion for Indian art. Together the two men organized a display of works by the Ahmadabad Woodcarving Company at the Lahore Museum in 1881.

After Associated Artists closed in 1882, de Forest opened his own design business in New York with a lavish showroom at 9 East 17th Street. In addition to managing the design, production, and import of Indian goods, de Forest continued to design his own furnishings and architectural ornaments. His work was exhibited at the Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London (1886), and at the World’s Columbian Exhibition seven years later. De Forest’s offerings at these fairs attracted an impressive array of clients, including the industrialist Andrew Carnegie (de Forest designed Carnegie’s bedroom and library in the Andrew Carnegie House, now the Cooper-Hewitt Museum), transportation magnate Charles Tyson Yerkes, Chicago businessman Potter Palmer, and author Mark Twain.

In 1887 De Forest bought 7 East 10th Street. He had the architect Van Campen Taylor design a plain, basic house that he then proceeded to decorate with intricately carved teak elements made in India. The home was featured in a New York Times article in 1895, where it was written: “The De Forest house surpasses all others in the completeness and harmony of its Oriental character… [The architectural elements and furnishings] are as wholly East Indian as though they were furnishing a Hindu instead of a New-York apartment.”1

While working in the decorating business, De Forest had continued to paint at home and wherever he traveled, and he exhibited his work frequently at the Century Club and the National Academy of Design. In 1898, de Forest was made a full member of the Academy and it was around this time, with a declining market for exotic interiors, that de Forest became a prolific painter again.

After beginning to winter in Santa Barbara, California around 1889 de Forest built a house and moved there permanently in 1922. He was attracted to the comfortable climate and striking coastlines of the West Coast and, while he continued to design and decorate houses, landscape painting was his primary occupation. De Forest created hundreds of oil sketches of Californian sites, and also traveled to the Pacific Northwest (1903), Maine (1905 and 1908), the Grand Canyon (1906 and 1909), Mexico (1904, 1906–7 and 1911), Massachusetts (1910), and Alaska (1912). Lockwood de Forest died in Santa Barbara in 1932.

Today de Forest’s work is featured in the collections of many prominent American museums such as the Brooklyn Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art and New-York Historical Society. Whether working as a designer, decorator, or landscape artist, de Forest always maintained that art should have a useful purpose. As a painter, therefore, de Forest’s aim was to translate a truthful visual experience onto a flat surface. De Forest explains:

Art is anything well done, and only becomes fine art spelled with a capital F and A when it is exceptionally well done. Nothing can ever be a real work of art until is fulfills some useful purpose… Does it not follow that if you remove art from its useful purpose as related to life you destroy it? 2

II. Chronology

1850 Lockwood de Forest is born in New York City on January 23, the second child of Henry Grant de Forest and Julia Mary Weeks de Forest
Grows up in New York City and at the family summer home on Long Island
1864 Travels to Europe with family
1868–69 Makes a second trip to Europe with family, visiting Rome, Constantinople, Athens, Vienna, Salzburg, and Innsbruck
Visits Frederic Edwin Church’s (a distant relative) studio in Rome
Studies with Herman Corrodi in Rome
1870 Studies in U.S. with James M. Hart
1870–74 Begins informal study with Church, sometimes visiting his home, Olana, in New York on the Hudson River
1872 Takes a studio at the Tenth Street Studio Building in New York
Exhibits for the first time at the National Academy of Design
1875-76 Travels extensively in Egypt, Syria, and Greece, sketching, painting, and collecting handicrafts for U.S. museums
1877 Returns to America and takes sketching trip with Church, Sanford R. Gifford, Horace W. Robbins, and A.. L. Holley in Maine
1878 Returns to Greece and Egypt
After retuning to American, becomes founding member of Associated Artists with Louis Comfort Tiffany, Candace Wheeler, and Samuel Colman
1880 Marries Meta Kemble at Trinity Chapel, New York on November 11
1881 Arrives in Bombay on January 1 and begins his travels through India visiting Bombay (Mumbai), Surat, Baroda (Vadodara), Ahmadabad, Agra, Delhi, Amritsar, Lahore, and Srinagar
Spends hot season in Nepal touring through Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhatgaon
Founds workshops at Ahmadabad for the revival of woodcarving and export of works to America for Associated Artists
1882 Spends most of the year in Ahmadabad and returns to America in November when Associated Artists closes
1883 Leaves Tenth Street Studio Building and opens own showroom at 9 East 17th Street
1885 Publishes Indian Domestic Architecture
1886 Wins medal for his Indian-style carvings at the Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London
1889 Moves into 7 East 10th Street, a house which de Forest has decorated with woodworking designs from his Ahmadabad workshop
1892 Returns to India for another year
1893 Displays a carved teak room at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago
1898 Becomes a full member of the National Academy of Design
Travels to Europe
1899 Elected treasurer of the National Academy of Design (holds this position until 1907)
Begins spending summers in California
1903 Travels to the Pacific Northwest
1904 Travels to Mexico
1905 Travels to Maine
1906–7 Returns to Mexico
1908 Makes a return trip to Maine
1906 Takes a trip to the Grand Canyon
1909 Returns to the Grand Canyon
1910 Visits Massachusetts
1911 Makes final trip to Mexico
1912 Takes productive painting trip to Alaska
1913 Makes last trip to India while also visiting Japan, Korea, and China
1915 Builds a house on Laguna Street in Santa Barbara
1916 de Forest and his brother, Robert, president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art donate a carved interior from Vadi Parasnath to the Museum; it is installed in the museum’s new Indian galleries two years later (and is still on view today)
1922 Retires from the furniture design business and settles permanently in Santa Barbara, California to paint landscapes
1932 Dies on April 3 in Santa Barbara

III. Collections

Century Association
Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum (former home of Andrew Carnegie)
Baltimore Museum of Art
Brooklyn Museum
Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
Heckscher Museum of Art, Huntington, New York
Indianapolis Museum of Art
Lahore Museum, Pakistan
Mark Twain House and Museum, Hartford, Connecticut
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Naulakha, Dummerston, Vermont (former home of Rudyard Kipling)
National Academy of Design
New York University’s Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life (former home of Lockwood de Forest)
New-York Historical Society
Olana State Historic Site, New York (former home of Frederic Edwin Church)

IV. Exhibitions

1872 National Academy of Design (also in 1873, 1874, 1875, 1877, 1879, 1880, 1883, 1884, 1885, 1887, 1888, 1889, 1890, 1891, 1892, 1893, 1894, 1895, 1896, 1897, 1898, 1899, 1900, 1901, 1902, 1904, 1905, 1906, 1906, 1907, 1908, 1908, 1909, 1910, 1911, 1916, 1919, 1924, 1925, 1926, 1927, 1930)
1884 Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
1886 Colonial and Indian Exhibition, London
1889 Art Institute of Chicago
1892 Avery’s Art Galleries, New York
1893 Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago
1894 Art Institute of Chicago
1895 Art Institute of Chicago
1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition, St. Louis
Century Club
1905 St. Botolph Club, Boston
1908 Century Club
Art Guild of St. Paul, Minnesota
1913 John Herron Art Institute, Indianapolis
City Art Museum of St. Louis
1976 Heckscher Museum, Huntington, New York
2000 Red Mills Gallery, New York
2001 Richard York Gallery, New York

V. Memberships

Academy of National Artists
American Federation of Arts
Architectural League
Art Fund Society
Artists Aid Society
Associated Artists
Boston Society of Arts and Crafts
Century Association
National Academy of Design
National Arts Club
New York Society Club

VI. Notes

“Unique in Decoration; Hindu Wood Carvings Used in Interior Housefurnishings; An Artist’s East Indian Home A Very Beautiful Example of the Art of the Orient,” New York Times, November 24, 1895, Wednesday, p. 28.
Lockwood in Roberta A. Mayer, Lockwood de Forest: Furnishing the Gilded Age with a Passion for India (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2008), pp. 197–198.

VII. Suggested Resources

Goldyne, Joseph. Lockwood de Forest: Plein-air Oil Sketches. New York, NY: Richard York Gallery, 2001.
Mayer, Roberta A. Lockwood de Forest: Furnishing the Gilded Age with a Passion for India. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2008.

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