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JOHN VANDERLYN
From Olde Ulster Magazine by Benjamin Myer Brink VOL IX MARCH 1913 No 3

John Vanderlyn  was born in Kingston, New York, on the 15th day of October, 1775. His paternal grandfather, an officer in the Dutch navy, found his way to Kingston about the beginning of the eighteenth century. He was a man of talent--a born artist--with no little skill as a painter, as is clear from portraitures by his hand still extant in Ulster county. His name was Peter Vanderlyn and he married a daughter of the Reverend Peter Vas’ pastor of the old Dutch Church of Kingston. One of his sons was Nicholas, the father of John, the subject of this sketch, and Nicholas too had the bias of the family toward the pencil, as is evident in portraits preserved in older Ulster county families. John Vanderlyn displayed his talents very early and his earliest years marked their determinate direction. He received a fair academical education; passed a year in New York in a paint and color shop of high repute, taking drawing lessons meanwhile in the evenings; and his first ambitious essay in oil painting was a copy from Stuart’s portrait of Colonel Aaron Burr, which proved the means of his introduction to this generous and discriminate friend. Colonel Burr placed him with Gilbert Stuart, then at Philadelphia, for some months; and in the fall of 1796 sent him, with liberal provision, to Paris, whose schools were then in high repute. Vanderlyn there gave himself with ardor to his studies under Vincent. He attained and maintained the highest rank among the hundreds of pupils there gathered, and to the diligent studies of four years he owed that skill in drawing, and especially the anatomical accuracy, which always distinguishes him from his most favored contemporaries in this country. In 1801, Vanderlyn returned to the United States. His special excellence at that time, was the execution of fine portraitures of cabinet size in chalks, and in this work he found ample employ both in New York and Washington. In 1802, by the advice of Colonel Burr, he visited Niagara, making the first sketches worthy of that sublime cataract. These he carried with him to England, and two views were engraved in the best style, but the sales never paid for the mere manual labor and outlay of the artist. He had been charged with a commission by the American Academy, which gave him a year’s salary, sufficient for his support in Paris during that period. But it was to the kindness of William Maclure, of Virginia, that he was indebted for the means of spending a year and a half in Rome. He proceeded thither in 1803, returning to Paris in 1807. His friend and fellow artist, Washington Alls- ton, was his only intimate there. At Rome Vanderlyn gained a high namc by his first great effort in the his torical walks of art -- though he had in 1804 made his first essay in ‘The Death of Jane McCrea'-- intended as one of a series to illustrate Barlow’s "Columbiad.’’ But his " Cams Marius, or the Ruins of Carthage," was a loftier theme, and his picture called out the warmest encomiums from the artists and men of taste at Rome. The "Marius" was taken to Paris, and on its exhibition in the Louvre, a first class gold medal was awarded to it by Napoleon. The record of the life of Vanderlyn from 1808 to 1816, when he returned in his native land, is one of cheerless labor and hopeless struggle. The perturbations of Europe, as well as the wars in which our own country was involved, were not favorable to the art, of course. He barely eked out a precarious existence by portraitures but yet found time to paint his "Ariadne,’ of marvelous beauty; to execute noble copies from some of the old masters ; and to make the sketches of the gardens of Versailles, from which he afterwards painted his noted panorama. It was unfortunate for Vanderlyns future, that the idea of the exhibition of a series of panoramas in New York, as a most likely means to improve the public taste, supply a popular want, and afford a remuneration to the venturous artist first pursuing this avenue to fame and fortune, took firm hold upon his mind. In 1817, the Rotunda at New York was completed, and the whole history of Vanderlyn’s life from that period to 1836 is a record of straits and struggles, repeated efforts and disappointments, and cruel injustice withal. It is enough to say that the entanglements of the Rotunda and kindred panorama projects, were fatal to his peace, and paralyzed his pencil. In 1836 he painted the full length portrait of Washington in the Federal House of Representatives; and in 1839 he was commissioned to fill one of the panels in the Rotunda of the National Capitol. He chose as his subject, "The Landing of Columbus," and sailed for Europe that year. He passed seven years in Paris, completed his picture, and came back in 1847. His disappointments were not ended, for he realized a mere pittance from the exhibition of this great work, and lost through the unfaithfulness of a trusted agent, a fourth of the price paid by Congress.
From the period of the completion of the Columbus to the time of his death in 1852, Vanderlyn earned a scanty support by portraiture; and the single commission by the City of New York, to add the portrait of President Zachary Taylor to the adornments of the City Hall, was his sole public work. It was but a slight compensation for the financial injury in the destruction of the Rotunda years before. He had been encouraged by some of the men in the highest political stations in the country to

mature a plan for a National Gallery at Washington. For two or three years the hope of success had stimulated and sustained him in his age, giving a little cheering vigor to his closing hours. But when Congress adjourned in 1852, without fulfilling his earnest desires, his heart sunk, and he only came to his native place to breathe his last, overwhelmed by the last surge of disappointment in a life of troublous trial. He died in Kingston, New York, September 23rd, 1852. His grave in Wiltwyck Cemetery lay neglected for years. At last a noble monument was erected over it to mark the last resting place of this confessedly first in the rank among American Historical Painters. It bears this inscription:

JOHN VANDERLYN

BORN AT KINGSTON

OCT. 15, 1775

DIED AT KINGSTON

SEPT. 23, 1852

A MAN OF GENIUS

AN ARTIST OF RENOWN

AN HONOR TO HIS COUNTRY

HE ACHIEVED BROAD

AND ENDURING FAME

The above article is a substantjal reproduction of an article on John Vatiderlyn from The Kingston Dem- ocratic Journal of December 3rd, 1856. In OLDE ULSTER of May, 1912, (Vol. VIII, page 138), was published an article on Aaron Burr and Ulster county in which the romantic story of their first meeting at a country blacksmith shop, taken from Parton’s life of Colonel Burr, was given. It is a story often told and often denounced as false. Under the signature of "R.G." the well-known initials of the noted Robert Gosman, the above named newspaper speaks of the story in the following terms in its issue of January 20th, 1858:

Mr. Vanderlyn became acquainted with Col. Burr in 1795, when the artist was twenty years of age, with a decent academical education, and not unskilled even in oil painting as extant portraitures of that date clearly show. In 1794 he had copied portraits by Stuart of Burr, and Judge Egbert Benson of New York. The first named was purchased by Major Peter van Gaasbeek, then M. C. from this district. At the next session of Congress the winter following, Major van Gaasbeek mentioned to Burr, then U. S. Senator, that he had such copy, speaking in apt terms of the decided talent of the young copyist. Burr --as Vanderlyn frequently said -- never forgot anything. In 1795 --in the summer-- Vanderlyn was at New York. He was con- nected with Gov. George Clinton, was his frequent guest, and had a very choice circle of acquaintances in the city besides, including artists and men of taste, though of humble pretensions. One day on returning to his lodgings, Vanderlyn found a note without a signature, requesting him to call next morning at the office, corner of Church and Fulton streets. He did so, found it to be Burr’s office, and Burr’s stepson, J. B. Prevost, who was there, said the note was in Col. B’s hand, and advised Vanderlyn to go up to Richmond Hill, then some two miles out of the city, though its site is now about Bleeckcr street. Vanderlyn found Col. Burr at home, and was cordially welcomed. He became an inmate of Burr’s house, executing portraits and copies, until the autumn, when through Burr’s friendly exertions he was received by Gilbert Stuart, then at Philadelphia, as a pupil. Vanderlyn remained with Stuart some ten months, when the latter frankly told Burr he had taught him all he could teach, and remarked that he was then ready for Europe. In the fall of 1796 Vanderlyn sailed for Europe, took up his abode at Paris, had all the advantages of four years attendance at its schools, then most admirably organized, and during this period was liberally supplied with funds by Col. Burr.

* * * The authority for the version above is Mr. Vanderlyn himself, from whose dictation these facts were taken down by me, and his correspondence in 1811-12 with Burr.

Robert Gosman also says that Vanderlyn was peculiarly sensitive as to thc story as told in Parton’s life of Burr and took pains to have it contradicted in divers ways and once wrote a pamphlet for this himself.

 

finis

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