Weir Family Influence on American Art and Portraiture
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Portraits of Influence

Portraits of Influence

A Museum of Art exhibit examines the art of the Weir family, which bridged the Atlantic and expanded the traditions of American art.

By Maddie Gearheart Nordgren (BA ’12), Jennifer G. Jones (BA ’12), Jacob F. Frandsen (BA ’09), Amanda K. Fronk (BA ’10) in the Spring 2012 Issue

Stand at the center of the current exhibit on the lower level of BYU’s Museum of Art (MOA), says curator Marian Eastwood Wardle (BA ’73), and you’ll see American paintings in “every style and subject you can imagine that was created in the 19th century”—academic portraits, grand-manner history paintings, picturesque landscapes, impressionist still lifes, and more. But this breadth isn’t the doing of, say, the top 40 artists of the period. It’s the legacy of just three American painters from the same family, brought together in The Weir Family, 1820–1920: Expanding the Traditions of American Art.

At the turn of the 19th century, the United States was young—a mere 20-something—still in its infancy culturally and historically, says BYU assistant professor of art history James R. Swensen (BA ’98). Though there was both taste and talent for fine art in the States, the aesthetic legacy and educational opportunities lay in Europe.

It was this fact that propelled aspiring painter Robert Walter Weir toward Italy in the 1820s, part of the trickle of American artists to Europe. Such students had commonly trained in England and France; Weir was among the first to be sponsored in Italy.

After three years Weir returned to America a fervent advocate for European art instruction. And yet he put down roots in the most American of locations: West Point, New York. In 1834 Weir began his tenure as a drawing professor at the military academy, where he would teach hundreds of cadets, including famous painter James McNeill Whistler.

There Weir also reared 16 children, two of whom, John and Julian, inherited his artistic aspirations. Each went on to a prestigious career—John as the director of the first collegiate fine arts program in America and Julian as a leader of American impressionism. Both traveled to Europe again and again.

Having grown up steeped in patriotism, however, John and Julian, like their father, were destined for a lifetime of ambivalence toward Europe. “[The Weirs] disliked Europe, but they loved Europe,” says Wardle. “And they found things wrong with America . . . , but they loved America.”

This convergence, Wardle points out, is markedly apparent in their work: One of Robert’s paintings in the European academic tradition, Taking the Veil (1863), depicts an Italian nun taking her vows, but the work exercises Protestant restraint by hiding the crucifix from full view; John’s very American View from West Point (1862) follows the Italianate formula of featuring framing trees, distant mountains, and a sunlit middle ground; and one of Julian’s impressionist portraits done in Connecticut, The Hunter (1893), features his shotgun-wielding nephew standing in the iconic posture of a 17th-century Charles V.

These cross-cultural references come forward in work of other American artists of the time, and the whole phenomenon “has generated a lot of rich discourse,” says MOA director Mark A. Magleby (BA ’89). This blending of cultural sensibilities, called transatlanticism, yielded various hybrids of American and European art. And it wasn’t just a one-way exchange, either: Wardle points out that during John’s and Julian’s careers, Americans did so well in European salons that Paris had to open another salon. Moreover, American art began to develop its own distinct flavor—for example, the muted color palette and maintenance of structure and form in American impressionism.

Robert, John, and Julian Weir recognized that the future of American art lay in its European roots. Through their national pride, passion for the trans-atlantic life, and far-reaching influence as artists and educators, the Weirs helped America lay claim to its own artistic prowess.

—Maddie Gearheart Nordgren (BA’12)

Robert Walter Weir (1803–89)

Pioneering Painter

When he was 21, Robert Walter Weir set off in a ship for Italy. After two months at sea and 10 days in quarantine at Leghorn, Robert studied for three years in Italy, first in Florence with Italian portraitist Pietro Benvenuti and later in Rome, where he lived with the American sculptor Horatio Greenough. “When [Robert] got there, he was the only American art student in Florence,” says Wardle. “He was a real pioneer.”

Robert returned to America in 1827 as one of the country’s best-educated painters and received an appointment to teach drawing at West Point. Drawing was necessary for designing field plans, bridges, and maps, and all cadets were required to take his classes, including eventual Civil War giants Ulysses S. Grant and Thomas (Stonewall) Jackson and notable painters James Whistler and Seth Eastman. “I suppose I have placed my signature on more diplomas than anyone else at West Point,” Robert said of his 42 years at the academy.

Robert traveled south of New York City only twice during his career—perhaps because of the demands of his household, which eventually included 16 children. “I feel myself anchored for life,” he said, “especially as I have some little hedges out which have moored me to the soil.” As a devout American protestant, he gathered his children every day for family prayer. “Try to keep yourself pure and avoid Godlessness,” he wrote to Julian, then studying in Europe. “I am glad that you adhere to keeping Sunday holy.”

Robert did venture away from his Hudson River sanctuary to travel to Washington, D.C., when Congress commissioned him to create one of eight historical paintings for the Capitol Rotunda. His piece, Embarkation of the Pilgrims, was a hit nationwide. The Boston Mercantile Journal noted that “all the large cities of the Union” exhibited the painting, and it “was made the subject of numerous poetic effusions.”

Embarkation is considered Robert’s single greatest work, but his influence was widespread. As a member of the Hudson River School of Romantic landscape artists, Robert incorporated techniques from Claude Lorrain in his landscapes and from Joshua Reynolds in his portraits.

To Robert, Europe was a “filthy, profligate” continent; nevertheless, he still upheld the greatness of its artistic traditions and encouraged his sons to take advantage of opportunities overseas: “Rome is again the most delightful place I have ever been in. . . . Every street has its fountains, every palace its statues, every church its pictures, and every ruin its history.”

—Jennifer G. Jones (’12)

John Ferguson Weir (1841–1926)

Art Educator

Growing up at West Point, John Ferguson Weir and some mischievous chums once sent a dozen heavy barrels hurtling downhill toward a cadet artillery camp. The sneak attack nearly demolished the encampment, and the boys underwent a mock court-martial the next day.

Fortunately, John’s future did not lie in the military. Instead, his career as an artist and educator was fostered early on in his father’s studio. At 21 John produced his first major pieces—landscapes of West Point nestled in a bend of the Hudson River. But John’s attention soon turned to less idyllic scenes across the river. Portraying the gritty, sweltering toil of West Point’s cavernous metal forge, The Gun Foundry (1866) and Forging the Shaft (1868) were heroic depictions of American industry and labor; today they are considered two of the most important American industrial paintings of the 19th century. The Gun Foundry helped John win admission into the National Academy of Design, securing his future as an artist.

But in 1869, just as his artistic career was taking off, John left full-time painting to help establish and then direct the Yale School of the Fine Arts, the first academic art program on an American campus. Under John’s leadership, the school also became the first at Yale to admit women. As a teacher John encouraged his students to study art in the Old World, establishing grants and prizes to fund students—both male and female—to study in Europe.

Though John would never again paint full-time, he continued to paint as time allowed and stayed up to date on new techniques and styles through his brother Julian, who regularly studied in Europe. But while Julian embraced impressionism, John resisted, saying, “I am something of an old fogy, and relish things not too fresh perhaps.” Instead, John chose painting his landscapes in the Hudson River School and Barbizon styles and also tried his hand at sculpting and writing. And all along, for 44 years, John taught and mentored young artists at Yale—perhaps his greatest contribution to the art world.

—Jacob F. Frandsen (BA ’09)

Anchoring BYU’s Art Collection

One of Julian Weir’s daughters, Dorothy, also joined the ranks of accomplished American artists, carrying the Weir legacy into a third generation. Perhaps because of her artistic inclination and her close relationship with her father, Dorothy inherited many of her family’s works upon their deaths.

Dorothy passed away childless in 1947, leaving much of her own work and that of her family to her husband, Mahonri Young—a grandson of Brigham Young and a sculptor who had made a name for himself in New York City.

In 1959 the descendants of Mahonri Young approached BYU with the collection—now comprising 1,400 Weir works and 7,000 Mahonri Young works, including etchings and drawings as well as famous paintings. BYU gladly purchased many of the works and accepted the gracious donation of the others, and the acquisition became the foundation of BYU’s art collection. In fact, it was one impetus, says curator Marian Eastwood Wardle (BA ’73), for building BYU’s Museum of Art (MOA).

With The Weir Family, 1820–1920: Expanding the Traditions of American Art (Nov. 18, 2011–May 19, 2012), the museum reached a landmark: it will be the first traveling exhibition produced by the MOA. It will show at the New Britain Museum of American Art in Connecticut (June 30–Sept. 30, 2012)—where the Weirs have a rich history—and the Mint Museum in Charlotte, N.C. (Oct. 20, 2012–Jan. 20, 2013).

—Maddie Gearheart Nordgren (’12)

Julian Alden Weir (1852–1919)

American Impressionist

While studying at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris from 1873 to 1877, Julian Alden Weir wrote home: “I went . . . to see an exhibition of the work of a new school which call themselves ‘Impressionalists.’ I never in my life saw more horrible things. . . . It was worse than the Chamber of Horrors.” Like his father and brother, Julian (who painted under the name J. Alden in honor of Mrs. Alden, who funded his studies in Paris) was trained as a traditional artist. But by the end of the 19th century, Julian had changed his mind about impressionism, becoming one of the first champions of the art form in America.

In late 1897 Julian joined nine other American painters, including friend John Henry Twachtman, to form “the Ten”—a group mostly made up of impressionists who broke away from the Society of American Artists, which they believed had become too commercial.

After studying in Europe, Julian spent much of his time painting at his farm in Branchville, Conn., where he painted the landscape and portraits of his wife and daughters. So that he could continue painting during the winter months, Julian built a studio on runners, which he named the Palace Car. Through windows on all four sides, Julian could paint “outdoors” at any time of the year. Many artists came to visit and paint at the Branchville farm, including Twachtman and John Singer Sargent.

In 1912 Julian became the first president of the Association of American Painters and Sculptors and, in 1915, was elected president of the National Academy of Design. He also served as trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Julian died at age 67 at the Branchville farm. In the last years of his life, he wrote, “Really, I know not what I am best at. I believe I am a fisherman, dreamer and lover of nature, . . . and if I lived to 120 I might become an artist.”

Lost and Found

Little is known about how the Julian Alden Weir still life Silver Chalice with Roses—along with hundreds of other paintings from BYU’s collection—went missing sometime between 1970 and 1985.

—Amanda Kae Fronk (BA ’10)

More: Learn more about the Weirs and their art in the exhibit catalog, edited by curator Marian Wardle, The Weir Family, 1820–1920: Expanding the Traditions of American Art (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 2011), from the BYU Museum of Art Weir website, or from the website of the Weir Farm National Historic Site.

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