Editor's note: The information in this article is drawn from the new publication Charles Henry Miller, N.A.: Painter of Long Island, published in 2011 by the Southold Historical Society and Hudson Hills Press. The article was published in Resource Library on February 11, 2012 with permission of the auther. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, or wish to obtain a copy of the catalogue from which it is drawn, please contact the Southold Historical Society directly through either this phone number or web address:
"Charles Henry Miller, N.A. (1842 - 1922) - An Artist of Long Island"
By Geoffrey K. Fleming
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Queens County, located on Long Island in New York State, had few great amenities. It was, as it had nearly always been, a collection of farming and fishing villages that dotted the rolling plains and inlets of the Island, with the occasional sign of industry -- usually in the form of a mill -- thrown in. It was here that the American painter and etcher Charles Henry Miller called home, and where he did his best to record the quickly vanishing landscapes that to him, best represented the spirit of his beloved Long Island.
Though Miller would become the greatest advocate for Long Island, he was not a native. He was actually born in Manhattan in 1842, the son of the well known builder and real estate developer Jacob Miller and his wife, Jane Taylor. While his mother was interested in supporting her son's early interest in art, Miller's father wanted him to study to become a doctor or lawyer. To prepare him for a professional career, his father sent him to Mount Washington Collegiate Institute for a proper education. Located on Washington Square in New York City, the institute was established for young men planning to attend college or go into business. During its heyday, it was called more than a school and was advertised as "a practical introduction to life." While still in attendance at the institute, he began taking classes at the venerable National Academy of Art and Design, the city's primary school of art.
Like so many artists, his first works hinted at his abilities as a painter, though they were by no means great paintings. His earliest dated work, Landscape with Castle, was painted in June of 1858 when Miller was just sixteen years old. Probably copied after a print or other known work, it depicts a ruined European castle in a landscape. Though proud to be American, Miller had an intense interest in traveling to Europe, where he might see the great art stored up in its palaces and museums. This would have to wait however, as his father continued to insist he follow a more formal route. Following his graduation in 1860, he enrolled in the newly established New York Homeopathic Medical College, graduating with a doctor of medicine degree in 1863. The only time he made use of his degree was when he served as the ship's doctor aboard the "Harvest Queen," one of the many packet vessels that traveled regularly between New York and Europe.
His service aboard the Harvest Queen, which occurred in 1864, finally made it possible for Miller to visit Europe and to take time to tour through the great museums in London, Scotland, Antwerp, and Paris. He made numerous sketches and drawings and took notes in the many sketchbooks he carried on his trip. This was also the time that his father purchased a summer home for his family located in Queens. Christened "Queenslawn," this summer estate would introduce Miller to the natural wonders of Long Island, and it would become his keystone -- a place from where he could travel across the island to draw, sketch, and paint.
After his return to New York, Miller began to study in earnest to become an artist. In 1867, he again resumed classes at the National Academy and later that year he returned to Europe, where he would remain until 1870. He traveled through many of the European capitals sketching, in particular visiting London, Berlin, Dresden, Vienna, and Paris, where he attended the great International Exhibition.
Miller decided he wanted -- and needed -- a more formal arts education and finally settled in Munich to study at the Bavarian Royal Academy. He enrolled as a pupil in the Bavarian Royal Academy, established at that time in an old Jesuit convent near the Rathaus. Since Miller's interest was primarily in landscape painting, he chose Adolph Heinrich Lier (1826-1882) as his master and spent three years in his studio. As a young man, Lier trained in Munich and Dresden. In 1861, Lier visited France and became a disciple of the Barbizon School and in 1865 spent time painting in England where he was likely influenced by Constable. Ronald Pisano, the late art historian, remarked that possibly due to Lier's influence, Miller's style reflects such Barbizon artists as Corot, Rousseau, Daubigny and Dupre, as well as the English artists Constable and Turner more than the celebrated artists of the Munich School. Noted American painter and historian Eliot Clark wrote later that Miller was among the very first American artists to study in Munich, which may have influenced the decision of many other American painters, such as Frank Duveneck, William Merritt Chase, and John Henry Twachtmann, to study there as well.
In 1870, Miller climbed board the ship Donau and returned to New York City. From this point forward Miller quickly became a critically acclaimed artist, becoming an associate of the National Academy in 1873 at the age of thirty-one and becoming a full academician in 1875 at the age of thirty-three. His European education combined with his liberal leanings concerning art gave him great popularity among younger artists and ruffled the feathers of some of the more conservative members of the Academy. This would come to a head when Miller served along with fellow artists Thomas Le Clear (1818-1882) and Alfred Wordsworth Thompson (1840-1896), on the National Academy's 1877 hanging committee.
Miller and his associates felt that the younger artists, especially those returning from Europe, were better positioned to present works that displayed the current fashion and trends in the art world. As a recent, fully elected academician, Miller was aware that the younger artists who did not have full membership found it difficult to secure the best placement for their works at the Academy exhibitions -- a position known then as being "on the line" (paintings hung there were at the best eye height for viewing by visitors and were therefore coveted by all exhibitors). Miller and his compatriots felt that the younger and more progressive artists deserved these spots.
Therefore, when they served on the hanging committee in 1877, they selected, amongst others, works by fellow young artists William Merritt Chase, Frank Duveneck, Walter Shirlaw, and Abbott Thayer. This action earned Miller the enduring affection and respect of many of the younger artists while fully enraging the older members of the Academy.
Following this incident, the older members decided to guarantee the rights of academicians to permanently secure the best spots for exhibition. They did this by passing a new rule that devoted the best eight feet 'on-the-line' for Academicians forever banishing the younger artists to the poorer viewing locations.
This action, though it would be short lived, had profound effects. The older Academy members angered the younger artists to such a degree that it led to the formation of the American Art Association, which soon after became the Society of American Artists. The New York art world was profoundly changed through Miller's actions, and more and more different art groups would arise, many with his support. Miller was a founder, along with William Merritt Chase, of the Art Club of New York and was also a founding member of the New York Etching Club. In 1885 he codified his beliefs in a book called The Philosophy of Art in America, in which he promoted the establishment of a centralized national arts agency and the abolition of the art tariff, which Miller thought prejudiced " ... the educational interests and respectful consideration and treatment of our patriotic art students "
Artistically, Miller had a strong affection for the work of 17th century European landscape artists and the glow that they achieved in their works. This led him to experiment endlessly with the glazing of his paintings - something he did in order to achieve that same quality in his own works. This activity was combined with his acquisition and study of photography, particularly of the works of early photographic pioneers such as Gustave Le Gray (1820-1884). Miller collected images to study and use in his paintings, whether they were the shadowy French landscapes created by Le Gray, or extensive cloud studies, examples of which would eventually join the collections of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, California and the George Eastman House collection in Rochester, New York. Janet E. Buerger, an assistant curator of the photographic collections at Eastman, wrote "The use of the cloud studies by the New York landscape painter Charles Henry Miller and similar use of [William Henry] Jackson's photography by the painter Thomas Moran foreshadows the coming fin de siecle, when photographs would be utilized as an art form in themselves."
Miller lived at a period of dramatic expansion and growth in America, especially in the New York metropolitan area, and he was an active participant in the world around him. He enjoyed a wide circle of important acquaintances, such as President Lincoln, Edwin Booth, William Cullen Bryant, Candace Thurber Wheeler as well as most of the notable artists of the day. He promoted the works of many of his fellow painters, and using his sizable inheritance he collected their works to help support their burgeoning careers. His life story provides a lens through which to view the social history of his time: New York society in the Gilded Age, the political scandals of post Civil War New York, the bohemian circle of painters of the Tenth Street studios, the rise of the leisure society, and the emergence of Long Island as the suburban paradigm.
As his career progressed, Miller won a number of prizes, including gold medals at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia (1876); the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association (1878); and the World's Industrial & Cotton Centennial Exposition (1885). Miller also became more conservative than he had been in his youth, and maintained a strong association with National Academy for over sixty years. During the twilight of his career, Miller focused on firmly establishing the Queensboro Society of Allied Arts and Crafts while also trying to encourage the funding of a new home for the National Academy, located on property near the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. He became a fixture, a reminder of days long past, at many of the clubs and institutions to which he belonged. As the National Academy Museum noted, "His faithful attendance at Academy meetings made Miller into something of an institution, 'where his face with its fresh color and white beard was a real trademark.' "
When Charles Henry Miller finally decided, late in life, to settle down and marry, it was to the widow of a prominent Queens goldsmith and jeweler, Adam Mosback. Mosback married Elizabeth Dorothea Herdtfelder around 1877, and their first child, Alois, was born soon after, in 1878. Adam Mosback's premature death in 1893 would allow Charles Henry Miller to marry his widow seven years later, in 1900. This marriage gave rise to the family story that Miller acquired and spent three fortunes during his lifetime; the first was left to him by his father, the second was left to him by his mother, and the third was provided by his wife. Miller spent the last two decades of his life as the devoted grandfather of two. His stepson Alois produced two children, Dorothea and Charles, both of whom lived nearby in Queens Village and attended dinner regularly at Miller's home.
At the time of his death in 1922 Miller received large obituaries in all the regional and local newspapers. The New York Times remarked upon his success and that critics had found in his works " . . . familiar life-scenes that have meaning to all hearts." The New York Evening Telegram noted that Miller was " . . . widely known for his paintings of Long Island landscapes . . . ," and the Brooklyn Daily Eagle called Miller a " . . . veteran artist of Long Island." His funeral was handled by the firm of Fairchild Sons and was held from his studio in Queens village. Another clipping from an unknown newspaper, perhaps the Queens Gazette, reported on the service:
"The ceremony last evening was eminently appropriate . . . Some of the finest paintings hangs on the walls of the studio where the casket stood, and the face of the artist seemed peaceful in the last sleep amid the paintings and flowers which in life he had loved so well. The National Academy of Design, of which he was one of the oldest members, sent a tribute of palms and laurel symbolic of his artistic achievements."
Miller's greatest contributions to the art world were twofold. The first was his endless promotion of Long Island to his fellow artists as a superb place to maintain a studio and to paint. It is largely through his efforts that so many American artists have come to work, and to love, the shores of Long Island. Early in his artistic career it is the essayist, poet, literary critic, and travel writer, Bayard Taylor (1825-1878), who is credited with having characterized Miller as the "artistic discoverer of the Little Continent of Long Island." A major article in The Quarterly Illustrator in 1894, entitled, "Art's Summer Outings" which profiled prominent artists and their summer studios, noted, "The artistic potentialities of Long Island may be said to have been discovered by Charles H. Miller, N.A." In 1918, at the age of seventy-six, he continued his promotion of the island when he wrote a treatment for a silent film about the history of Long Island entitled "Nature and Romance of Long Island: The World's Greatest Recreation Pier." Miller wanted the proposed film to be " . . . significant of the wonderful scenic and historical attractions of 'the Little Continent of Long Island,' and the possibilities in showing them on screen."
His second contribution was his interest in documenting the changing nature of Long Island for future generations. Throughout his adult life, in addition to his New York studio, Miller maintained a home on his family's estate in Queens Village. He came to see Long Island as picturesque, offering landscape painters as much scenery as that of any other part of America or Europe. Wandering the island, from Queens to Orient Point and from the Sound to the Atlantic, Miller painted scenes of the island almost daily. At a time when urbanization was creeping, and then rushing, eastward from New York City, Charles Henry Miller set about capturing the quiet ponds, farmhouses, haystacks, and moss covered mills of a rural Long Island, before they disappeared forever. In his later years, as Queens and western Nassau County were relentlessly urbanized, Miller traveled eastward to Long Island's North Fork to find the rural scenes to which he was so strongly drawn. Today, he is remembered both as an artist and historian in paint who preserved precious images of a bucolic Long Island, now long gone.
About the author
Geoffrey K. Fleming. Mr. Fleming was born and raised on Long Island, New York. He attended Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, Virginia where he completed a Bachelor's Degree in Historic Preservation, with a focus on Architectural History and Museum Studies. While there he was the recipient of the J. Binford Walford Scholarship in Architecture. In 1997 Fleming was accepted into the prestigious Arts Administration Program at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. As part of his studies he wrote an extensive thesis on the history and development of museum stores in the United States. Formerly the Director of the Bridge Hampton Historical Society, he currently serves as the Director of the Southold Historical Society in Southold, New York. Mr. Fleming also serves with several regional committees and boards, including as the immediate past President of the Long Island Museum Association (LIMA), Chair of the NYS Documentary Heritage Program Committee for Long Island, Editorial Board Member of the Long Island History Journal (LIHJ), Historian for the Village of Head-of-the-Harbor, New York, and as a Trustee of the Brecknock Hall Foundation. He is the author of over a dozen publications documenting the art and history of Long Island.
Resource Library editor's note:
The above text was published in Resource Library on February 11, 2012 with permission of the auther which was granted to TFAO on February 9, 2012.
Editor's note: RL readers may also enjoy:
For further information about this institutional source, including more articles and essays, please visit the sub-index page for the Southold Historical Society in Resource Library.
Search Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.
Copyright 2012 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.