Saturday, September 3, 2011

Thomas Hill (1829 - 1908) - Famous Painter

Thomas Hill

Plot 36, Lot 261

Thomas Hill was a native of Birmingham, England and arrived in Massachusetts with his family at the age of fifteen.  The son of a poor tailor,  Thomas worked briefly in a cotton factory before he was apprenticed to a carriage painter.  In 1847 he joined an interior decoration firm in Boston and by 1851 he had  married and was the father of the first of his nine children.

His interest turned to painting and he enrolled in evening art classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1853.  The next year he started his career as a landscape painter by painting  several scenes in the White Mountains, but it was not until 1861 when he settled in San Francisco, where he advertised as a portrait painter, that he was able to devote significant time to his painting.  By 1864 he was exhibiting scenes he had painted in Napa and the Sierra, and in 1865 he made what may have been his first visit to Yosemite, the site that was to become the subject of many of his most famous paintings.

Thomas Hill's Bridal Veil Falls, Yosemite
Despite the enthusiastic reception his Yosemite paintings received, Hill left in 1866 for the east  coast and then Paris.  In Paris he studied with Paul Meyerheim before he returned to the United States in 1867, settled in Boston where he produced the first of his monumental views of Yosemite Valley.  The two 6’ x 10’ paintings he did of Yosemite were both purchased by Californians - Charles and Edwin B. Crocker.  (Edwin B. Crocker, brother of Charles, was appointed to the state supreme court by Governor Leland Stanford in the 1860’s).  Hill found the art market in the east to be far from vigorous, and this, combined with his rather poor health, provided the impetus for his permanent return to California in 1872.

Hill was a leader in the growing art community in Northern California, active in the San Francisco Art Association and the Bohemian Club.  His “oil sketches,” usually 16”x 20” paintings, are a significant number of his remaining works.  These fully-realized compositions were often brought back to his studio to use as reference as he created his monumental works.  The scenes of  his oil sketches ranged from the White Mountains and Newport, Rhode Island to Lake Tahoe, Mount Shasta, and the Pacific Northwest, in addition to Yosemite.

Thomas Hill's The Last Spike
In a major departure from pure landscapes, Hill painted a famous, fanciful commemoration of “The Driving of the Last Spike,” ostensibly on  commission from Leland Stanford.  Hill understood Stanford to say he would pay him $50,000, but after four years’ work, Stanford refused to buy it, and even denied ordering it. He stated his objection to the inclusion of many railroad officials in the painting when they had not actually been present at the ceremony.

Much of the above material was extracted from “Direct From Nature, The Oil Sketches of Thomas Hill” by   Janice Driesbach in the 1997 Supplement of California History, published by  the California Historical Society.

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