John Vanderlyn

John Vanderlyn (1775-1852) was one of the first American painters to venture beyond portraiture. He executed the first large-scale nude in the United States and various history paintings, some showing neoclassic influence.

John Vanderlyn was born in Kingston, N.Y., on Oct. 15, 1775. After studying painting for a year under Gilbert Stuart in Philadelphia, Vanderlyn became the protégé of Aaron Burr, who sent him to Paris in 1796. The first American painter to study in Paris, Vanderlyn entered the studio of François Antoine Vincent, a neoclassicist who emphasized correct drawing at the expense of expressive color. Vanderlyn remained in Paris until 1801, when he had to return home because of a lack of funds.

In America, Vanderlyn looked upon portraiture as a low form of art and accepted such commissions only to support himself. He executed a number of fine portraits and some views of Niagara Falls. In 1805 he returned to Europe with the financial support of the American Academy; he stayed in Rome until 1808 and then lived in Paris until 1815.

Vanderlyn's Marius Viewing the Ruins of Carthage (1807) won a gold medal in Paris in 1808. The scene shows the melancholy attached to time's passing, a theme that was then quite popular: Marius, the fallen hero, broods among the ruins of a once mighty city. For the head of Marius, Vanderlyn copied a Roman bust; and the figure, in proper neoclassic fashion, was done with a hard, wiry outline and ivory flesh tones. Ariadne (1812), combining neoclassic linearism with the Italianate qualities of recumbent Venuses of Titian and Giorgione, shows a good understanding of anatomy, but the figure stands out too strongly from the landscape.

On his return to New York, Vanderlyn soon found that Europeans appreciated him far more than his own countrymen, for portraiture was still the only kind of painting widely accepted in America. In 1816 he built a personal museum in the form of a rotunda with the help of $6, 000 contributed by 112 of his supporters. There he exhibited not only his paintings and copies from the nude but an enormous canvas executed in 1818-1819: the Palace and Gardens of Versailles. Painted somewhat illusionistically, this is one of the several "panoramas" made in the early 19th century and the only one still existing.

Vanderlyn died in Kingston, N.Y., on Sept. 23, 1852. Because of his neoclassic training, his paintings have a coolness and detachment when compared with the more emotive work of Washington Allston.

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Further Reading on John Vanderlyn

The only monograph on Vanderlyn, which contains no illustrations, is Marius Schoonmaker, John Vanderlyn, Artist, 1775-1852 (1950); it consists of brief biographical essays with quotations from Vanderlyn's correspondence, especially with Aaron Burr.

Additional Biography Sources

Mondello, Salvatore, The private papers of John Vanderlyn (1775-1852) American portrait painter, Lewiston, N.Y., USA: Edwin Mellen Press, 1990.