William Preston Phelps – Painter of Monadnock (1848-1923)

Biography

Copyright © 2003 by Edie Clark

On February 27th, 1917, William Preston Phelps, known as "the painter of Monadnock", sat in his kitchen in Chesham, New Hampshire. Through the window, his beloved Mt. Monadnock could be seen, cloaked in a froth of snow. He had turned to this mountain so many times throughout his life, for inspiration, for solace, for wonder. Hundreds of his canvases focused on this singular peak, around which the entire region revolved. He had painted it from every aspect, in all kinds of weather, including a day just like this one. But this was not a day when he looked to the mountain. His farm, where he had been born and which had been in his family for three generations, was in disarray as was his studio, where more than 200 of his paintings had been taken out, photographed, catalogued, titled and described by others than himself. These paintings were by no means his life's work but they were the ones in his possession and they included two of his masterpieces, The Grand Canyon, thought to be the first painting ever created of that ultimate American landscape – the magnificent work measured 7' x 12' – and The Tillers of the Soil, which had been exhibited for many years at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. In the studio, aside from his own paintings, were canvases given to him by his teachers, Wilhelm Velten and Ernst Meissner, the great German artists who had schooled Phelps in his painstakingly realistic techniques. On shelves, decorating his vast, high-ceilinged studio, were souvenirs from his travels in Scotland, Wales, Germany, France and England. His art and his passion for his art had taken him and his family far from this homely New Hampshire farm. The 69-year-old painter had risen from his roots here on the farm to almost international acclaim. Students had come to study with him here from distant places. Nonetheless, since his wife, Anna, had died, everything seemed to be slipping from his grasp.

The winter of 1917 had been one of the hardest in memory. The snows had fallen steadily and intensely throughout the months of January and February and bitter, high winds had drifted snow across the roads continually, making travel on these rough dirt roads virtually impossible. Phelps, the tall, garrulous painter who had always enjoyed welcoming visitors and students into his studio, had spent many days and nights alone. Along with his finances, his health had been in decline. His tall, slender constitution had become gaunt, his nerves fragile.

That morning, a neighbor, whom Phelps had known his entire life, had come to the door, apparently to check on him. In a burst of madness, Phelps grabbed his pistol and brandished it at his friend, threatening him. The frightened man ran home and called the police.

Through the windowpane, Phelps saw the sheriff's black car pull into his yard. The excruciating dealings of the last two years were coming to an end. As William Preston Phelps, cuffed in the back seat, was taken away by the sheriff to the asylum in Concord, the mountain receded. What loomed was the auction, long planned, wherein all his paintings and all his earthly possessions, even including his checkerboard and the petrified wood he picked up on the desert in Arizona, would be sold to the highest bidder.

The son of Jason and Mary Phelps, William Preston was born March 6, 1848, on a farm in the Pottersville section of Dublin, which is now known as Chesham. At the time of Preston's birth, the farm was a busy place, with cows, pigs, sheep, goats, chickens and all the sundry affairs of a working farm. Jason was a farmer but he was also a painter and a furniture maker. Violins that he made are still being played. In the front room of the farmhouse, he stenciled the walls and decorated the paneling around the fireplace with imitation wood graining. Family diaries indicate that he ground his own paint and that, although he was a hard-working farmer, he was also employed as a house painter. The two endeavors were not lost on the oldest of his two sons. Preston (as he was known to family and friends) grew up farming. In the records on file at the Smithsonian, his daughter Ina recalled that her father "worked on the farm, doing the usual chores such as milking, feeding and bedding horses and cows, feeding poultry and pigs (always), driving cows to pasture, running the horse rake, treading and mowing the hay and mowing with the scythe."

According to notes made by his granddaughter, Hilda Parker, Preston "always mowed his lawns" (that was the word used, not fields) "with his scythe, barefoot and early before the dew dried, producing an expert piece of work - no holidays in it."

This work on the farm would serve him later in his art, as one of the star accomplishments of his paintings was his ability to draw animals in such a way as you can almost see the animal move. Phelps was flawless in his rendition of cows and sheep and found early in his career that one way to earn extra income was by painting portraits of prize cattle and horses.

Apparently as a boy, when he was not working on the farm, Preston drew constantly. He went to school in Dublin, both grammar school and high school, and his notebooks were filled with sketches and drawings. When Preston was 14, his father, perhaps more interested in the money Preston might be able to earn than in developing his artistic notions, sent him to apprentice with a sign painter, Jeduthan Kittredge, in a shop in downtown Lowell, Massachusetts. The young Preston proved himself to be enterprising. By the time he was twenty, in 1868, Preston married Jeduthan's daughter, Anna Marie, and within another year, he owned his own sign painting business just a few doors down from his father-in-law.

The signs he painted were complex and beautiful – intricate scrollwork and elliptical scenes painted on wagons and sleighs. Patrons were so impressed that they began to ask him to paint the same scene on canvas to be framed and hung in their homes. In the evenings, Preston took the train to Boston where he studied a more serious kind of art and soon began to paint landscapes and local scenes along the banks of the Merrimack and Concord rivers. He put these paintings up for sale in the window of his sign shop and in time, he was known as Lowell's first landscape painter.

Lowell was an industrial city, on the rise but also interested in cultivating its somewhat sparse cultural climate. Toward that end, a group of prominent Lowell citizens raised the money to send Preston to Germany to further his art education. At the age of 28, in 1876, Preston kissed Anna and his two children goodbye and sailed for Europe alone where he began studies in Munich at the Royal Academy of Art.

In Munich, he met and traveled with many of the up and coming artists of that day, most especially including William Merritt Chase, with whom he was to share a long friendship. Papers indicate that while Preston enjoyed this time, it ultimately proved too much for him and in less than a year, he returned, lonely and homesick for his growing family. A little more than a year later, he returned to Europe, this time with Anna, Ina and Edward, then aged 7 and 4 respectively.

Preston continued his studies in Munich with Velton, who bestowed on Preston his lifelong devotion to plein air painting. With his family around him, these years traveling the valleys of the Rhine and Dussel rivers were possibly Preston's happiest and the least troubled of his life. He sent several paintings home to the National Gallery, and he was able to sell two, one for $500 and then other for $1,000, excellent money in those days. In 1879, he moved his family to Paris, where, he told his brother years later, "a whole new way of thinking about color was opened to me." He did not elaborate but it is known that his early paintings are done in a predominantly brown palette, yet his European and post-European work opens out into reds and blues and violets.

From Paris, they traveled to England and Scotland and Wales, where Preston continued to work up new canvases. At the end of 1879, they sailed home from Glasgow to New York and then made their way by coach home to Lowell, where they were greeted like homecoming heroes.

Preston loved Scotland and in 1881, he once again felt the pull to return to the Highlands where he created many canvases of their landscape and their native cattle. A newspaper clipping noted: "It is a singular fact that before Mr. Phelps, no American artist ever endeavored to show us what the Scottish Highlands were like."

Soon after, he rejoined his friend William Merritt Chase for a working tour of Italy, Venice, Capri and back to Germany. In November of 1881 he sailed home to Lowell in a hurricane, which broke the main boom and swept three of the crewmen overboard. He huddled for safety in the saloon along with all other passengers and they arrived safely in New York as the winds were dying.

And so, after five years of on and off travel through Europe, Preston settled down in Lowell where he set up a studio. In the summers, he roamed the New England coast, as well as Grand Manan. He also did a series of paintings along the Merrimac River in the mornings and evenings. But he wasn't able to live solely from the sales of these paintings and he continued to supplement his income by painting portraits of cattle and prize bulls.

In 1886, he went west where he began a series of paintings, most notably of the Grand Canyon. At the edge of the canyon, Phelps built a large structure around the painting so that he could work on it continually outdoors – he recounted later to his children and grandchildren that while he was at work painting, Indians would come up behind him and quietly observe him at work and then silently move off. When he was finished, he rolled the canvas and took it home with him on the train. He considered this painting to be his masterpiece.

Preston's father died in 1888, leaving the family homestead to him. Anna, being a city girl, was reluctant to move but for Preston, the farm was a place where he had returned frequently throughout his life and it was a place that gave him respite. They waited for Anna to finish high school and then, in 1890, the family moved back to the homestead.

What he discovered on his return to Chesham was his love of Mount Monadnock. In an article in New England Magazine, 1898, Charles E. Hurd makes this observation: "Standing one afternoon in the doorway of the little porch, looking southward, (Phelps) saw what he had seen with his outer eyes a thousand times before but never saw as he saw it now. In the distance, over the long green slope, across the valley below and the wooded ridge beyond, towered the great mountain, its gray summit of granite shouldering the sky. . . .This was it at last! The commonest things now took on new meaning. The artist had now found and recognized his life work.. . . .He studied the mountain with the eye of a lover. In sunshine and shadow, in storm and calm, in all seasons and under all conditions, he watched and noted and painted."

Two years later, Preston bought the land across the road and built his studio. He designed it and built it himself. Sometimes mistaken for a chapel, the studio was a big, high-ceilinged place, filled with his paintings and with items he had acquired during his travels. On one wall, he hung his masterpiece, the Grand Canyon of the Colorado, concealed by a great red curtain. When visitors came, Preston enjoyed dramatically pulling the curtain back to reveal the enormous canvas.

Preston was especially fond of painting in winter, which was a cold and forbidding endeavor. To make himself comfortable, he built a traveling studio that could be transported on horse-drawn sled or wagon. The shelter was equipped with easel, paints, canvas, and a small oil stove. This enabled him to work outdoors for long periods of time. Though the summer seasons would have permitted him to work outdoors with less of an encumbrance, it's interesting that so many of his canvases capture the mountain in the winter, in ice, in snow, the afternoon light casting pink shadows onto the blueish snow.

Many of his canvases are undated and unmarked, leaving it to us to guess just where he was when he painted that particular view of the mountain. Although there is a preponderance of scenes from Dublin and Chesham, he did circle the ridge and commit almost every angle of the mountain to canvas. Phelps' eye was like a camera. He painted with extreme honesty, so that every blade of grass, every sheep in pasture comes to us just as it was, no embellishment, no changes. This left us with yet another legacy, which he surely could not have predicted. Once forested to the very top, the mountain experienced a raging forest fire two hundred years ago, which bared the peak and created the rock face that is now so familiar to all of us. But time and the edicts of conservation have left the mountain's face to evolve naturally. If we use Phelps' images as a gauge, we can see that the tree line has advanced toward the summit – which intimates that it may, once again, become forested to the top.

Once he returned to Chesham, Phelps must have been busy, all the time, at his easel, whether inside the barn, in the heated wagon or out in the snow. He was probably a familiar sight, out in the weather, capturing the scenes he was so drawn to. He often chose dark, moody days on which to paint. His skies are the color of tarnished silver and snow appears far more often than green grass. He liked the autumn palette, as well, the umbers and the mustards. In various works, the mountain is fox-colored, crimson, almost black. Rather than midday, he painted most often in the evening or early morning, yielding salmon skies or a peach glow to the snow. Why he worked more in the cold seasons is a question worth pondering. The practical answer would be that he was a farmer and winter was when he had more time on his hands. Or perhaps he was drawn to the darker moods of winter.

The subjects of his paintings are virtually always the mountain or the farm. He likely found that the mountain canvases sold well so he worked to build up that inventory. But from his heart, he painted the farm scenes, the cattle in their stalls, the pigs and hens in the yard. Several of his largest and most impressive canvases capture scenes of mud season, the color of the mud on the canvas so real, it seems he might have used the mud itself, rather than mix the paint to match. His scenes are like snapshots of those times: teams of oxen clearing snow and hauling sap sleds, sheep grazing, men scything hay, and even one extraordinary scene of Anna Marie, feeding the chickens inside the barn with little Ina, who looks to be about 5 in the painting, and the cattle looking on. Late afternoon light streams through the knots and spaces in the barn boards. The look in the eyes of the cattle is of a vast benevolence.

This frenzy of painting activity that surrounded his return to Chesham lasted about ten years, until 1901, a year that perhaps stole the life from Preston, even though he lived another 22 years. Preston's son Edward had grown up to become an artist like his father. He was a painter and had taken also to lecturing, which he enjoyed. When he was 27, he traveled to the West to paint and to prepare a series of lectures. In May of 1901, Edward was in Waco, Texas, waiting for a train when a child tumbled onto the tracks in front of the incoming train. He jumped down and grabbed the baby and was able to toss the child back up to its mother before Edward was run over and killed.

Anna, who was older than Preston by five years, had not been well and both she and Preston took the news of their son's death very hard. Within six months, in December of 1901, Anna died, leaving Preston alone on the farm. Preston began to drink heavily, frequenting the Dublin hotel bar. In 1906, he married again. His new wife apparently felt that she could cure him of his drinking. However, in 1909, she divorced him.

Preston was a frugal man who ate sparingly and carefully - his lunch was always a thick sandwich of chopped onions and hard boiled eggs with French dressing (he was famous for this recipe which he learned to make in France) and a glass of milk. Every Sunday, he made seven of these huge sandwiches, laid them on a platter under a damp cloth and left them in the cellar for the week's rations.

According to papers left to the Smithsonian by his daughter Ina, in 1914, he turned to the auctioneering firm of J. E. Conant and Sons in Lowell for help with his finances. Over the years, Phelps had borrowed, one note at a time, until he owed Conant more than $2500. At that point, J. E. Conant pretty much owned William Preston Phelps, which meant that there would be an auction to sell the farm and all of its contents, including his paintings.

Phelps was by then in his sixties and had heart complications. The distress he felt over the prospect of the loss of not only his family homestead, which had been in the Phelps family since 1763, but also of his studio and all his paintings, can only be loosely imagined. As the date of the auction loomed, Phelps brooded and Ina worked steadily toward the auction. Though the papers do not articulate this, the efforts that Ina put into preparing the site for auction indicate that she very much anticipated a financial gain from the sale.

After her father was removed from the house, Ina stepped up her efforts. At that time, she and her husband, the artist Roger Hayward, lived in Marlborough and her diary entries indicate that many days, from May to August, they walked the seven miles from their home in Marlborough to the Phelps homestead to work on the estate. She scrubbed the farmhouse, polished anything that could be polished, wrote the extensive copy for the auction catalog and framed and prepared paintings for the sale. Many nights, she recorded that they worked until 3 and 4 in the morning on these tasks. It must have been excruciatingly painful work. As she carefully prepared each cherished family object, she knew she would never see these things again. Ina was able to smuggle several paintings home with her, so that the family could have a few of her father's works. But Conant caught wind of this and eventually a sheriff was dispatched to watch over the farm and the paintings. And so her last days at the farm were under guard.

In an almost cruel twist, the summer of 1917 was one of the hottest in memory. In the days leading up to the August 2nd sale, the mercury was nearly 100 degrees. In the cities, Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, many deaths were blamed on the relentless heat wave. Additionally the United States was perilously close to joining the war in Europe, which had dominated the news for the past year. Local boys had recently been drafted.

And so, in this wilting heat and with this grim national backdrop, the auction was held. Hundreds gathered on the lawn that Preston had once scythed so perfectly but which now was scattered with his bureaus and tables and chairs. Inside the barn, his carpenter's tools, his broad axe, and even his scythe was sold. In the studio, his palette and the pebbles he had picked up on the beach at Grand Manan were sold along with the paintings. In spite of the careful framing and listing of each painting, most paintings sold for $20 or $40. The highest price was $180. All of it, the family homestead and hundreds of paintings, gone in the course of one hot August afternoon. In the end, the only one to profit was the auctioneer. Ina pursued the Conants through the courts but she had little success.

William Preston Phelps had already been living at the Concord State Hospital for six months at the time of the auction and it's virtually impossible to know what he knew, if anything, about the event. He lived for another five years before dying on January 6, 1923. His funeral was attended by a few family members and a scattering of old friends. It was noted in one of the newspapers that the burial in the Edson cemetery in Lowell took place during the biggest snowstorm of that winter.

Two days after the funeral, the administrator of the hospital wrote to Ina to say that they had found two dollars in Preston's pocket and that they were enclosing a check in that amount, along with his trousers.

The works for which William Preston Phelps was most famous are almost all among the missing. His Tillers of the Soil, his Evening, his Morning. Most prominently missing is the great painting of the Grand Canyon, last known to have left the auction in the hands of the auctioneer, who knew well that Preston regarded it as his masterpiece.

In the years that followed, the Phelps homestead changed hands several times and has now been added onto and seriously renovated. The studio, which stood idle for many years, was burned by vandals in 1971 and has since been torn down and replaced by a house of modern design. The paintings of William Preston Phelps have been found here and there at auction and in antique shops. In the 1960s, a painting of his could be had for $100 or perhaps less but interest in his work returned and the value climbed. Recently a painting of the mountain sold for $65,000, though most of his paintings can be had for between $5,000 and $10,000.

William Preston Phelps was not only the "painter of Monadnock," he was a painter of place, this place. The scenes around the sugarhouse, in the farmyard, inside the barn and in the woods, scenes that were so commonplace to him and his neighbors exist now for us on the many canvases he left behind, which are there for us not only as works of art but, because of the honesty of his work, as a testament to our history. After that cold February day in 1917 when he was taken by force from his home, William Preston Phelps never again saw his beloved mountain. But since that time, countless collectors and admirers have seen the mountain as he saw it, in all kinds of weather. His work has not only given us pleasure but an invaluable record of the mountain and of the region, just as it was.

Sources

  • William Preston Phelps Papers, 1849 to 1950, Smithsonian Archives of American Art.
  • Keene Evening Sentinel, January through September, 1917
  • Catalog for the sale of the property of William Preston Phelps, prepared by J. E. Conant & Co. Auctioneers, Lowell, Massachusetts, 1917.
  • One Branch of the Edward Phelps Descendants, Stories and Genealogy Compiled by John Edward Phelps, 1957 - 1999, privately published by John Edward Phelps, nephew of William Preston Phelps.
  • A Painter of Monadnock, by Charles E. Hurd, New England Magazine, February 1898.
  • Conversations and correspondence between myself and John Edward Phelps
  • Information on file about Phelps at the Whistler House Museum of Art, Lowell, Mass.
  • Rediscovering Some New England Artists, 1875-1900, by Rolf H. Kristiansen and John Leahy
  • A Circle of Friends: Art Colonies of Cornish and Dublin, catalog for an exhibition prepared jointly by University of New Hampshire and the Thorne-Sagendorph Art Gallery of Keene State College, 1985.

Note:  Images appear courtesy of owners. All rights reserved.

Historic Dublin Painters:


Abbott Handerson Thayer

George de Forest Brush

Richard Sumner Meryman

Frank Weston Benson

Joseph Lindon Smith

Barry Faulkner

Alexander James

Martha Silsbee

William Preston Phelps

Albert Duvall Quigley

Gouri Ivanov-Rinov

Onni Saari

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