Ernest Lee Major (1864-1950)

Ernest Lee Major (1864-1950)

Born in 1864, Ernest Lee Major was raised in Washington, DC where he obtained his earliest art training under E. C. Messer at the Corcoran Gallery. He moved to New York City in 1882 to continue his studies at the Art Students League with William Merritt Chase. There he received the first Harper-Hallgarten Prize which allowed him to travel abroad to Europe for three years. He enrolled at the Académie Julian in Paris, studying under Gustave Boulanger and Jules-Joseph Lefebvre, and exhibited his work at the Paris Salon in 1888. 

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Major returned to the United States in 1888 and settled in Boston, where he accepted a teaching position at the Cowles Art School.  In 1896, he joined the faculty at the Massachusetts Normal Art School and presided over drawing and painting classes for the next forty-six years. He was a brilliant teacher with an incisive wit that both captivated and intimidated three generations of students. Major saw himself as the perpetuator of traditional academic painting and as a living connection with the nineteenth-century past. Ives Gammell recalled: “For many years a familiar figure in what might appropriately have been dubbed Boston’s Latin quarter, swathed in his cloak and invariably accompanied by an oversized dog, Major incarnated the accepted image of the nineteenth-century artist right up to his death.”[1]

In 1908, Major moved into Fenway Studios, the oldest studio art building in the country which is still in operation today. There he gave private lessons and produced some of his best known portraits, figure paintings and still lifes. Major also maintained a cabin in Wonalancet, New Hampshire, spending many summers devoted to the art of landscape painting. Major was a member of the Boston Art Club and a founding member of the Guild of Boston Artists, where he frequently exhibited his work. Additionally, he participated in numerous national exhibits, earning a silver medal at the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco in 1915 and the Pennsylvania Academy’s Bok Prize in 1917. Ernest Lee Major passed away in 1950, and one year later Vose Galleries held a successful memorial exhibition of his work.

References: Sheila Dugan, Ernest Lee Major (Boston: Vose Galleries, 1995) and Erica Hirshler, “Ernest Lee Major” in Trevor Fairbrother, The Bostonians: Painters of an Elegant Age, 1870-1930 (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1996).

[1] R. H. Ives Gammell, The Boston Painters 1900-1930 (Orleans, MA: Parnassus Imprints, 1986), p. 135.

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