Roswell Morse Shurtleff (1838-1915)

Roswell Morse Shurtleff (1838-1915)

“In painting a bit of the forest I do not always paint literally all that I see, but my one great aim is to put on the canvas the soul of the place at a time when the inspiration seizes me, and, beyond all, to give to my subjects the life in the woods – what the artists call ‘values’ – which is generally known as an atmosphere.” 1

– Roswell Morse Shurtleff

[1] Bunce, Mrs. Oliver Bell. “The Mountain Home of Roswell Shurtleff” The Decorator and Furnisher, July 1896, pp. 104-105.

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Roswell Morse Shurtleff was born in 1838 in Rindge, New Hampshire, along the state’s border with Massachusetts, and briefly worked for a lithographer in Buffalo, New York, before moving to Boston in 1859 to pursue his education in the fine arts. He found a day job as an engraver while taking evening classes at the Lowell Institute, and one year later enrolled at the National Academy of Design in New York. During this time he made ends meet doing illustrations for magazines and newspapers, and when the Civil War broke out Shurtleff enlisted early, joining the 99th New York Volunteers. He was quickly promoted to Lieutenant before being wounded and captured during a scouting mission in July of 1861, and spent the next eight months confined to southern hospitals and prisons. Upon his release, Shurtleff visited his mother in Winchendon, Connecticut, where he would meet his future wife Clara Halliday, and was eventually sent back to New York to take charge of the state’s paroled captives, a position he held until just before the end of the war. He returned to his illustration work, married Clara in 1867 and moved to Hartford two years later. Around this time, the couple began spending summers in Keene Valley, in the Adirondacks, and it is here that Shurtleff took up oil painting in earnest, finding inspiration among the region’s dense forests and unspoiled wilderness.

In 1875, the Shurtleffs relocated from Hartford to New York City, where the artist could stay more closely involved with the art circles of the day. Thereafter they continued to divide their time between the city and Keene Valley, spending the summer and autumn months at the latter and eventually building a home, christened Shirecliffe, which the artist designed. Although he was not the first artist to discover the beauty of Keene Valley, Shurtleff’s name became synonymous with the region owing to his longtime residency and over the years he befriended many of his fellow painters, including Winslow Homer, who began visiting the Adirondacks in 1870.

The landscapes resulting from Shurtleff’s sojourns in the Adirondacks garnered praise from critics and collectors alike when shown at the Brooklyn Art Association, the Boston Art Club, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and the National Academy of Design, which made Shurtleff an Associate in 1880 and a full Academician ten years later. He was also a member of the American Watercolor Society and the Salmagundi Club, as well as the Lotos Club, which hosted a memorial exhibition of Shurtleff’s work in January of 1916, one year after his unexpected passing.

Today, Shurtleff’s transcriptions of the forests and glades of upstate New York that charmed him for decades can be found in several museum collections, including the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, DC, the Smith College Museum of Art, in Northampton, Massachusetts, the Worcester Art Museum, and the Adirondack Experience: The Museum on Blue Mountain Lake in New York.

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