At 30 years old, while in the northern Adirondacks, William James Stillman painted what would later afford him lasting and international fame. Two years later, in 1860, the Schenectady native gave up painting, eventually becoming a lesser-known diplomat, journalist and photographer.
Now, more than a century after his death in 1901, fame is not through with Stillman, as more collectors and academics recognize him as a revolutionary photographer. Not only are his photographs getting published more frequently, they are also rising in price.
Stillman, a painter, editor, journalist, photographer, diplomat and spy, was “one of those nineteenth-century figures whose industry and accomplishments continue to astonish,” Andrew Szegedy-Maszak, a professor of classical studies at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., wrote in a 2005 essay on Stillman.
Hanging in the reference room of the Concord Free Public Library in Concord, Mass., is Stillman’s initial claim to fame: an oil painting titled “The Philosophers’ Camp in the Adirondacks.” The painting shows the gathering of 10 New England intellectuals as they camped in New York’s wilderness during the summer of 1858.
Out of the 130 artworks in the 135-year-old library’s special collection, “The Philosophers’ Camp” is its most popular, receiving the most reproduction requests. It was painted on location near the shore of Follensby Pond.
“It’s one people come from around the world to see, believe it or not,” said Leslie Wilson, the curator of the Concord library’s special collections.
In the painting, a group of men to the right shoot rifles for target practice. To the left, another group dissects a trout on a tree stump. Around them are towering trees and morning sunshine.
Between the two groups stands a rather lost looking fellow with a pilgrim staff in hand, seemingly at home in the woods but unsure of his place in that society. He is Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Concord philosopher poet whose writings on nature stoked one of the nation’s best-known philosophical movements: Transcendentalism.
“Stillman was making a statement” about Emerson, Wilson said.
Since Ebenezer Hoar donated “The Philosophers’ Camp” to the library in 1895, thousands of people have caught a glimpse of the Adirondacks. It is just another example of how Stillman served as an ambassador for the region, which before the Philosophers’ Camp was primarily visited by wealthy hunters and landscape painters.
Hoar, a Concord native and a former U.S. Attorney General, stands among the shooters in Stillman’s painting.
“It was really the infancy of [vacationing in the Adirondacks] and he was the leader and the link with the Cambridge people,” Jerry Pepper, the librarian for the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake, said of Stillman.
Stillman’s affinity for New York’s northern wilderness can be traced to his boyhood in Schenectady. On Saturdays, Stillman’s father took him and his brothers on walks in the neighboring woods and fields. Stillman was born in Schenectady on June 1, 1828, the youngest of nine children.
“I can see vividly the banks of the Mohawk, where, with my brother Charles, we found the rarer flowers of the valley . . . and the long walks in the pine forests, whose murmuring branches in the west wind fascinated me more than any other thing in nature,” Stillman wrote in his “The Autobiography of a Journalist” (1901).
Stillman’s father was a Yankee inventor from Westerly, R.I., who in the early 1800s moved to Schenectady. Schenectady then was a commercial hub between New York City and the Northwestern frontier.
At his mother’s insistence and against his own and his father’s objections, Stillman in 1845 enrolled at Union College. Stillman called it “a fatal error” because he “passionately desired a technical education in the arts.”
Despite his regrets, Stillman’s Union years proved invaluable in providing him an education in classical architecture. That knowledge played an important role in his later work as a photographer in Athens, according to Szegedy-Maszak, the Wesleyan professor.
After graduating from Union in 1848, Stillman moved to New York City to spend what he termed an unproductive winter studying under Frederic Church, then an emerging leader of the Hudson River School, the nation’s first distinctive art movement. Upon returning to Schenectady the following summer, Stillman made his first “direct and thorough studies of nature.”
trip to england
In 1850, Stillman made his first trip to England, primarily to study English paintings. There, he also met the man who quickly became his idol in the arts: John Ruskin. Ruskin was the 19th century’s preeminent art critic whose writings not only championed the British Joseph Turner but also influenced other painters, including Church and Claude Monet.
Back in the states, it was Sanford Gifford, a Greenfield native and fellow landscape painter, who pointed Stillman to the Adirondacks. After some prodding from Gifford, Stillman stayed with a farmer and his family in a log cabin near Upper Saranac Lake, where he painted diligently for almost three months. The Boston Museum of Fine Art holds Stillman’s oil painting, “A Study on Upper Saranac Lake,” dated 1854.
A year later, Stillman founded a weekly arts and literary criticism publication called The Crayon. The journal essentially served as a vehicle for spreading Ruskin’s philosophy on art.
The Crayon had a short print life, but it brought Stillman deeper into a circle of Boston area intellectuals, including Emerson, James Russell Lowell and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Some of them joined Stillman on his 1858 trip to the Philosophers’ Camp.
A year after the 1858 Adirondack adventure, Stillman led an expedition to Ampersand Pond, east of Follensby. The Boston-area intellectuals wanted to establish a permanent home there for their newly-formed Adirondack Club, which disbanded after the Civil War broke out in 1861.
Stillman likely brought a camera to Ampersand in 1859 and took pictures of the land around the pond the club had purchased. In 1975, Stillman’s granddaughter donated to the Adirondack Museum a portfolio of 15 albumen prints, believed to have been made from negatives taken during the 1859 trip. The photographs — mostly studies of the pond, boulders and trees — are some of the earliest known photographs taken in the central Adirondacks.
“From a regional point of view and beyond, they are very significant photographs,” said Ted Comstock, the former Adirondack Museum curator who picked up the portfolio from Stillman’s granddaughter in western Massachusetts.
A year after taking the Ampersand photographs, Stillman quit painting after receiving a harsh critique from Ruskin while they were in Switzerland. “Ruskin had dragged me from my old methods and given me none to replace them.”
However, Stillman replaced painting with photography. And in less than a decade he had created a new masterpiece: “Acropolis of Athens” (1870), an album of 25 pictures of monuments and sculptures in Athens.
In 1985, Szegedy-Maszak was a guest scholar at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles when he first encountered Stillman’s photographs in “Acropolis.” They left an impression on the professor, who has spent the past 23 years studying Stillman.
“I was like, ‘What the hell is this!?’ ” Szegedy-Maszak said in a phone interview with The Sunday Gazette. The “Acropolis” stood out because of the sharpness of Stillman’s photographs and their unique perspectives. While most photographers in Athens were taking standard postcard-quality photographs of Athenian ruins, Stillman was taking radically different shots that produced an “idiosyncratic and very personal vision,” Szegedy-Maszak said.
It was not until 1988 that Stillman’s works achieved wide-scale publication with “Picturesque Localities,” a book devoted to his photography. Since then, Stillman’s prestige as a photographer has been steadily growing.
Union College’s Mandeville Gallery hosted a special exhibit in 2006 titled, “The Athenian Acropolis: Photographs by William James Stillman (Class of 1848).” The college’s Schaffer Library also holds Stillman’s papers and photographs in its special collection.
In October, Princeton University announced its acquisition of “Athens” (1869), a portfolio of 25 prints by Stillman. Its photographs focus on Athenian ruins, but it predates “Acropolis.”
“It’s like nothing else from the time,” Szegedy-Maszak said of Stillman’s photography.