Vincent Colyer

Vincent Colyer (b. 1825, Bloomingdale, New York - d. July 12 1888 on Contentment Island, Darien, Connecticut) was a successful American artist noted for the images he created of the American West and a humanitarian who worked with philanthropic and Christian groups and the U.S. government to try to help freed black slaves and Native Americans.

Enlarge picture
Study of Buffalo Heads by Vincent Colyer (undated, private collection)

Appreciation of his art

The Web site of the Douglas Frazer Art gallery, which has at some points sold Colyer works, offers this assessment of the artist's work: "Vincent Colyer is an acknowledged master of American topographical watercolors. ... His small, painterly watercolor sketches of western forts, early settlements and Indian villages, from New Mexico to Alaska, are an important artistic and visual record. More than two hundred of those sketches, mostly accomplished in the field between 1868 and 1872 while working as a Special Indian Commissioner, are found in major institutional collections."[1]

Beinecke Library at Yale owns 50 of his Alaskan views made in 1869.[1]

"During his travels in the southwest and Alaska, he painted remarkable scenes of the landscapes, animals, and people he encountered," according to the Eastern North Carolina Digital Library Web site.[2]

Referring to works by both Colyer and another artist, the Web site of the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma noted, "What these images might lack in aesthetic merit is made up for in charm and expressiveness as quick impressions of the West."[3]
Enlarge picture
'Columbia River, Cascade Mountains, Oregon (1876) by Vincent Colyer (oil on canvas, 19" x 60", signed in pencil on the stretchers), private collection, featured on the Douglas Frazer Fine Art Web site

Life

He studied four years in New York with John R. Smith, and then was a student at the National Academy.[2] He became an associate member of the National Academy in 1849, and from then until the Civil War he painted in New York City.[1]

During the war, he devoted his time to duties as a member of the Christian and the Indian commissions and was involved in the recruitment and training of Black troops. As superintendent of the poor in New Bern, North Carolina under General Ambrose Burnside, he wrote the Report of the Services Rendered by the Freed People to the United States Army in North Carolina, in the Spring of 1862, After the Battle of Newbern (1864).

Traveling the West

Colyer traveled the American West in 1868-1871. "He represented Friends of the Indians, a Quaker organization that was concerned with the humanitarian treatment of the native inhabitants in government custody," according to the Web site of the Gilcrease Museum, which has Colyer works in its permanent collection. "While he did not paint Indian portraits, his sketches reveal some of the earliest forts in Indian Territory and in the Southwest." [3]

He tried to improve the condition of Indians in the Southwest by advocating the establishment of reservations for the Apache, Yavapai, and neighboring tribes in New Mexico and Arizona. This effort earned him the strong opposition of white mining, cattle and agricultural interests, and his mission ended in failure.[1]

Alaska

His humanitarian work continued in 1869, when he surveyed conditions among natives of the just-acquired Alaska Territory on behalf of the newly created Board of Indian Commissioners (an advisory group of philanthropists and humanitarians who studied Indian conditions and made recommendations to the commissioner of Indian affairs).[4]

"His 1869 report is important because of its thoroughness, its presumptions, and, most particularly, its influence for more than a decade on officials concerned with the government's response to Alaska natives," wrote scholar Stephen W. Haycox.[4]

Colyer recommended the Federal government fund Indian schools in Alaska as well as provide medical care, a proposal which was endorsed by the commissioner of Indian affairs but rejected by Congress. Instead, partly thanks to Colyer's efforts,[1] Congress approved money for education, spent through the Interior Department Bureau of Education, reducing the influence of the government's Indian agencies, which tended to establish more paternalistic relationships with Indians. In contrast, according to Haycox, "The Bureau of Education encouraged independence and self-reliance," and tended to have more respect for native cultures. Colyer, a Quaker, was an ardent Christian assimilationist.[4]

In Alaska in 1869, he made numerous watercolor sketches, many incorporating weather phenomena. That year he is thought to have sketched 15 views of Oregon and the Washington Territory. When Colyer returned east and established his studio in Connecticut, he produced a small number of oil paintings of Western scenes (in 1872-1875). They were prominently exhibited at the time, including at the Centennial Exposition of 1876.[1]

Later life

Enlarge picture
In Pursuit of Chief Joseph, by Vincent Colyer. The artist here idealizes infantry power, order, and confidence in the vicinity of Fort Lapwai. Colyer was touring northwest Indian reservations that summer.(Harper's Weekly, August 18 1877, Library of Congress photograph)


In the 1860s, Colyer took a yachting trip up the Connecticut shore as far as New Haven, looking for a good spot to relocate his home and studio. He liked what he saw at one island and bought 40 acres there. Colyer later renamed the isle "Contentment Island", the name it is still known as.[6] (According to one town history, the former name, stated in old land records, was "Ox Pound"[7], another gives it as "Contention Island.") The artist took an active part in civic affairs and served a term in the state House of Representatives.

He moved to Darien, Connecticut in the early 1870s and set up a studio named after his close friend, John Kensett. In a compounded tragedy, on October 31, 1872, Colyer's wife, Mary Lydia (Hancock), who was the grandniece of Massachusetts Governor John Hancock, drowned in Long Island Sound, when Kensett got in the water and tried to save her, he became sick (one source says of pnuemonia, another says it was "a cold"[1]). Kensett died on December 14, 1872.

After 1875, the artist concentrated on Connecticut scenes.

In the summer of 1877, Colyer toured Indian reservations in the Northwest. [8]

Some paintings and drawings

  • Johnson Straits, British Columbia
  • Columbia River (1875)
  • Pueblo
  • Passing Shower (1876)
  • In Pursuit of Joseph, (appeared in Harper's Weekly, August 18, 1877) "Colyer here idealizes infantry power, order, and confidence in the vicinity of Fort Lapwai — probably before the White Bird defeat."[8]
  • Home of the Yackamas, Oregon (sold in 1968 for $16,500)[1]
  • Castle Rock, Entrance to the Cascade Mountains, Columbia River, (lost) "The subject alone gives marked interest to atmospheric effects," the catalogue for the 1873 Cincinnati Industrial Exposition said about the painting.[1]
  • Darien Shore, Connecticut
  • Rainy Day on Connecticut Shore (1881)
  • Winter on Connecticut Shore (1884)
  • Spring Flowers (1885)
  • French Waiter (1886)

Public collections

  • Museum of Fine Arts (Boston),
  • Gilcrease Museum (Tulsa, Oklahoma),
  • Albuquerque Museum of Art,
  • Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library (Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut)

Public exhibitions

His books

  • Report of the Services Rendered by the Freed People to the United States Army in North Carolina, in the Spring of 1862, After the Battle of Newbern (1864) Online text here
  • Notes Among the Indians (Putnam's: 1869) Online text here
  • Colyer's Alaska report, which includes responses to inquiries he made and excerpts from official reports on Alaska, appears as appendix D to the Indian commissioner's annual report, 41st Cong., 2d Sess., 1869, H.E.D. 1, Pt. 3, pp. 975-1058 (Serial 1414)."[4]

For further reading

  • "For the Board of Indian Commissioners and for Colyer, see Robert H. Keller, Jr., American Protestantism and United States Indian Policy, 1869-82 (Lincoln, Neb., 1983), 1-2, 4, 18, 32, 79-80;[4]
  • Mardock, Robert Winston The Reformers and the American Indian (Columbia, Missouri, 1971), 63, 65-66[4]
  • Taft, Robert, Artists & Illustrators of the Old West, 1850-1900 (Boston, 1953), p.322[1]
  • Samuels, Peggy and Harold Illustrated Biographical Encyclopedia of Artists of the American West (New York, 1976), p.103[1]
  • Doris Ostrander Dawdy, Artists of the American West: A Biographical Dictionary'' (Chicago, 1980), p.53[1]
  • French, Henry W., Art and Artists in Connecticut(Boston, 1879), pp.123-25[1]

Footnotes

1. ^ [1] Colyer biography Web page at Douglas Frazer Fine Art Web site, accessed August 10 2006
2. ^ [2]"Vincent Colyer" Web page with a paragraph about Colyer's life, Eastern North Carolina Digital Library Web site, accessed August 10 2006
3. ^ [3] Web page for exhibit "Watercolors of the American West: Selections from the Gilcrease Museum Permanent Collection" at the Web site of the Gilcrease Museum, accessed August 10 2006
4. ^ [4] Haycox, Stephen W., "Races of a Questionable Ethnical Type: Origins of the Jurisdiction of the U.S. Bureau of Education in Alaska, 1867-1885," Pacific Northwest Quarterly, Vol. 75 (October 1984), pages 156-163, accessed August 10, 2006
5. ^ [5] Vincent Colyer biographical sketch Web page at the Web site of Douglas Frazer Fine Art, accessed August 10, 2006
6. ^ Case, Henry J. and Cooper, Simon W. Town of Darien: Founded 1641, Incorporated 1820, Darien Community Association, 1935, p. 17, HEREAFTER Case
7. ^ Case, p. 18
8. ^ [6]Venn, George, "Soldier to Advocate: C.E.S. Wood's 1877 Diary of Alaska and the Nez Perce Conflict," article in the Oregon Historical Quarterly, Spring 2005, accessed August 10, 2006

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