If the quarter of a million pages in the Archives of American Art’s collection of diaries are any indication, the art world’s passion for expression readily spills onto the page. Some of the most captivating of these pages were jotted by a self-effacing yet central member of the Hudson River School of landscape artists, Jervis McEntee. As a Behind-the-Scenes Smithsonian Volunteer, it has been my pleasure to have been immersed in McEntee’s world for much of the last four years.
McEntee was trained by Frederic Edwin Church of Niagara and Andes fame, and was close friends with Sanford Gifford, Worthington Whittredge, and Eastman Johnson. He loved to paint the waning days of autumn. While other artists portrayed the majestic or the picturesque, McEntee’s artistic vision was subdued. He’s the Hudson River School in a minor key.
In 2006 I stumbled across McEntee’s diaries on the Archives’ website, and knew immediately that I wanted to read them. At that time, however, only a portion of the nearly 4,500 diary entries had been transcribed. I unsuspectingly inquired as to whether transcriptions existed for the rest of the entries, and in short order I was welcomed as a volunteer and engaged in transcribing them myself.
“Sometimes I ask myself why I keep this diary,” McEntee wrote in 1880, and then followed with an answer: “I have a talk with myself and it is a brief record of each day and often good for reference.” But it is obviously much more than that. When I read McEntee’s diaries, I am absorbed not only by the history, but also by the poignant personal story of McEntee and his family. McEntee could be despairing, contemptuous, partisan, maddeningly reticent, wryly humorous, wistful, and morose. Through it all, I find him likeable—and a faithful behind-the-scenes guide to the Hudson River School.
Guest blogger Paul G. Stein is a Smithsonian Behind-the-Scenes volunteer and art devotee living in the Atlanta area.