A Hudson River School Diary

By the Archives

June 2, 2010

Photograph of Jervis McEntee
Jervis McEntee, ca. 1870. Miscellaneous photograph collection. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

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.

Comments

Thank you for letting us know of the McEntees Diaries. What a fabulous primary source for 19th century history on the Hudson River School. I am sure there is great insight into the lives of many of the famous artists he befriended. This will certainly by a fascinating read.

I loved his personality. A famous artist for me. I love his passion to art and paint. He is worth to remember.

If I'm not mistaken, wasn't it previously believed that many of the paintings at the Hudson River School that were done by African Americans thought to be of European influence and then that theory was refuted and believed that the paintings were actually African influenced.

Diaries and journals are the best ways to document your daily activities and future reference so that others will learn more about you as a person and as a professional. In this article not only did we know about his works but also who he was as a person. Thanks for sharing this!

I admire McEntees Diaries, he is great, he put his heart into paintings, he is worthy being remembered,I should learn from him.

"McEntee could be despairing, contemptuous, partisan, maddeningly reticent, wryly humorous, wistful, and morose...and faithful-behind-the-scenes guide." If you took out his name, I think you would find many, many artists not only wrestle with all of these characteristics and more. I love the part where you said faithful. Real artist are passion and most are faithful. The faithful end may be controversial or honoring but in some way this comes through. Thank you for your insightful blog.

For some work I've been doing, I had occasion to view McEntee's diary about 15 years ago on microfilm. What a challenge! When I first saw that the diary was online, I was greatly relieved when I picked up my research where I had left off. But still a challenge to read. Just the other day I noticed that the diary had been made into typescript and now I have the pleasure of knowing the name of the human being who did it!
I can only say, "Thank you!" to you, Paul G. Stein, and include your name in my Acknowledgements. Thank you, thank you!

Thanks for this post.
I also love reading artists diaries or writings. I remember reading Van Gogh letters to his brother Theo. Of course, diary is even more intimate, because that is the discussion of a person with himself. In any case reading what a painter had written, and observing paintings he/she painted at that period of time helps understand a lot about the paintings, and the way the artists express his/her feelings through art.

You're very welcome. It occurs to me after reading your post that, in addition to the cultural and intellectual enrichment that the Archives' digitized collections provide, they are saving people's eyesight as well--no more microfilm!

I can't wait to share this with my husband, who is a great admirer of McEntees Diaries. He really put his all into his paintings and amazing to learn about him. Thanks!

If I'm not mistaken, wasn't it previously believed that many of the paintings at the Hudson River School that were done by African Americans thought to be of European influence and then that theory was refuted and believed that the paintings were actually African influenced.

Pretty cool that you can read a person who lived in the 1800s diary. Silly for me to say this, but kind of an invasion of their privacy as well lol :p
But he's dead so I'm certain he won't mind ;)

McEntees diaries are just heartwarming and inspirational. I am an artist myself, but i have never had a diary. I think its time to start thinking out of the box like him.

It's amazing how you can learn from those people from the 1800. I would like to learn more about their lives and thoughts back then. Sounds really interesting.

Diaries are records of events and happenings in ones life, may he be known or a simple living individual. These can lead to leanings and knowledge for the new generation. Just like the diaries in the mentioned archive.

I wished I could read someone's diary, specially from the 1800s. I am so curious to know how everything was back then... the culture, the thoughts, the feelings, everything!

I am fascinated by Paul Stein's Blog Circa 1855. He has done endless hours of research and is a great source of information on the Hudson River School. I enjoyed his account of the women painters of the Hudson River school. (On my blog, I've posted a photo of a small painting by my great-grandmother.)
There is currently an excellent small exhibition at the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley, Winchester, for those interested and close enough to see it before January 23rd.

I am impressed by the quality of information on this website. There are a lot of good resources here. I am sure I will visit this place again soon.
Great blog post. It’s useful information.