THE BIRD MAN OF YONKERS
(1830 TO 1888)
For every Rembrandt, for every artist whose work shines across the divide of centuries, there are thousands of artists whose names have been forgotten. Their work remains invisible to us, shuttered away in moldering basements and junk shops where no one has bothered to dust it off and look at it for decades. It’s not a tragedy. It’s simply the law of the art jungle: lesser artists fall into obscurity over time. And then there’s even a lower category, those who never had the good fortune to climb to a respectable professional height from which to plummet.
Such an artist was Howard Hill, who endured most every disappointment that can attend the artistic life. Today, you won’t find his paintings in any museums and he isn’t mentioned in any books on American art. This is not entirely unjust. An intense, wounded man with a drinking problem, he was too overwhelmed by the demands of daily living to sustain the discipline needed for art. He died a pauper in 1888 and is buried in Yonkers, New York, in an an unmarked grave.
Hill was Norman Rockwell’s maternal grandfather; he died six years before Rockwell was born. Yet, an absence can be more vivid than a presence, and Hill would exert a large influence on his grandson. As Rockwell grew up, he had ample opportunity to look at any number of Hill’s paintings that were hanging in his home or in those of his relatives, and to hear his mother recall the flamboyant life that had produced them.
Born in London in 1830, Hill spent most of his career as an artist-émigré in Yonkers, New York, painting pictures of animals. Not elegant English animals, like the queen’s spaniels or the glossy-haired horses of George Stubbs. Rather, he was fascinated by barnyard birds of the scruffiest sort: ducks and grouses and quail, even roosters and chickens. He might portray a mother quail with a covey of little chicks standing in tall grass, at the edge of the woods, a meadow and sky unfurling in the distance. Bird painting, let’s call it, occupied its own tiny niche in the market for landscapes that had been opened up by the painters of the Hudson River School, which, of course, was not a school but the first-ever bona fide art movement in America.
Was Hill a neglected master? Hardly. Rockwell, for one, referred to his pictures as “pot-boilers.” But as a child who was gifted at drawing and uncommonly observant, he took note of certain similarities between his work and that of his grandfather. Hill, he saw, drew with care and loaded up his pictures with minute detail. Perhaps Rockwell had inherited Hill’s precisionist way with a pencil or perhaps he had consciously appropriated it. “I’m sure all the detail in my grandfather’s pictures had something to do with the way I’ve always painted,” he once noted. “Right from the beginning I always strived to capture everything I saw as completely as possible.”1
In his later years, when Rockwell was seventy-three and working out of a barn-turned-studio in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, he was informed that one of his grandfather’s bird paintings (Game Bird and Family) was coming up for auction at Parke-Bernet in New York. Although he was not a sentimental person and in fact could be callous with relatives, he called the auction house and then confirmed in a letter: “As you advised, I am willing to make a bid of $250, and more if necessary, because I want to get the picture.” He wound up paying $350.2
Who’s to say why one realist painter lives and dies in unrelieved obscurity while another enjoys the opposite fate—that is, rises out of nowhere to become wealthy and famous and is invited to dine with the president at the White House? This is not a question that Rockwell was likely to contemplate. He was not inclined to look back. He was one of the most efficient artists who ever lived. He never wasted a day. Is it possible to make art without risking failure? He would find a way. This, too, was part of his inheritance from Hill, whose fate alerted him to the hazards of the artistic life.
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This story begins in London, on July 16, 1851, a Wednesday. That was the day on which Hill married a young dressmaker. Her name was Ann Patmore and she was the daughter of a servant. She had just turned twenty-two; he was slightly younger. At the time, he was living with his parents at 10 Smith Street, in a dingy brick house in Chelsea. On the marriage certificate, Hill listed himself as “Artist.” His father had to sign the document as well and gave his occupation as “House decorator,” which at the time referred to a tradesman who knew how to hang wallpaper and paint wood.
Painters in London were not a homogenous group. A hierarchy ruled. The ship painter was rated below the house painter, who in turn was rated below the sign painter. The mural painter and easel painters were at the top of the heap. In describing himself as an “artist,” Hill was referring, perhaps, less to his achievements than his plan for the future: he did not intend to wind up painting houses like his father.
In the seven years following their marriage, Howard and Ann remained in Chelsea and three children were born: Susan Ann, Thomas, and Amy Eliza.3 During that time, Hill’s career had its ups and downs, and probably more of the latter. When their first child was baptized, Hill and his wife were living on Jubilee Place and he listed his trade as “decorator,” as if momentarily knocked off his perch. When their second child was baptized, he was back up to to the status of “artist.” And when their third child was born, they did not bother having her baptized, perhaps because they were in the process of packing up their meager possessions and preparing to sail for America, where his parents had already settled.
Leaving England by crowded steerage, Hill—accompanied by Ann and their three young children—sailed from Liverpool and arrived in this country on March 22, 1858. The trip in second cabin took eight days and when they docked at the pier in New York Harbor, they arrived in a city teeming with immigrants. The streets were thronged with horses and wagons and pushcart vendors from whom you could buy a pickle or a cabbage or a live chicken. If you walked uptown on Broadway, the crowds and big buildings dwindled after Fourteenth Street, and the area known as Herald Square was considered the countryside. Up on Fifty-ninth Street, a beautiful park was about to open. It was modeled on a picturesque park in England that Hill knew well, Birkenhead Park, and perhaps he wondered why it had no name, other than “the central park.”
Our first indication of Hill’s whereabouts in America surfaces in the 1860 federal census. He and Ann were living in Yonkers, north of the city, a stretch of verdant dairy farms. Moving into the home of his widowed father, they stayed long enough for a daughter to be born in 1861. Immediately afterward, he moved his family to Hoboken, New Jersey, which was closer to the city, directly across the river from Manhattan, on the west bank of the Hudson. White-painted ferries and steamships glided by all day. Throughout the Civil War, Hill lived in Hoboken, an artist-immigrant gazing out over the river.
He got off to a promising start. He landed a job with Currier & Ives, the famous printmakers, who were based in Manhattan. Neither Nathaniel Currier nor James Merritt Ives was actually an artist. Rather, they were marketing wizards who employed dozens of artists and devised the ingenious idea of advertising their art inventory in attractive catalogs they published themselves. Some of the prints were engraved copies of paintings, but most of them were original images drawn by artists who remained unacknowledged. The prints were run off in black-and-white and then, after drying for a day or so, were finished by low-paid women who sat at long tables with stencils and pots of brightly colored inks.
The shop at 152 Nassau Street advertised itself as a “Grand Depot for Cheap and Popular Prints,” which was actually true. Anyone could drop by and browse through the racks of hand-colored lithographs. The inventory was constantly changing, although certain motifs were nearly sacrosanct, such as rural landscapes with two-story farmhouses and split-rail fences and horses trotting along a dirt road. Many of the prints seem to say, “We’ll all feel better with some fresh country air.” An inexplicably large number portray snow-covered farmhouses, with light playing off the rooftops and ground, as if it were possible to leach the grayness not only out of art, but out of winter as well.
The prints may have been technically awkward or unpolished, but they were usually lively, jammed with lots of informative details. And they were certainly reasonable. Prices, according to the firm’s 1860 catalog, started at eight cents and went up to more than three dollars. Any housewife could afford to buy a lithograph to frame and hang in the parlor.
Moreover, you could have the pleasure of exercising your taste by picking out one from among hundreds, preferably one that expressed “the sincere ideas and tastes of the house and not the tyrannical dicta of some art critic or neighbor,” as Harriet Beecher Stowe put it in her bestselling advice book, The American Woman’s Home, in 1869. Her comment remains the only takedown to dismiss art critics and neighbors with equal harshness.
Nothing is viewed as more quintessentially American than Currier & Ives prints, but the irony is that most of the firm’s illustrators were British émigrés. Many good scenes of the Rocky Mountains were produced by Currier & Ives artists who had trained in London and never traveled very far west of the Hudson River.
Hill did not last long at the Currier & Ives shop. Whether he was too mercurial to hold down a job or too self-regarding to submit to the drudgery of copying paintings by other artists, he soon went off on his own. This is the period when he started painting groupings of ducks and quails in scenic landscapes, and it seems likely that he was influenced by James John Audubon’s famous illustrations. It had been a generation since Audubon had published his Birds of America, with its hand-colored engravings of every species he could find. Some of Hill’s paintings combine images of Audubon birds with a woodsy landscape setting. Most of his paintings were done on small canvases, about ten by twelve inches, and some are just six by eleven inches. They’re painted in a tight, detail-laden style and when they err, it is on the side of preciousness.
In New York the economy boomed during the Civil War and Hill prospered. He took a studio in Manhattan and was listed in the city directory as “Howard Hill artist 609 Broadway, residence Hoboken.” In 1865, four of his bird paintings were included in the most important survey show of the year—the fortieth Annual Exhibition at the National Academy of Design, which had just moved into a grand new building on East Twenty-third Street. At the time, the Academy was the foremost art school and museum in the city; in fact, it was the only art museum. There was no Metropolitan Museum of Art. There were no public rooms where you could see a Rembrandt or a Vermeer or even minor Dutch masters. The Manhattan art world then consisted of little more than the National Academy and some commercial shops down on Nassau Street where middling paintings were auctioned off like so much old furniture. There were a few art dealers, but their loyalty was to fashionable French artists, such as Adolphe-William Bouguereau, who painted female nudes with silky skin and cherubs fluttering in the sky. American artists were left to dispose of their work at group exhibitions, the most important one being the Academy’s annuals.
On April 27, 1865, less than two weeks after the assassination of President Lincoln, the Academy held an opening reception for its fortieth Annual Exhibition. Despite the recent tragedy, it proved to be a glittery social event. A writer for Harper’s Weekly took note of the “gay and flashing groups” of visitors. The women wore gowns; the men were in frocks and silk top hats. They gathered in sumptuous rooms with Persian carpets to look at paintings that were hung salon-style, from floor to ceiling. More than a hundred artists were in the show, all of them at the mercy of the Hanging Committee, as it was called, somewhat ominously. Artists who had prayed to God that their work would be granted a central eye-level spot were likely to have spent opening night wondering why their pictures had been relegated to the hazy margins. Humbler painters, on the other hand, were no doubt thrilled to find themselves in such prestigious company. The speakers that night included William Cullen Bryant, the long-bearded nature poet and newspaper editor, who praised the Academy as an institution that had finally reached its “ripe maturity.”4
So, for one all-too-brief moment, Hill was a man whose career appeared to be ascendant, a British émigré whose life intersected with the brightest stars in American art. Winslow Homer, Albert Bierstadt, George Inness, and Sanford Gifford were among his coexhibitors at the Academy, and he may have personally met them at the opening reception. Perhaps he shook their hands or even had a chat. Or perhaps he didn’t and was sick with regret when he got home that night.
This was the heyday of landscape painting in America and Bierstadt was the most celebrated of the lot. He painted sweeping views of the American West, scenes of tall cliffs and orange-y sunsets that seemed designed to show space at its most abundant, to insert miles of dewy vapor between you and the mountain peaks.
One of the mysteries of Hill’s career is that he did not endow his pictures with similar grandeur. Although he lived on top of the Hudson River—in Yonkers to the east and then in Hoboken to the west—he never painted a river view. Perhaps he was indifferent to romantic vistas. Perhaps, instead of inspiring him, they intimidated him. Distant views, especially those of mountains, diminish the observer to a tiny speck, to insignificance. Hill preferred things you can see at close range. Not views, exactly, but objects within your own space, the space you inhabit every day from the moment you get out of bed and feel the floorboards beneath your bare feet. He preferred his birds. He had a real sympathy for them. Not swift ones tearing through the sky, but birds that exhibited no desire to fly, that were content to bump around on the ground.
No photographs of Hill are known to survive. No letters either. As a result, his appearance and his ideas about painting remain largely unknown to us, and his life story must be jiggered together from family stories and whatever scant mention he received in newspapers and other documents. After appearing in two annuals at the National Academy in as many years, his name disappears for a while. It pops up again in 1868 and 1869, in small-print classified advertisements in The New York Herald. The ads were placed by the auctioneer Philip Levy, who sold “choice Oil Paintings” at the Artists’ Salesroom on Nassau Street; Hill was one of the artists in his stable.5
He surfaces next in the 1870 census, which describes him as a forty-year-old “artiste,” as if he were French. His wife gave her occupation as “keeping house.” They were no longer in Hoboken, but one town over, in Jersey City. The value of his personal estate was estimated at $300 and unlike some of his neighbors, who included a brick mason and a produce dealer, Hill did not own his house.
He had a large brood by now: six children ranging from an eighteen-year-old daughter to a baby boy. The three oldest children had been born back in London, the fourth in Yonkers. The two youngest, Annie and Percy, were born in New Jersey. Annie was Norman Rockwell’s future mother. She was named for her own mother, Ann Hill. She would be called Nancy to minimize confusion. Which actually maximized confusion.
The Jersey City years appear to have been a relatively prosperous and halcyon time. Hill was still selling an occasional picture. In May of 1873, he appeared in a show at the Brooklyn Art Gallery. The show was called, with more than a bit of hyperbole, Modern Oil Paintings of the Highest Class and included Hill’s Bevy of Quail.
Just four months later, in September, a terrible depression swept the country. The Panic of 1873 began with the collapse of the Philadelphia investment house of Jay Cooke & Co., which had financed the construction of the country’s railroads and assumed with unearned confidence that money for laying down new tracks would never run out. Its miscalculation resulted in its ruin, set off other bank failures around the country, and brought on what remains known as the Long Depression. Hill, chased by creditors and unable to make his rent, moved his family back to Yonkers, where his widowed father still resided, albeit in rather modest circumstances. The father rented a room in the home of an English-born couple and scraped by as “a furniture dealer.”6
Howard Hill rented a poky little dwelling on Woodworth Avenue, which ran along the banks of the Hudson.7 His immediate plan was to earn a living by obtaining commissions from well-to-do farmers in Yonkers. He would traipse from house to house, offering his services and mentioning his unique talent for painting hens and roosters. On countless afternoons he could be found sitting in a barnyard, sketching and sketching, trying to capture a pair of white chickens scratching in the packed dirt or a large dog sleeping in the shade of a tree. Compared to his earlier work—the cozy families of grown birds and chicks—some of his later paintings convey a nervous energy. The animals can seem more isolated: a chicken pecking beside an open barn door, a rooster with a spiky red crown appearing a little alarmed.
He became known as the town eccentric, a moody, unkempt man who alienated most everyone he met. Evenings, he would head into town and make the rounds of the taverns. Invariably, he would return home sloshed, tripping over kitchen chairs and muttering obscenities. His children were woken in the middle of the night by the sound of him clomping around and grew to fear him.
Stories circulated about his lapses and misadventures. He once took his children into the village and returned home without them. When he was in high spirits, he liked to buy up surplus goods. There was the time he returned from a shopping spree with twelve pairs of children’s shoes, all of them the same size.
Inevitably, his career withered. He sold so few pictures he was reduced to painting houses to make ends meet. Then he had an idea: perhaps there was profit to be made in turning out paintings in bulk. He would devote himself to “schemes to fill a salable rectangle,” as the critic Julian Bell once said of another artist, in another context. Borrowing the production-line method he had learned during his stint at Currier & Ives, he enlisted his children as his staff artists.
And so he became the head of a workshop, putting his children to work in the production of sentimental pictures of Indian maidens on moonlit lakes and tearful mothers bidding their grown sons farewell. His usual practice was to have the children sit at a long wooden table. Hill would sit at the head of the table and pass along a canvas on which he had laid in the background. One child would add a moon, another a lake, another a forest, and so on, until the painting was almost done and Hill had only to add a few touches and his signature. He was paid as much as twenty-five dollars for a picture that came with a frame.
By now his older children were out of the house and faring well in the workaday world. His oldest son, Thomas J. Hill, had an art career of his own. He had trained in his father’s studio as an animalière, or animal painter. The first painting he exhibited at the National Academy—this was in 1876—was listed in the catalog as Chipmunks Home and offered for sale, for one hundred dollars. Unlike his father, who had made his second and last appearance at the National Academy in 1866, the younger Hill would continue to show in its annual surveys.8 Although he lacked his father’s depth as a painter, he was a considerate and thoughtful man who was well-liked by his peers, traits which in art, as in everything else, can carry a person a certain distance.
Howard Hill’s problems worsened considerably in 1886. On the morning of April 25, his wife died of pneumonia, aged fifty-seven. Pneumonia before the discovery of penicillin was a devastating disease that brought on violent fevers and sweats. It could kill you in a matter of days and Ann Hill’s death certificate notes that she had been sick for only “Seven or Eight days.”9 She died at home, on Woodworth Avenue, and was buried in the yard of the Episcopal church to which she belonged. The stone that marks her grave bears a pithy, poignant inscription: “Momma.”
Four months later, another tragedy befell Hill. Thomas J. Hill—his eldest son, the artist, now twenty-nine—died of the same disease that killed his mother. He had been sick with pneumonia for only “Three days,” according to his death certificate.10
These were grievous times for Howard Hill. His wife was dead and his son Tom had joined her, both of them lying in the small, grassy churchyard in the middle of town. Unable to keep house, exhausted by the pressures of trying to earn his living as an artist, Hill spent his last year and a half reduced to living as a vagrant. Traveling with little more than his jars of paint and his brushes and his candles, he moved between rooming houses in New York and Yonkers. He had no home address because he had no home. It went on that like that, week after week.
One Monday in February 1888, Hill went to New York “on business” and returned to Yonkers one week later, at midnight. The morning after his return, according to the local newspaper, “he was found in an epileptic fit”—presumably he suffered a stroke. He died a day later, on March 6, 1888, at five o’clock in the morning, at the boarding house of Mrs. Nagel, on New Main Street. He was fifty-seven years old. He was buried at St. John’s Cemetery, in an unmarked grave.11 Two days later, the Great Blizzard of 1888 descended, terrifying the people of Yonkers with howling winds and endless snowfall and causing all the birds to freeze to death.
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Here, then, is Norman Rockwell’s mother. Here is Nancy Hill. Born in Hoboken on March 6, 1866, she was the fifth of Howard Hill’s six children. The Tuesday on which her father died was her twenty-second birthday. From that day on she was an orphan. At the time, she was living in a boardinghouse on Ravine Avenue in Yonkers, sharing a room with her older sister Katie, a teacher.12
A petite, darkly pretty woman, Nancy already had a boyfriend who was precisely what she wanted: he was kind and dependable. He was someone who could carry her away from the squalor of her past, away from the drinking binges and the chickens and roosters, away from the whole miserable experience of art. She never wanted to inhale the greasy scent of oil paint again.
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Nancy found the perfect suitor when she met Jarvis Waring Rockwell—Norman Rockwell’s father—who went by his middle name. He was a salesman for a textile company in Manhattan. He, too, grew up in Yonkers, but in the good part of town, in a stately house at 98 Ashburton Avenue, never having to worry about money.13
Waring had a handsome face with brown eyes and a substantial mustache kept neatly trimmed. His speaking voice was deep and he sang bass in the church choir of his youth. When he was in his early twenties, he joined several amateur singing groups and his appearances were noted respectfully in the pages of The Yonkers Statesman. He warbled with the Canoe Club Quintet and sang in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, including the first production of The Mikado in Yonkers.
Born on December 18, 1867, the youngest of three children, Waring grew up in a family that thankfully for him was less colorful than his wife’s. His father, John William Rockwell, was a wholesale coal dealer who ran his own business out of a landmark building, 1 Broadway in Manhattan. His mother, Phebe Boyce Waring, can fairly be described as Yonkers aristocracy. She was descended from the founder of the Waring Manufacturing Company, which was once the nation’s largest hat maker and at its peak turned out seven thousand hats a day.
In the summer of 1891 Waring was twenty-three; Nancy was twenty-five. It is not known how they met, only that they had been dating for a few years and their relatives wondered if they would ever marry. Waring was willing to do whatever Nancy wanted. She wanted to marry that summer up in Crompton, Rhode Island, where she was living in the house of her older sister. And she wanted to marry in the Episcopal Church, which was fine with Waring although he had grown up attending services at the First Presbyterian Church. News of the nuptials made page one of The Yonkers Statesman, which reported, “The bride was attired in a handsome costume of white, with veil, and carried a bouquet of white roses … After a wedding tour, Mr. and Mrs. Rockwell will reside in New York City.”14
The newlyweds rented an apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, in a narrow brownstone at 206 West 103rd Street, off Amsterdam Avenue. They had been married for little more than a year when Nancy gave birth at home to their first son, Jarvis Waring Rockwell, Jr., on September 29, 1892.
In less than a year, Nancy was pregnant again. On February 3, 1894, a second son was born. It was her turn to pick a name. Astoundingly, instead of naming him after her artist-father Howard or her adored brother Thomas J. Hill, she named him after a man she had never met—one Captain Norman Spencer Perceval, a minor British nobleman who had married her mother’s sister. The captain was still alive at the time, ensconced on Lowndes Street in London, and he appealed to Nancy’s nostalgia for an England she had never visited except in the mists of her imagination. Perhaps she hoped that Captain Perceval would leave some money to her son, or perhaps it was enough for her to know that she and her newborn, Norman Perceval Rockwell, by virtue of the name she had given him, were now linked for the ages to a name out of British royal history. She no doubt would have been thrilled to learn that Captain Norman Spencer Perceval was linked to the future Diana Spencer, princess of Wales, by a mere twenty-one degrees of genealogical separation.15
Rockwell always hated his middle name and believed that Perceval was about as embarrassing as any word ever appended to a boy.16 His mother was constantly reminding him to spell it correctly, the way that Captain Perceval did—the captain spelled it Perceval, as opposed to the common spelling of Percival. This may explain why Rockwell actually misspelled his own middle name in his autobiography. He spelled it throughout as Percevel, as if so anxious about overlooking the letter e that he inserted one in the place of every vowel.
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People need something to carry their fantasies, and for Nancy Rockwell the lines and bloodlines of family trees were a convenient conveyor. In later life, she came to believe that her father, poor Howard Hill, was descended from British royalty. “My father’s great, great, great grandmother was Lady Elizabeth Howard, she was beheaded,” she noted in a letter to her daughter-in-law in 1946. At the time, she was reading a new historical novel about the girlhood of Elizabeth I, Young Bess, by Margaret Irwin. She highly recommended it, “if you wish to read something about my father’s ancestors.”17
Rockwell, by contrast, had little interest in his ancestors. When he thought of his origins, he preferred to dwell on his artistic origins and various painter-gods to whom he felt connected. They were a far-flung lot, ranging from European masters like Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Rembrandt, and Jean-François Millet to the American illustrator of pirates, Howard Pyle. The history of painting is its own extended family and the one from which Rockwell believed he inherited his best qualities.
Copyright © 2013 by Deborah Solomon