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Daniel Folger Bigelow (1823-1910) © Illinois Historical Art Project


One day around 2001, I was researching artists at the microfilm library of the Chicago Public Library. It seemed odd that every time I was there so too was a diminutive scholarly looking gentleman. I introduced myself and quite by serendipity did he explain he shared an interest in Illinois and Chicago art history. Those of us so dedicated were (and are) very few. Patrick Sowle was somewhat down on his funds post-retirement and we agreed to a regular stipend wherein we could work on my research together on the history of Illinois painters. We would drift off into faraway discussions about the most arcane topics related to our subject, pause, and realize we were the only two people in the world who could conceivably discuss such esoteric matters. Patrick died penniless, without a family of his own. He was part of my life for a strong and interesting period, and I miss him dearly. Patrick, you were the best art researcher I ever knew, and I've known a many! Cheers my friend. Joel S. Dryer

daniel folger bigelow,chicago academy of design
daniel folger bigelow,chicago academy of design

When the veteran Chicago artist, Daniel Folger Bigelow died in 1910, at the age of eighty six, the arts community reminisced about the evolution of art in the city. People recalled the many events of the previous age: the first art exhibition in 1859, the heady days of art in the l860s, the triumphs and later failure of the Academy of Design, the Great Fire, the growing importance of the Inter-State art shows in the 1870s and 1880s, the monumental art exhibition at the Columbian Exposition and the growth of the Art Institute into a museum of national importance. Bigelow was an active participant and observer of all of these events.1

Bigelow was born July 22, 1823, on a farm in Peru Township in Clinton County, New York. His father Nathan, a prosperous Quaker farmer, was a sixth generation descendant of a Connecticut settler. Bigelow’s Quaker mother, Clarinda Folger, claimed distant kinship to Benjamin Franklin. The marriage of Nathan and Clarinda Bigelow produced five children who lived to maturity: Nicholas (1819) Elisha (1821), the artist Daniel, Edwin (1829) and Clarinda (1834), the only and much loved daughter.2

Bigelow passed his childhood in an area of astonishing natural beauty. The family farm lay on the eastern edge of the Adirondack Mountains. The farm sloped gently to the east with Lake Champlain in the distance about five miles away. In the far distance the Green Mountains of northern Vermont completed the horizon. To the southwest of the Bigelow farm the Adirondacks provided views of Huckleberry Hill and higher peaks, including Mount Terry, to the west. The Little Ausable River flowed near the farm while within a one day walk the Salmon and Ausable rivers cascaded down from the higher Adirondacks. The village of Keesville and the Keene Valley, a Mecca for artist sketching tours, were south of the family farm. The rapidly changing
seasons provided constant stimulation. Bigelow later recalled that at an early age he developed a “passionate love” for the colors of the Adirondacks. A nineteenth century historian described the area of the Bigelow farm as where “civilization seems to begin and end.”3

Bigelow grew up in a warm, loving family. His mother was a gregarious, sociable woman who loved embroidery, quilting, and weaving. Bigelow later believed that the rural isolation “thwarted” his mother’s “artistic ability.” She frequently rushed through her housework in order to visit neighbors, taking some of the children with her. Bigelow’s father was remembered as an industrious, fun loving and prosperous farmer who gave his children more treats than rules, one of which the boys often broke, swimming on the Sabbath. Bigelow’s father loved circuses. He and the children rarely missed the performances of the traveling shows which visited the neighborhood in the summer and autumn. Bigelow seems to have been the favored child, and sometimes his brothers were jealous. He was sent to Albany for additional education after he finished the village school and became the family’s best educated child.4

Young Bigelow displayed a talent for drawing at an early age and his parents encouraged him, supplying paper and pencils. He recalled how he often slipped away to sit on a stone wall to look out over Lake Champlain and to Mount Mansfield in the far distance of Vermont. He never forgot the golden green-tones of spring, the blue-white rivers rushing to Lake Champlain, the green and blue of summer, the red, gold, and purple of autumn, and the gray-blue iciness of winter.5 At home the boy often stood on a chair to study a framed drawing and wonder if he could ever achieve such technical skill. He later carefully preserved and displayed in his studio a small, primitive watercolor that he painted at a tender age. Although the parents encouraged his bent for drawing and often excused him from farm chores, they believed it could lead nowhere. There was no art school in the remote Adirondacks. They thought it preposterous for a farm boy to aspire to artistry, yet they proudly displayed his drawings to visitors.6

In 1841, Bigelow’s life changed when an itinerant portrait painter from Vermont, Asahel Lynde Powers (1813-c.1846),7 worked for several months in Clinton County. Powers probably lived with his uncle who resided near the Bigelow farm. He painted about a dozen portraits of local worthies in Peru and in Plattsburgh, the county seat. Bigelow remembered his father agreed to pay Powers for art lessons, and the young man received his first formal instruction. Powers was a distant relative of Hiram Powers, the sculptor. Powers taught Bigelow what he knew of color, composition, drawing, mixing paints, and working in oil. Bigelow always credited Powers with teaching him the “delicacy of coloring and treatment.”8

The encounter with Powers opened a new chapter in Bigelow’s life. He decided to become a professional artist. Because the family’s inclination and finances did not extend to sending him to New York City for training in art, Bigelow devised his own plan of progress. He went to work in the marble quarry in nearby Schuyler Falls and later at Stowe, Vermont. His employers used Bigelow’s drawing talent to design and carve architectural embellishments for buildings and fancy tombstones. After Bigelow saved a hundred dollars he returned to art. He apparently traveled to meet artists who offered lessons. When he ran out of money he returned to the quarries to earn another hundred dollars. In 1843, at the age of twenty, he traveled to New York City, visited artists and exhibitions and returned to the Adirondacks convinced he had far to go in art.9 Still he persisted by working part of the year in the quarries and devoting the rest of the year to art. Occasionally he painted portraits that he later ranked as irredeemably bad art. It is not known if he associated with the many artists who began to sketch in the Adirondacks in the mid-nineteenth century, but he studied and admired paintings by John William Casilear (1811-1893), Sanford Robinson Gifford (1823-1880), Aaron Draper Shattuck (1832-1928) and brothers James (1828-1901) and William McDougal Hart (1823-1894), all accomplished landscape or figure painters. He later admitted their influence ‘clung to him in all his subsequent work.”10 Bigelow may have met some of the artists who by 1850 had sketched in the Catskills and Adirondacks including: Thomas Cole (1801-1848), Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait (1819-1905), Henry Inman (1801-1846), Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900), Jasper Francis Cropsey (1823-1900), John Frederick Kensett (1816-1872),11 Alexander Helwig Wyant (1836-1892), and Edward B. Gay (1837-1928).12

Bigelow progressed slowly. An ambitious genre painting of 1850, The Firecracker, was discovered in 1975. It is Bigelow’s earliest surviving painting and is now in a private collection. The cluttered twenty-five by thirty inch canvas features a domestic scene with seven figures. In front of a central fireplace an older boy demands that a younger boy hand over an unlighted firecracker. The painting, while firmly in the primitive folk tradition, reveals an artist striving for a more accomplished level. The soft colors harmonize well, but there are defects in composition, drawing and perspective.13

In 1858, at the age of thirty-five, Bigelow decided to change his life. He set out for Chicago to hone his talents and to prepare for his professional work as an artist. Why he selected Chicago is not known, however perhaps his early teacher’s decision to spend time in Illinois may have had some influence. The city was the fastest growing urban center in America and Bigelow’s future friend, sculptor Leonard Volk, recalled that many artists, “attracted by fair appearances for the future,” moved to the city. Bigelow certainly numbers among the hundreds of thousands of bright and ambitious young men and women from rural New England and upstate New York who sought a better future in the West. By 1858, Clinton County offered few attractions for a budding artist. In the two generations after l840, the Township of Peru lost over half of its population. Two of his brothers had already abandoned the farm. In Chicago, Bigelow rented a room and studio on State Street, then an unfashionable, unpaved road. He painted some portraits which he later denigrated but others believed he “did some clever things in that line.” During the early years in Chicago he supported himself by teaching school.14 He met other artists who constituted a small colony led by George Peter Alexander Healy (1813-1894), the internationally popular portrait artist who settled in Chicago a few years before Bigelow. He probably studied with more accomplished artists and improved his techniques. He did not exhibit at the first Chicago loan exhibition15 in 1859 or at the United States Sanitary Fair Art Exhibition16 of 1863, also a loan show in Chicago.17

Bigelow exhibited his first canvas among professionals in 1864, at the age of forty one; the city’s first sale exhibition of Chicago artists, sponsored by Jevne and Almini and Co. Bigelow showed Early Winter and Gravely Point, Lake Champlain (locations unknown). A critic for the Chicago Evening Journal greeted the Bigelow paintings: “D. F. Bigelow shows at excellent advantage in ‘Early Winter,’ a frigid scene, where a boy stands by a pond with his skates on his arm. A very suggestive hole, clearly made by a just-tossed stone, shows the unfortunate thinness of the ice, and the boy’s face reflects the story of the hole.” The critic believed the Champlain scene “equally meritorious.” Early Winter sold for $17 and the landscape went for an unknown amount.18

In 1865, he rented a studio in the new and opulent Crosby Opera House that featured a large gallery of American and European works. A socially ambitious distiller, Uranus Crosby, who prospered extravagantly during the Civil War, built the theater and gallery. The Crosby collection contained paintings by well known American artists including Albert Bierstadt’s (1830-1902) large Looking Down the Yosemite Valley (Birmingham Art Museum) and Jasper Cropsey’s equally large The Starrucca Viaduct, later destroyed by fire. Crosby patronized Bigelow and acquired a still life, The Frosted Bud, and three landscapes, View in Essex County, Sampson Pond and View in Westport, New York (locations unknown).19

During the six years Bigelow maintained a studio in the Opera House, he enjoyed access to a wide array of excellent landscape, genre and still life painting20 establishing the patterns that lasted a lifetime. He worked hard. His paintings reflected the popular taste of America in the 1860s. In the period before the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the titles of twenty of his paintings, other than portraits, are known and at least fourteen are landscapes of his beloved home area in New York. Before 1871, he painted only one known Western landscape, Scene in Wisconsin (location unknown). Most of his landscapes were fair weather scenes featuring sunshine and blue skies, fleecy clouds, water, rocks, trees, often with hills and mountains in the background. He strove for realism and reflecting true nature. From exhibition records it appears he infrequently painted still life, genre and animal scenes.21 In fact, he once stated being discouraged by “my friends” not to painting other than his popular landscapes, being discouraged from his considerable talents as a still life painter.22

In the 1860s, writers insisted Bigelow’s landscapes were “full of poetry” or exuded “natural charm,” and “true to nature’s sentiments.” A reviewer commended Bigelow’s “love for his profession” and his “ambition to stand at the head of it, where we someday hope to see him.” A Wisconsin landscape contained “warmth and strength.” In the late 1860s, a review praised Bigelow’s scenes of Clinton Pond and Mallett’s Bay because they “are quiet and simple in their treatment [and]…the expression of the soul of a true artist.” The paintings contained “no badly drawn lines, or glaring crude color to shock the eye and hurt the refined taste.” An Adirondack scene was described as “religiously devoted to pictorial art… It is always a pleasure to us to look upon his work, for you are sure to see in it an unfolding of some beautiful effect in nature that points to the head, as well as the hand, of the artist.”23

A perhaps more realistic assessment of Bigelow’s talent appeared in 1870, in The American Builder and Journal of Art, published in Chicago. Emily Lakey, a young artist and wife of the editor, commended Bigelow for his “good color and marked indications of growing power.” Mrs. Lakey revealed that for years Bigelow worked “under particularly embarrassing conditions” because of limited sales and inadequate training. His more recent landscapes showed “a good feeling for color, and [he] draws well, his chief lack having been in modulations of color so essential to atmospheric effects.” Bigelow “seems to be rapidly advancing to higher ground. With care and outdoor study, Mr. Bigelow ought soon to do what was long since his duty - take high rank among the landscape painters of the country.”24

Bigelow enjoyed a rapport with the press that continued throughout his career. Several factors may account for his favorable reception. Chicago leaders wanted to encourage artists and many citizens considered art a way of advancing civic culture. Men such as Mayor William B. Ogden and the lawyers Ezra B. McCagg and Mark Skinner, all collectors, firmly believed art an essential underpinning of civilization. In addition, Bigelow painted canvases that appealed to public taste. A landscape painting ranked as the painting of choice for Chicago collectors and persons of taste and refinement. Many early Chicagoans came from rural New England and upstate New York and longed for scenes of their home areas.25 A more intangible factor in Bigelow’s popularity was his personality. Everyone liked him. A writer for The Western Home came under his spell. Bigelow, he reported, “is a strictly honest, conscientious, kind-hearted man, a good neighbor and a genial friend.” The artist, he concluded, was “exceedingly modest, retiring, and unpretending; always speaking well of his brother artists, giving their works the fullest credit, and leaving his own to speak for themselves.”26

Bigelow flourished after his very first exhibition. With improving skills and a good press he began to acquire patrons. From 1867 to 1871, the Opera House Gallery promoted and sold his work. His patrons included the Crosby cousins, Uranus and Albert, Rufus E. Moore, who owned an art book shop, Mrs. Susan Hely St. John (1833-1913), a local artist, and probably Samuel Nickerson, President of the First National Bank. In 1867, after Bigelow helped to establish the Chicago Academy of Design, he exhibited regularly in Academy shows. In l868, for example, he offered two Champlain scenes that sold for $130 and $150.27 Increasing sales allowed Bigelow to take more adventurous sketching tours. In 1865, he visited Clinton County and Vermont, and two years later he returned to the same area.28 The next year he visited his home area and may have traveled to Pennsylvania or Virginia.29 In 1869, he again returned to the beloved family farm to allow an injured right hand to heal. The following year he sketched in Wisconsin.30

The greatest change in Bigelow’s life came in 1865, when he returned to the family farm in Peru. The forty-two year old bachelor courted and married Charlotte Barnes, daughter of a doctor from earby Schuyler Falls. The new Mrs. Bigelow, always called Lottie, was only twenty-one. After the marriage on November 1, 1865, the couple returned to Chicago and rented a house on Division Street. Their first child, Folger Allen, was born on March 11, 1868. A second child, Florence Edgerton, arrived on Valentine’s Day, 1871. All evidence suggests the Bigelows enjoyed a harmonious marriage.31

In October 1871, Bigelow lost his studio in the Great Chicago Fire. He somehow managed to save his paintings and sketch books from his studio which went up in flames. However, he lost canvases on deposit at the Academy of Design. His home on Adams Street also went up in flames. Unlike many artists who abandoned Chicago, Bigelow remained in the city and rented a home and studio near Twenty-third Street and Cottage Grove. With the aid of about seventy dollars in assistance paid to artists who remained after the fire from proceeds of a benefit sale staged by New York artists he managed to begin his career again. Aid also came from the fees paid by citizens to view the paintings of prominent collector Alexander White.32

Like all of the artists remaining in Chicago after the fire, Bigelow’s income had fallen dramatically. He slowly rebuilt his life in the stricken city. He accepted a commission to paint views of St. Paul’s Universalist Church before and after the fire.33 And he no doubt returned to portraiture because many people wanted to replace portraits destroyed in the conflagration. Within a year and a half of the fire Bigelow felt sufficiently confident to rent a studio in the new Chicago Art Institute (not to be confused with the Art Institute of Chicago that was organized later) organized by James F. Aitken. Aiken was the former manager of the Opera House Gallery.34

A journalist who visited Bigelow’s studio at this time described the artist as happy and engrossed in his work. “He is dreaming over the richly-colored…nooks of the Adirondacks; these dreams might refine the finest drawing rooms of Chicago, had one the good taste to place them there.” The writer ended with the cliché of nineteenth century art criticism: “Mr. Bigelow paints a very poetic picture.” A critic in 1874 insisted Bigelow had taken “an immense stride in art since we first saw his pictures, which are now showing the fruits of his earnest, faithful study.”35

An encouraging sign came in 1873, when business leaders founded the Inter-State Industrial Exposition to emphasize the Chicago recovery. The Inter-State Industrial Exposition sponsored an annual trade fair which featured an art exhibition highlighting the cultural aspirations of a growing industrial city. The Inter-State art show allowed Bigelow and other Chicago artists to display their landscapes and to publicize themselves as artists. Every Inter-State show allowed all of Chicago to experience the wider world of art.36

In the 1880s, the Inter-State art exhibition became an increasingly important venue for Bigelow. Sara Hallowell, a Philadelphian liked and respected by eastern artists and collectors, crafted the Inter-State into an exhibition of national importance. Hallowell personally vetted all paintings and sculpture, persuaded collectors to loan their treasures, introduced innovative art to Chicago and always included a wide range of nationally important artists in the exhibitions. Each year she visited Europe to select the work of expatriate American artists, many of whom appeared in the annual Paris Salon. Nearly every year she selected one or more of Bigelow’s paintings. The selections reflect his usual themes: Whiteface Mountain, An Old Farm Road, and View on the Little Juniata. Bigelow found his canvases in the same exhibition with Frederic E. Church, Elihu Vedder (1836-1923), George Inness (1825-1894), John Kensett, and William Merritt Chase (1849-1916). In 1890, Bigelow’s An Upland Pasture appeared in the same exhibition with Impressionist works by Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Camille Pissaro, Auguste Renoir and Alfred Sisley.37 Hallowell curated her last Inter-State exhibition in 1890 because the exposition building would be torn down to make way for the World Congress building, later to be converted into an art museum on the lake front.38

After the Great Fire, Bigelow and others tried to reestablish the Academy of Design which would serve the needs of artists with a club house, a school and another regular exhibition outlet besides the Inter-State Expositions. The members met in November 1872, and elected a President, Henry Chapman Ford (1828-1894). Soon they appointed a distinguished Board of Trustees, mostly businessmen, to guide the Academy, but it seemed a futile effort because the entrepreneurs were preoccupied with restoring their fortunes.39 The Academy rented rooms from Leonard Volk, staged exhibitions in which Bigelow’s work regularly appeared, opened a modest art school and opened a small gallery to sell member works. Hoping to revive the annual receptions and exhibitions that were so successful before the fire, the Academy decided in 1876 to move to more suitable quarters. The artists rented the fifth floor of Pike’s Building and converted the space into galleries, offices and classrooms. Bigelow moved his studio to the Pike Building to be close to his colleagues. As the Academy sponsored exhibitions of paintings by members and other artists, Bigelow exhibited his Champlain Valley landscapes and began to prosper.40

The Academy limped on, still reeling from the destruction of its building in the Great Fire. They elected new trustees and accepted an offer of free quarters for a year from a sympathetic art dealer, Mrs. Lydia J. Cadwell, owner of the Lydian Art Gallery. One of the regular exhibitions was visited by former President Ulysses Grant. Again, Bigelow exhibited his Champlain landscapes.41

The artists of the Academy of Design then made the fatal mistake of ceding control of their organization to local businessmen who forced its bankruptcy. The business leaders bought the assets and in 1882 founded the Art Institute of Chicago. The artist run academy barely revived itself and now faced competition from a new force. Bigelow, ever loyal to his fellow artists, remained active in the academy and served as its President from 1884 to 1885.42

As art began to thrive in Chicago again the financial pressure on Bigelow and other artists lessened, but critics complained that Chicago patrons rejected local art and turned to New York and Paris for their acquisitions. This phenomenon only barely touched Bigelow whose paintings generally went to those who wanted pleasant pictures for their homes. Serious collectors favored modern European Salon art. However, everyone profited from the new environment in Chicago and in 1883 a critic noted the increased attendance at art sales and exhibitions. “That we are rapidly developing into an art-loving people goes without saying. On all sides evidence is accumulating of this fact.”43 In the midst of this growing optimism, Bigelow fathered his third child, Louis, born in 1884, a few months before the artist’s sixty-first birthday.44

With the waning of the Academy of Design, Chicago artists cast about for ways to exhibit and promote their art. Organizations like the Chicago Art League, the Lydian Gallery Club and the Western Art Association grandly offered more opportunities to artists to exhibit, but these organizations and others often lasted only a short time. In 1887, Bigelow and other artists organized the Chicago Society of Artists designed to exhibit and promote member work. Bigelow became a director, and the Society became an important place to exhibit. For seven years, from 1889 to 1896, Bigelow exhibited his Adirondack and Champlain landscapes in the annual shows of the Society. In 1896, the critic for the Chicago Tribune singled out Bigelow’s Ausable Valley (location unknown) as among “the best things” in the gallery. Because of Bigelow’s cheerful personality, he became a favorite among the younger members of the Society.45

Bigelow always searched for ways to sell paintings. He rarely lost an opportunity to affiliate with a new art organization that might exhibit his work. He became a member of the Cosmopolitan Art Club, founded in 1892 and his paintings appeared in at least five exhibitions before 1897.46 Bigelow also joined the Municipal Art League, the Associated Artists Gallery and the Society of Western Artists. He exhibited in several shows and sales sponsored by these organizations. The Illinois Art Association, founded by businessmen to encourage local art, showed his work in l885.47 Beyond Chicago, Bigelow exhibited landscapes in Milwaukee, in the “Special Autumn Exhibition” in 1882, at the National Academy of Design in New York and in 1894 at the San Francisco Midwinter International Exposition.48 Bigelow always enjoyed good relations with Chicago art dealers. In the 1870s, the Lydian Art Gallery featured his landscapes.49 In the following decades his paintings were promoted by the American Art Gallery and by O’Brien’s Art Gallery.50 Bigelow’s most enthusiastic promotion came from Abbott’s Gallery that after 1892 regularly showed his work. In 1896 Abbott’s mounted a one man show for Bigelow.51

After the final Inter-State Exhibition, the Art Institute became the major venue for Bigelow to show his landscapes. Beginning in 1891, and ending in 1910, he showed fifty paintings at the juried Art Institute annual exhibitions of American art as well as in exhibitions of water colors and shows of Chicago artists. About thirty-five of his traditional Adirondack and Champlain scenes appeared at the Art Institute, but Midwestern landscapes like Fox River, The Des Plaines, and Channel Lake (locations unknown) were also shown. After 1891, Bigelow appeared nearly every year at the Art Institute except for the mid 1890s when poor health and family problems distracted him.52

No exhibition, though, would have the impact on Chicago as that of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. Bigelow welcomed the news that the city would host the World’s Fair that would feature a huge art exhibition of American painting and sculpture, a retrospective of past American masters, a loan show of nineteenth century European masterpieces in private American collections and exhibits mounted by the nations of the world. It would be by far the largest exhibition ever mounted in America. Artists prepared to submit their best work to juries in the major eastern cities. A Chicago jury would select art from the rest of America. Many artists quaked at the high level of competition. Bigelow had just lost paintings and sketchbooks in a fire that damaged his studio in the Athenaeum Building,53 but decided to do his best.54 He painted a quintessential landscape, Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks (location unknown). Larger than most of his works, the view looked out “far in the distance over the placid waters of the lake…the green-clad hills that form a base for the wooded Adirondacks.” This “distant view…gives the charm to the picture. The foreground represents a hillside pasture on which a flock of sheep is feeding, and the tints of Autumn are seen in grass and shrub.” In the landscape “the sky is filled with fleecy Summer clouds that shade the fields and hills from the direct sunlight, and yet allow sufficient of the rays to bring out in relief the tender greens of the meadow and the darker shades of the highlands.” The painting delighted a critic who visited Bigelow’s studio. “It is doubtful if any more meritorious piece of landscape will be presented for judgment.”55

Bigelow and other artists sent 693 oil paintings to the Chicago jury which rejected 620 works and approved a mere seventy-three. Bigelow learned in March 1893, at the age of seventy, his Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks would hang in the Art Palace at the World’s Fair. His selection stands as a singular honor for the veteran, largely self-trained artist. He placed a price of $350 on the landscape, but the financial downturn of 1893 brought few buyers to the Art Palace.56 Shortly after the close of the fair the press noted the impact of Impressionism on his new works shown at Abbott’s in Chicago. “Into his studio is beginning to creep the influence of the new school in art. He studied the impressionist pictures in the Art Palace to good purpose last summer, and, as he expresses it, has become bolder, and no longer fears to dash in a bit of vivid color.”57

During his fifty year career in Chicago, Bigelow supported himself and his family from his art, some prizes,58 and to a lesser extent, from his teaching.59 His income allowed him to support his family quite well for after 1880, they lived on prestigious Prairie Avenue. He maintained studios in the city center in the Lakeside and Athenaeum buildings until 1895, when he gave up his studio in the Athenaeum Building and the family fitted out a studio in the Prairie Avenue house.60 His income allowed him frequent summer sketching tours, returning to Clinton County and New England as often as possible, usually every two years.61 He often stayed with his older brother who lived in the old family farmhouse. Sometimes Bigelow took his private students to Clinton County and New England. Other sketching tours took Bigelow to Maine, Massachusetts, Saratoga, the Illinois prairie and the shores of the Great Lakes. People came to expect the customary notice on his studio door: “Absent until Sept. 1.”62

He always placed reasonable prices on his paintings and rarely asked more then fifty or seventy-five dollars. He disposed of his works in the customary ways including sales from exhibitions, dealers, especially staged artists’ auctions and direct selling from his studio. Bigelow enjoyed a reputation as a persistent, industrious painter; he must have created several thousand works; he painted nearly every day. No other artist could claim to have painted more Adirondack and Champlain Valley scenes. His later titles bore a remarkable similarity to his works of the 1860s: Fairlee Brook, View from Catholic Hill, Essex County, Mount Discovery, Wolf’s Pond and Early Autumn (locations unknown). In his eighty-sixth year in 1909-1910, Bigelow exhibited six works at the Art Institute including five New York and New England scenes and an Illinois landscape, Channel Lake (location unknown).63

In old age he became emblematic, almost an oracle, about the old days of art in Chicago. Each day he made his way from his home to the studio. His daughter Florence, born in 187l, trained in rt, taught drawing at the Hyde Park High School, exhibited as an amateur and worked with the Public School Art Society. She carefully preserved papers and clippings about her father’s life and career.

He adhered loyally to the artistic principles of his early years, painting as realistically as possible creating the kind of landscape that glorified the American landscape of the 1850s, and was designed to put its viewers in touch with the sublime beauty of nature. By the end of the century, Bigelow’s style had become firmly retardataire. Like other artists conservative and innovative, Bigelow would have been horrified if someone suggested he paint a view of a Chicago slum, or a factory, or the Stock Yards. He gloried in the rural landscape of America and the realism of a past era.

Although considered a conservative artist, Bigelow rejected some of the artistic canons of his age. He never traveled to Europe, the goal of most artists, and he urged young painters to train at home and not in the studios and academies of France and Germany. He fervently hoped that a uniquely American school of painting would emerge. He advised young artists to paint American scenes and landscapes to foster a distinct American school. He believed that “American scenery was not surpassed in any country of the world.”64

It could be a thought of as a loss that Bigelow’s still life paintings were so few. “But my friends say I must not do those things” he once sighed to a newspaper reporter.65 Early in his career he is known to have painted at least one still life, A Frosted Bud (location unknown), which was dispersed in 1867 at the Crosby Opera House lottery. After 1867, Bigelow never exhibited another still life. A second still life, Two Green Pears, no doubt a later work, survives in a private collection.66 A recent critic believes that “this still life shows Daniel Bigelow’s sensitivity to shape and color. The subtle gradation of green pears against the greener leaves is exquisite in combination with the twisting forms of the vines and the simple abstracted shapes of the pears.”67 In addition the green of the pears reflects beautifully in the glossy finish of the table.


In 1885, the Chicago Tribune announced Bigelow was busily painting “fruit and flower pieces for the country trade.” This report comes at a time when Bigelow’s son Folger, trained in his father’s studio. The possibility exists that young Folger, who early established his reputation in still life painting, may have cooperated with his father in the creations of these paintings.68 A childhood illness left Folger with defective vision and slight facial paralysis. At age sixteen, in l882, Folger left school to enter his father’s studio. He attended evening classes at the Art Institute, but quickly moved on to more advanced work in the day school. His teachers recognized his talent, and at age nineteen his still life, Apple and Ginger Jar, appeared in an Institute exhibition and sold immediately. The Institute Director, William M. R. French, sent a personal letter of congratulations, and the Chicago Society of Artists elected Folger to membership. Folger’s limited sight allowed him to produce outstanding still life paintings, which could be created within a limited range of vision, and watercolor landscapes which emphasized color and tone rather than detail. In 1888 he attracted the attention of Sara Hallowell who selected one of his watercolors for the Inter-State Industrial Exposition. The next year she included his Twilight and November Morning in the annual show. Hallowell’s endorsement enhanced his budding career.69 By the age of twenty he also gained a reputation as a “remarkably successful” teacher in his father’s studio.70

Folger died tragically on September 16, 1891. He asked a family friend and neighbor to show him how to clean a new revolver. The friend thought the gun was empty, clicked the trigger to check it, Folger moved in to watch, the gun fired, striking Folger in the chest. He died within minutes. Bigelow refused to press charges, and the Coroner’s Jury ruled it an accident.71 Folger’s death stands as the major tragedy in the life of Daniel Bigelow. Folger’s work survives only in private collections.

Chicago loved the nattily dressed, kindly spoken old gentleman. No one denounced him as a relic, and his good press never deserted him.72 In 1896, the Chicago Tribune, in an assessment of Bigelow’s recent work, suggested the fifteen paintings were “painted in a manner often called old fashioned by the younger artists of today, who follow every innovation, but nevertheless many of them are full of merit.” The critic declared The Champlain Valley (location unknown) one of the artist’s best paintings, while he considered Wood Interior (location unknown) “a poetic little transcript from nature.” Apple Orchard (location unknown) he described as “equally beautiful.”73

After 1900, Bigelow’s painting became less realistic, and his brush strokes broadened. Detail seemed less important. Always a good colorist, he began to experiment with bolder tones. J. W. Moran, critic for the Fine Arts Journal, documented the change in 1909, when he described a New England landscape which “seems to me the finest in quality of color of any of his I have ever seen. The trees are fine in color; the blue-green of the hill in the distance is atmospheric; the sky also consists of a mass of closely packed light-reflecting cream-yellow clouds of fine quality, with bluish-green shadows, while the color of the interspace [sic] reminds one of the vivid green of Delacroix.”74 Another critic speculated that the elderly Bigelow seemed to be inspired by Corot [and the Barbizon artists].75

Occasionally problems troubled the old man. In 1903, Bigelow suffered a mild stroke, but he recovered sufficiently to visit Clinton County. In June of the next year, he disappeared, taking a large sum of money with him. Railroad employees spotted him in Plymouth, Indiana and he eventually returned home.76 The family suggested he had suffered another stroke, but the episode could have been prompted by amnesia or the onset of dementia; termed “temporary insanity” in the press.77 Bigelow’s health and spirit returned and by 1905, he was busily painting and preparing for an exhibition at the Art Institute. The press hailed him as Chicago’s oldest artist. Friends reported no changes in his cheerful, kindly personality.78

In 1905, he was called the “dean” of Chicago artists and was the guest of honor at the annual meeting of the Chicago Society of Artists.79

In 1910, family and friends noted Bigelow’s increasing frailty. But, his mind remained clear, and he continued to paint. Early in 1910, the Chicago Society of Artists honored Bigelow, its senior member, at a special banquet and approved a resolution recognizing “his faithful service to the cause of art.” He was the oldest living artist in Chicago and had works that year at both the Art Institute’s annual show of Chicago artists and the retrospective exhibit of historic artists.80 Some weeks later, on July 14, Bigelow died in his sleep, eight days before his eighty-seventh birthday. The Chicago press heralded the passing of a legend and admired how “for many years he lived in quiet work with brush and palette, ripe in years but an artist to the last.” He was buried at Oak Wood Cemetery.81

While his landscape work has appeared in some exhibitions and found in many private collections, only two of his prized still life paintings, one in a private collection and the other at the Illinois State Museum, can be located. The Adirondack Museum at Blue Mountain Lake, New York, includes a typical view of Mount Mansfield in its collection.82 The Chicago Historical Society also has his works in their collection. Appropriately, the Clinton County Historical Association and Museum, which features four Bigelow landscapes, is the major repository of his art.

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