Elihu Vedder: A Dark Imagination (1836-1923)

Sarah Kuenzler is an independent researcher who holds a Masters in Art History from the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her thesis focused on the orientalization of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam by the American artist Elihu Vedder, and her current research delves into aspects of racism and the collectable minority of 19th century trade cards. You can follow her on twitter @19thAmerican.

“I was accused of having imagination…I could copy nature beautifully, and how often I wished that I had dedicated myself to the painting of cabbages…no gallery would be complete with a cabbage by V.” [1]

fig 1_the dead alchemist_vedder_1868_brooklyn museum            Elihu Vedder was born in New York City on February 26th, 1836. The early 19th century was full of new social and artistic changes that would shape the lives of the artists who grew up during this time period. The National Academy of Design, of which Vedder was an elected Academician, was established by Samuel F. B. Morse in 1825.[2] The American Civil war raged from 1861-1865, and divided the Nation still trying to find its own social and artistic identity. Fueled by an increasingly active imagination, as well as the desire to follow in the footsteps of his expatriate artistic brethren, Vedder made his name in the American artistic landscape with his uniquely dark and imaginative imagery.

Like many artists, Vedder allowed his life experiences to influence the style and mood of his work. While other artists of the late 19th century would choose landscapes and genre scenes for their works, Vedder would often choose death and imagined creatures. He references one of his early works, The Dead Alchemist (1868) (Fig. 1), in his auto-biography The Digressions of V:

“we had staying with us at that time a dear old fellow — a Mr. Humphrey. I may as well say at once that all people over twenty were old to me then. I was very fond of him, we were great friends, and so the event made a deep impression on me. His room was in the attic and I was sent up to call him to breakfast. I found him crouched on the floor,his head leaning against the wall. He had a comb in his right hand. I thought him asleep, his face was so peaceful….He was dead. Years after, I painted a picture called ‘The Dead Alchemist’; in it you can see just how he looked.”[3]

Vedder’s childhood became even more adventurous when his father, a physician, moved to Cuba to better his prospects and called on his family to come live with him. This trip stoked the imagination of the young artist, who was, like many young children in nineteenth century America, very familiar with the adventures in the 17th century book Robinson Crusoe. Vedder even confesses that he kept a lookout for a “desert island” [4] on the journey to Cuba.

In his early twenties, Vedder studied with T. H. Matteson in Sherbourne, New York. This didn’t last long, as Vedder became sick briefly and was sent to live again with his father in Cuba until he was recovered. From Matteson, Vedder learned how to depict the beautiful natural surroundings of Central New York with accuracy and appreciation. This experience would guide Vedder through his professional years, when he would use the basics of his training with Matteson to create his own imagined scenes.

As was common of American artists in the late nineteenth century, Vedder found himself on his way to Paris to study art “with a new gold watch, a new trunk, and a pocket well supplied with money.”[5] His father’s advice for this venture was to “be careful and particularly to avoid duels.”[6] This approach was followed at first, but soon after Vedder arrived in Paris, he lost all of his money after a night of drinking in Versailles.[7] This could have been the end for Vedder, had he not been accepted into the Atelier Picot in Paris.

The Atelier Picot had won more grands prix de Rome than any other,[8] and so it didn’t take much convincing for Vedder, and his friends from Matteson’s tutelage, to sign up to take lessons. Vedder’s decidedly adventurous nature got the best of him, however, and it was after only eight months of “drawing from plaster casts”[9] that he decided he was bored of France and wanted to see Italy. Later in life, Vedder would remember his lack of formal artistic training in comparison to other artists of the period, writing

“I studied by myself, and sometimes wish I hadn’t, for my pictures always have to me a home-made air which I don’t like. I mean, they lack the air of a period or school, and this — I say it seriously — seems to me a great defect.”[10]

fig. 2_ lair of the sea serpent_vedder_mfa boston

The resulting originality from his “defect” was also what attracted the attention of galleries and critics alike. In an 1879 article from The Aldine, The Art Journal of America, Vedder is described as “one of the most original of American painters,”[11] specifically referencing his pieces The Lair of the Sea Serpent (1864) (Fig. 2) and The Lost Mind – Wandering Among the Waste Places of the Earth (1864-65) (Fig. 3). However, Vedder’s most celebrated work, and what established his legacy in the history of art, were his illustrations for the 1884 version of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam, translated by Edward FitzGerald.

fig 3_the lost mind_vedder_met museumFrom the early 1880s until the end of his life, the Rubaiyat was a companion for Vedder, the deapth of which had been introduced to him by his friend, Edwin Ellis.[12] The idea to illustrate the book just popped into Vedder’s mind one day. As he describes it, “on one of my trips home, seeing that other people were making books, I thought — Why not make one myself? And of course Omar came into my mine, and the more I thought of it, the more the idea pleased me.”[13] Vedder’s typical dark, imaginative mindscapes can be seen throughout the text and accompanying images, particularly in The Cup of Death (1883-84) (Fig. 5) and The Suicide (1883-84) (Fig. 6).

Vedder’s illustrations for the Rubáiyát propelled the work to national stardom after its release. In 1905, Vedder wrote that he was still receiving partial royalties from the sale of Rubáiyát, “the Rubáiyát still holding its own — a remarkable proceeding for an illustrated book.”[14]


[1] Vedder, Digressions, 139.

[2] Morse would go on to invent the telegraph in 1844. Jaffee, Industrialization and Conflict.

[3] Vedder, Digressions, 6

[4] Ibid., 19

[5] Ibid., 124

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 128

[8] Ibid., 129.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Vedder, Digressions, 139.

[11] The Aldine, pg. 1, 1879

[12] Ibid., 404.

[13] Ibid., 407.

[14] Ibid., 498.


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