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Full text of "Frederick Oakes Sylvester: the artist's encounter with Elsah"

FREDERICK 
OAKES 
SYLVESTER : 



THE ARTIST'S 
ENCOUNTER 
WITH ELS AH 



by 

Paul O. Williams 




Digitized by the Internet Archive 

in 2011 with funding from 

CARLI: Consortium of Academic and Research Libraries in Illinois 



http://www.archive.org/details/frederickoakessyOOwill 



FREDERICK OAKES SYLVESTER: 

THE ARTISTS ENCOUNTER WITH ELSAH 

by 
Paul O. Williams 

foreword 

by 

Jeanne Colette Collester 

The publication of this book has been made possible in part 
through a generous grant from the Principia Corporation to 
honor the contributions of Paul Williams to Elsah. Historic Elsah 
Foundation is also most appreciative of the permission given by 
the Principia Mother's Club to use their color negatives for this 
project. 




1986 Historic Elsah Foundation. Box 117. Elsah. Illinois 62028 

Book design: Glenn Felch 

Printing: Wood River Printing & Publishing Co., Wood River, Illinois 



THE GLORY OF THE HILLS 




HERE is a glory of the Elsah hills 

TThat shall forever win my songs of 
praise. 
Have I not felt it countless nights 

and days? 
Is it a little thing when wonder 
fills 
The soul and one's whole being wakes and 

thrills 
To beauty? 'Tis my wont to gaze and gaze, 
Spellbound, above the three great waterways 
That gladden the eyes of Elsah as she wills. 
Adown the sun-bathed slopes and through the 

trees 
As far as vision goes the mighty streams 
Mirror the sky, while field and grove and 

space 
Mingle and merge in tender harmonies 
That change the life of Elsah into dreams 
And radiate a glory round her face. 



Sylvester poem from the 1911 edition of THE GREAT RIVER 



FOREWORD 



A biography focusing on Frederick Oakes Sylvester's 
Elsah years is a welcome addition to the growing 
interest in this artist by collectors and art historians. 
Personal information regarding Sylvester is due largely 
to the assiduous efforts of Paul Williams who, through 
interviews with the Sylvester family, friends, and 
students, began lecturing and writing on this artist in 
1971. 

The relative neglect Sylvester has suffered is attrib- 
utable in part to (he rapid acceleration of art move- 
ments in the twentieth century and to our own 
preferences for certain of these modern movements. 
Artists like Sylvester were often buried alive when 
their movement was superceded by the next one. The 
last decades of the twentieth century, however, have 
afforded us a slower, second look at the diversity of art 
produced especially at the turn of the century. We 
rediscover artists who deserve a longer look and a 
firmer place in the history of art. Sylvester is one of 
these artists. 

Sylvester's work divides broadiy into two periods 
briefly separated by a European interlude in 1906. The 
first period focused on the St. Louis riverfront, specif- 
ically the area surrounding Eads Bridge. In 1900, eight 
years after his arrival in St. Louis, Sylvester exhibited 
twenty-five paintings of Eads Bridge at the St. Louis 
Exposition. By 1904 the number of oils with the bridge 
as its principal subject grew to over one hundred. 
Sylvester, who considered himself an impressionist 
during this period, became known as "the painter of 
Eads Bridge," his canvases vigorously affirming the 
growth of St. Louis' industrial life. His was a modern 
cityscape where a rapidly changing industrial environ- 
ment still meant progress. 

The turn of the century signaled a new era for St. 



Louis. By 1899 the city, recovering from a decade of 
economic depression, focused its attention on plans 
forthe Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904. Business 
leaders were using the World's Fair to modernize their 
city. At the same time, Sylvester, in selecting Eads 
Bridge as his /eft motif, reminded the city of its most 
powerful aesthetic and engineering triumph. The 
bridge, completed in 1874, symbolized civic accom- 
plishment. It signified all that was modern and pro- 
gressive. It embodied self-confidence and optimism 
in the further expansion of the city. By linking urban 
activities along the riverfront to the bridge itself, the 
artist invigorated and beautified what had become an 
ugly environment. Carefully composing his views of 
the industrial and commercial life surrounding the 
bridge, Sylvester brought an aesthetic control to the 
effects of an untamed urban growth. No painter 
before Sylvester had confronted so directly the com- 
mercial and industrial activities along St. Louis' river- 
front. 

In his second period, Sylvester shifted his river 
theme from Eads to Elsah. Poetic evocations replaced 
urban dynamics. The mood grew quieter, forms were 
blurred, and the dominance of one color, usually 
grey, blue or brown, produced an evenness of hue 
throughout the canvas. The ideal informed the real. 
Tonalism is the term used to describe these effects in 
Sylvester's paintings during the Elsah years. In Sylves- 
ter's own day, such important art critics as Charles 
Caffin heralded tonalism 1 as an advance beyond im- 
pressionism. Impressionism, according to its critics, 
regarded only the material appearances while tonal- 
ism represented the spirit within. Both Sylvester and 
Caffin would agree that "the [spiritual] is necessary for 
the highest form of expression in modern art...." 2 The 
Elsah period represented Sylvester's effort to move 



beyond impressionism, to turn away from the urban 
subjects of his earlier career, and to express the 
spiritual values he discovered in nature. 

In 1911, the St. Louis Art Museum held a major 
exhibition of eighty-three Sylvester paintings from the 
Elsah years. Today Historic Elsah Foundation, through 
its preservation activities and publications, has enabled 
us to recapture this artist's encounter with Elsah. 



Jeanne Colette Collester 



Strictly speaking, tonalism is a recent term coined 
by Wanda Corn in 1972 to describe the specific 
effects noted above. 

Charles Caffin, The Story of American Painting, 
New York, 1907, 382. It also should be noted among 
his other duties at Central High School that Sylvester 
taught the history of art for twenty-two years. A very 
thorough bibliography for his art history courses 
included Caffin's book. See Annua/ Report to the 
Board of Education, 1908-09, St. Louis, 141-160. 




Small oil painting by the artist 



Preface 



This study was begun a number of years ago in part 
in preparation for an illustrated lecture given for the 
Missouri Historical Society on 24 March 1972. I am 
extremely grateful to Historic Elsah Foundation for 
providing the vehicle for publishing the resulting 
essay, as well as the prints of Frederick Oakes Sylves- 
ter's paintings. 

During the years I have been interested in Sylvester, 
I have found that while he has never been considered 
a major artist, his paintings hang in a number of 
institutions and private homes in the St. Louis area, 
and he has maintained a small but loyal group of 
admirers and collectors, a group which is growing at 
present. He seems so much a part of upper Mississippi 
River culture now that he surely is a permanent asset 
of the region. 

This essay, which focuses both on Sylvester and on 
the historic river town of Elsah, Illinois, where he had a 
summer home, and which he made famous through- 
out the Midwest and beyond, is aimed at both those 
interested in Sylvester's art and those for whom Elsah 
is a special and unusual place. 

Much work remains to be done on Sylvester, for 
example in filling in his biography, completing a full 
and accurate bibliography, and systematically locating 
as many as possible of his paintings. One assumes this 
last will never be wholly accomplished, since they 
hang in homes from coast to coast and move from 
known locations when one's back is turned. 

I am grateful for aid and encouragement from a 
number of people in making this study. Kilburn and 
Marguerite Sylvester were both extremely helpful, as 
was their daughter, Marjorie Biscan. The Missouri 
Historical Society has aided several aspects of the 
project. The board of Historic Elsah Foundation has 



also been very helpful. In particular, Charles B. 
Hosmer, Jr., with whom I have done numerous studies 
in Elsah, Glenn Felch, and Ingeborg Mack have been 
encouraging. Colette Collester, who is actively pursu- 
ing the study of Sylvester at present, has added 
corrections and given encouragement. Tom Morrissey 
has conversed with me at length about the artist, and I 
have gained from the insights of Betty C. Pate. 
However, the faults of the essay are mine. 

I would be remiss not to acknowledge the many 
ways Principia College helped me in this study. Even 
being able to see Sylvester paintings on a daily basis 
has been a help and a pleasure, and especially having 
had three pieces hanging in my office for some years 
has led me to see the artist as a mind and a presence. 

One painting especially, a modest summer bluff 
scene with a mass of cedar in the foreground, slowly 
revealed itself to me as a restrained symbolic statement 
of real power, an example of the essential Sylvester. It 
is not a commercial effort, a grand mural, a public 
gesture, but is so tight and true that it led me to see the 
same qualities in many other pieces. 

Sylvester was capable, as any successful artist must 
be, of artistic politics and social self-promotion. But 
the essential Sylvester is clear and yet evasive, like a 
cricket in the grass, stating itself with the quiet 
truthfulness that creeps into the edges of our specula- 
tions and affects our moods and thoughts almost 
without our conscious notice. Such work by Sylvester 
is painting to live with, and one does not tire of it. 



Paul O.Williams 
Elsah, Illinois, June 1986 




**» 




"Enchanted Twilight" by the artist 



Portrait of the artist by Takuma Kajiwara 



VI 



Frederick Oakes Sylvester: 

The Artist's Encounter with Elsah 



In 1902, Frederick Oakes Sylvester, a well-known St. 
Louis painter of landscapes and the river, brought his 
wife to Elsah, Illinois, and showed her a small white 
frame summer house on the west bluffs above the 
village. He asked her if she liked it. After her enthusi- 
astic assent, he quietly said, "It's yours," for he had 
bought it. (1) 

But as it turned out, the house was far more his than 
hers. He spent vastly more time there than she, and his 
paintings of the river setting in the Elsah vicinity 
between 1902 and his death in 1915 mark the best and 
most individual period of production in his life. In the 
thought of the artistic Midwest, Sylvester and Elsah 
became synonymous. The atmosphere of the man and 
the rural, even pastoral, aura of the village blended in 
a generative harmony, and though they belong to the 
landscape vogue current in the late nineteenth cen- 
tury, the Elsah paintings also bear the clear stamp of 
Sylvester's mind. 

The source of this fusion is now lost in conjectural 
history, though hints of its origins mottle the shadows 
of the artist's personal life. 

He was not a native of the area, or even the 
Midwest, but was born in North Bridgewater (now 
Brockton), Massachusetts, on October 8, 1869, in the 
heart of a mercantile New England environment. His 
mother, Mary Louise, died two weeks after his birth, at 
twenty-four years old. As a result, his first three years 
were spent in the homes of relatives until his father, 
Charles Frederick Sylvester, remarried. 

Charles Sylvester was a hardware dealer and ap- 
parently not in sympathy with his son's budding 



idealistic interest in art. Undeterred by adversity (as he 
proved to be all his life), Frederick sold newspapers as 
a boy to buy art supplies, which, his son Kilburn 
recalled his father relating, he had to keep out of sight 
to prevent their confiscation. 

Sylvester's high school years were spent in Fall 
River, Massachusetts, and he already showed con- 
siderable skill in watercolors and oils by the time he 
graduated. During the summer of 1887 he continued 
his interest in art by hiking around Massachusetts and 
Connecticut with a friend, camping out and sketching. 

Determined to become an artist, Sylvester entered 
Massachusetts Normal Art School in 1888, having 
decided to take the six-year Teacher's Course. His 
father, who wanted him to enter the hardware busi- 
ness, declined financial assistance, but he was helped 
during his first year by his aunt Rebecca Noyes and 
great aunt Hannah Soule (a descendant of the May- 
flower Soules). After that the dogged artist supported 
himself by painting and tutoring. 

His interest in poetry and idealism apparently also 
developed during these school years in Boston. He 
wondered then if he should enter the ministry or 
pursue a stage career, but art remained his first love. In 
spite of the hardships he endured, he managed to 
graduate in only three years, achieving honors in 
public speaking and reading. (2) 

Few records of his art school years survive, but one 
notebook full of anatomical drawings and notations is 
housed in the collection of the Missouri Historical 
Society in St. Louis. It shows real craftsmanship and a 
high degree of artistic understanding of the human 



figure, a skill Sylvester was seldom to use in his mature 
work, in which people are largely absent. (3) 

The artist's first job also began, oddly enough, his 
circuitous route to Elsah. He spent the academic year 
of 1891-92 as acting director of the Art Department of 
H. Sophie Newcomb Memorial College, at Tulane 
University in New Orleans, the director being absent. 
He was remembered at this period as emphasizing 
"greatly the esthetic and moral ideals of art," an 
inclination that was to persist and increase later on. 

Pencil sketches from this year show that Sylvester 
had not yet developed the dreamy, transcendental 
quality of his later paintings, but worked in a precise, 
detailed fashion, rendering landscape, tree, and river- 
front with beautiful accuracy and design, but without 
the filtering atmosphere of his mature attitudes toward 
life. (4) 

This year also saw his first contact with the great love 
of his life, the Mississippi River. What impression it 
made on him is unknown, but surely later his New 
Orleans year became a reference point, a dimension 
in his sense of the river as he came to observe it so 
closely a thousand miles upstream. The one sketch of 
the river, almost certainly in the New Orleans area, 
does not evoke the rich moods of either his St. Louis 
riverfront paintings or his work at Elsah. 

On Christmas Day of 1891, Sylvester married 
Florence I. Gerry, a Fall River schoolteacher who had 
made the long trip south to join the artist in his new 
position. After leaving New Orleans in June, 1892, the 
couple spent the summer in New England, then came 
to St. Louis, where Sylvester took the position of art 
director of the newly-built Central High School. 

He settled into St. Louis life and society very easily. 
He is remembered by all as a hard worker. Not only 



did he maintain his teaching job, but occasionally 
taught night classes at the YMCA, and spent much of 
his spare time painting, especially on the city river- 
front. It issaid he nearly became known as the painter 
of the Eads Bridge because he put the span on so many 
canvases. 

Some of his Eads Bridge pictures are among his most 
dramatic work, exhibiting the dark, diagonal sweep of 
the structure, with its arched filigree curves, as a 
dominating mass on the canvas, full of the sense of 
human triumph and commercial achievement, an 
attitude quite the reverse of his Elsah work, in which 
man has all but disappeared and the river has become 
more than a variegated sheet of water— has acquired 
the symbolic power of a being. 

During the 1890's Sylvester established himself in 
the center of the local art scene. He was admitted to 
the Society of Western Artists in 1899. He also joined 
the Two-by-Four Club, the Artists' Guild, and the St. 
Louis Art League. He formed many influential friend- 
ships, and his congeniality, wit, and ability to produce 
amusing occasional rime made him popular as a 
dining companion and evening speaker. 

One anecdote his son, Kilburn, enjoyed telling 
came from a dinner served at his home. Roast duck 
was the main attraction, and when Sylvester prepared 
to carve the bird, it slid across the table and right onto 
the lap of Clark McAdams, an editor of the ST. LOUIS 
POST-DISPATCH. There must have been a tense 
moment, but the unperturbed Sylvester merely 
reached out his hand with an air of mock severity and 
said, "Clark, I'll thank you for that duck." 

Sylvester also completed his family in the 1890's. His 
daughter, Dorothy Louise, was born in 1894 and his 
son, Kilburn Gerry, in 1899 at the Sylvester family 



home, 5924 Horton Place in St. Louis. 

If one were to evaluate Sylvester's accomplishments 
in St. Louis, one would have to say that his work at 
Central High constituted its most important element. 
He taught there twenty years, giving a generation of 
St. Louisans his own angle on art, and counselling 
them in life problems as well. One newspaper memoir 
of 1935 recalls his work there: 

A large part of the school spirit of (Central High) was 
due to Sylvester, whose sense of obligation to his 
pupils did not end with teaching them how to draw, 
and what colors were needed for harmony and 
contrast. An important element of his influence was 
his subtlety of approach. His incidental remarks in 
the classroom, the little heart-to-heart talks with 
perplexed youth, perplexed notaboutart butabout 
life, were woven into the fabric of character in 
hundreds of present-day men and women, many of 
whom are conscious of the source from which they 
drew their mental trend. "A talk with Mr. Sylvester 
was the turning point in my life," one prominent St. 
Louisan said to me, when I was lamenting the 
absence of his canvases in a retrospective exhibition 
of St. Louis art. (5) 

The year Sylvester bought his summer home on the 
Elsah bluffs, he also went to work part-time for 
Principia, then a very young private school located at 
Page and Belt Avenues in St. Louis. The hard-working 
artist became the school's first art director, teaching 
therein late afternoons after his duties at Central High 
were completed. Principia profited greatly from 
Sylvester's skill and idealism. Though the students 
stood somewhat in awe of him, they also felt, in the 
words of Mrs. Helen Hamlin, "He was one of us we all 



adored." He was no disciplinarian, but got his point 
across anyhow— that art was a reverence for ideal 
beauty that should touch all aspects of one's life. 

Art classes at Principia were very intimate. Reminis- 
cences of them vary radically, but on some points a 
general agreement prevails: that Sylvester was very 
impressive, tall and extremely thin, infinitely gentle, 
quiet and "always there"; that he was one of the most 
memorable of teachers, not so much for what he did, 
which was remarkable enough, but for what he was; 
that his classes were talkative, even sometimes 
raucous, but that this seemed to cause no problems. 

The artist would sometimes sketch on the black- 
board to illustrate some point he was ma king, working 
with great rapidity and precision to the delight and 
amazement of his students, and would occasionally 
appear at their shoulders to make suggestions about 
their work which would end up in a general Sylvester- 
ization of the whole piece (Hamlin). 

He also did ink sketches of his own at the teacher's 
desk, sometimes givingone,ora manuscript poem, as 
a reward for fine work on the part of a student. 
Industry rapidly diminished when he left the room, a 
fact which caused him some difficulty when he taught 
a separate class in copperworkat the same time as one 
in painting. (6) After work, Mrs. Jesse Delano recalled, 
he would walk home with her in the St. Louis dusk, 
with the gas lamps on, while he recited his poems to 
her in a soft, mellifluous voice. 

After 1902, Sylvester spent much time in the sum- 
mers sequestered at Oak Ledge, as his summer cottage 
came to be called. It was not a large or expensive 
structure, but it occupied one of the finest scenic 
overlooks in the area, on the summit of "Mount 
Radiance," the upriver bluff top overlooking the 



village of Elsah. It was the easternmost of a row of five 
houses built around 1891, near the present site of the 
Principia picnic grounds. Only two of the houses built 
as a part of the Piasa Bluffs complex surrounding a 
summer hotel now remain. (7) 

Oak Ledge had an L-shaped front porch, with a 
small parlor in front. A central hallway, off which were 
two bedrooms on each side, led back to a screen 
porch and a small kitchen in the rear. Upstairs was a 
small sleeping room in front and a large room that the 
artist turned into a studio. Fixtures from the unused 
dance floor near the bluffs at the Piasa Bluffs Hotel 
provided some large kerosene lamps to light the 
studio. Water was pumped into the kitchen sink by 
hand from a cistern, and drinking water was brought 
up from the village, mostly by Edward Keller and his 
son, Lawrence, who looked after many of the artist's 
needs. (8) 

Here Sylvester would come during the warmer 
months to sketch and paint the scenery. If the evi- 
dence of the paintings is accurate, he came between 
dogwood blossom time in late April and mid-October 
when the leaves are at their height of color. But Grace 
Barnal Cresswell recalled helping to set the house to 
rights in time for occupation in June, perhaps after 
Central High closed for the summer. (9) Sometimes 
Sylvester brought his family, but often only his son 
accompanied him. And at times he came alone. 

His frequent practice in painting was to fill page 
after page of a small notebook with pencil and ink line 
drawings, put in boxes often as miniscule as one by 
two inches and often very basic, in order to confirm 
his sense of a landscape composition. These he would 
use as the basis for oils, usually eight by ten inches in 
size, made either in the field or in his studio at night. 



The large canvases characteristic of Sylvester were 
made in his St. Louis studio in the winter, often from 
the smaller ones done in Elsah. Occasionally he made 
copies of a painting he particularly liked. (10) 

He also spent many hours simply contemplating the 
scene, soaking it up for future reference. And he 
painted directly in oil or watercolor on the bluffs or 
the river islands. Because all the equipment was a 
burden for his 110-pound frame, local boys, especially 
Willis Jacobson, were hired to assist by carrying paints 
and easels. When Sylvester painted the bluffs from the 
islands in the river, especially, one suspects, from 
Elsah Bar, (11) Willis, unable to wander far, would 
sleep in the grass, perhaps in part because he and 
young Dewey McDow had occasionally aroused the 
artist's irritation by watching him over the shoulder. 
However, according to his son, the artist was fond 
enough of Willis Jacobson to take him to St. Louis on 
several occasions. (12) 

But long days in the summer landscape never seem 
to have bored Sylvester. His son Kilburn recalled that 
he would leave Oak Ledge in the morning with his 
equipment and a lunch, never returning until dusk, 
trusting the boy to find his own amusements. 

Kilburn spent much of his time playing baseball and 
fishing. His most frequent companion on the river was 
the colorful Bill Segar, who was already established as 
one of the most original characters in the village. (13) 
Kilburn remembered afternoons spent with him 
fishing from the railroad trestle at the mouth of Elsah 
Creek, catching some of the numerous catfish at the 
edge of the river. He also recalled Segar's rather hot 
vocabulary. So the son was diverted by village amuse- 
ments while the father poured his concentration out 
on this complex of landscapes which he had come to 






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prefer above all others. 

Sometimes parties of artists came from St. Louis with 
Sylvester for a weekend of painting on the bluffs. This, 
of course, meant much work for Mrs. Sylvester, who 
complained to her husband of the incessant house- 
work these visitors occasioned. His reply, character- 
istically, was a sonnet, one he later included in his 
book, THE GREAT RIVER: 

Grieve not, dear heart, because thy pathway leads 

Along the common hedgerows of the earth, 

And simple tasks have been thy lot since birth; 

There are strange beauties in the roadside weeds 

That wait discovery, and none but needs 

Interpreting. 'Tis rash to measure worth 

On borrowed scales, for 'mid a seeming dearth 

Of opportunities may rise great deeds. 

There is no work too small to merit praise, 

No gift of love the Infinite disdains; 

And oft amid life's simple happenings, 

Its humble walks, and half forgotten ways, 

The worth of manly effort well sustains 

The soul to greatness in God's highest things. (14) 



The advice is, of course, to have the soul of an artist, 
and may not be appropriate to someone who does 
not. There is, as well, a certain difference between 
contemplating the roadside weeds and doing the 
wash by hand. (15) 

Among the most frequent visitors to Oak Ledge 
were Mrs. Kathryn Cherry and the well-known St. 
Louis photographer, Takuma Kajiwara. Mrs. Cherry 
succeeded Sylvester as Principia art director, serving 
in that capacity for many years. Her tribute to her 
predecessor appears in the Principia Alumni Purpose 



of March, 1931 , and focuses essentially on his idealism, 
largeness of heart, and generosity, not on his painting, 
about which her ideas were somewhat different. She 
used pure colors. Sylvester mixed his, all from only 
five colors he bought. (16) While Sylvester gravitated 
toward isolation and the river, she was drawn toward 
the art colony on Cape Ann, in Massachusetts. Yet the 
two maintained a high mutual regard. (17) 

Sylvester and Kajiwara had a closer friendship, 
warm enough to cause them to cut wrists and mingle 
blood in a gesture of unity. Sylvester designed a silver 
watch fob for his friend, showing an artist and a 
photographer clasping hands, and carrying, on the 
reverse side, the statement, "No East no West/But 
hand in hand/Life's Unity/To Understand/T. 
Kajiwara/from:--/F. O. Sylvester. /1 909" (Emberson 
66, 67). On his part Kajiwara did the photographic 
work for THE GREAT RIVER and took the most striking 
portraits of the artist. Snapshots survive showing the 
men painting together at Elsah. (18) 

Perhaps Sylvester's most festive Elsah excursions 
were his outings for Principia students in the fall. He 
conducted at least four of these after 1908, selecting a 
group of boys and allowing them to arrange group 
dates. The party would leave Union Station, St. Louis, 
early on a Saturday morning in October and travel to 
Elsah by rail and "dinky" (as the local motorbus on 
railroad wheels was called). (18) Once in Elsah, they 
would either ride round the Ames and Turner estates 
in a hay rig driven by Lawrence Keller, or repairto Oak 
Ledge. This was always followed by a chicken dinner at 
the Worthey House (now the home of Edward and 
Paula Bradley, on LaSalle Street). Here Sylvester would 
read his poems to the assemblage. The students were 
back at Union Station by evening. Several of them 



recalled these experiences with fondness some sixty 
years after these events. (19) 

Though he had no idea of it at the time, Sylvester 
was becoming almost as influential in the history of 
the small village as General James Semple, its founder, 
had been. When the Western Whiting Mill closed in 
1928, the village had no resident industry, but Sylvester 
had made Principia aware of Elsah. Remote as it was, 
Elsah began to lose population. But at the same time 
Principia was looking for a home for its college, and, 
with the purchase of the Turner, Ames, and Nugent 
estates in 1930, new life was given to the village and an 
industry which provided income with a minimum of 
modification of the established shape of the old river 
town. In this curious way the unwitting influence of 
the powerful idealism and focused interests of Syl- 
vester evolved into a marriage between the school 
and the river town which has had a profound effect on 
both. 

During his Elsah period Sylvester also found society 
in his next door neighbors on the bluffs, Judge Seneca 
Taylor and his wife. On one occasion the artist was 
invited to dinner, but did not appear at the hour 
appointed. The guests waited through a late afternoon 
thundershower and a magnificent sunset, and were 
about to go ahead with the meal when Sylvester finally 
appeared, soaked from the storm but bearing a gift for 
the hostess-a small painting of the sunset, just made. 
One conjectures that he was forgiven. (20) 

A manuscript poem probably written for Judge 
Taylor's amusement survives, dealing with his project 
of piping water up from the river. Long and rambling, 
it is a good example of Sylvester's informal amusettes 
written for friends. (21) 

But for all the fun and sociability there was much 



aloneness for Sylvester on the Elsah bluffs. He seemed 
to seek it and thrive on it. A true romantic, he enjoyed 
the alternations between society and solitude, and 
took his solitude and contemplation in large doses. 
Mrs. Lawrence Keller wrote, "No one ever came to 
Elsah who loved her as much as he did.... He always 
saw the beautiful side of life and nature more than 
most people did. I have known him to sit for hours on 
the veranda of his cottage, Oak Ledge, and watch the 
beautiful Mississippi which inspired him to write 'The 
Great River.' " This is the voice of one of Elsah's long- 
time citizens, a practical housewife who found the 
artist a congenial friend (Keller 15). 

Though they may have come originally for enter- 
prise, many Elsah settlers, or their children, seem to 
have stayed not only out of habit, but for beauty. Elsah 
people, unlike many American villagers, live in a 
setting of natural magnificence and have always 
known it. But outsiders knew it more, as is so fre- 
quently the case, and no one seems to have seen one 
aspect of the beauty of the river bluffs the way 
Sylvester did. There is a certain New Englandness in his 
view, a dreamy contemplativeness more familiar to 
the New England Indian Summer than the general 
hardheadedness of the Midwest. 

Clearly he was looking for something— perhaps for 
himself, perhaps the solution to some deeply felt 
human need or personal problem, perhaps for a 
natural place which seemed convertible to an ideal 
world more congenial to his mental nature. A change 
came over much of his work after his arrival at Elsah, 
an intensification of his idealization, an indwelling 
mistiness very unlike his clear renderings of the 
smoky, clanging St. Louis waterfront. The intensity of 
the experience seems also evident from the great 



output of paintings from Elsah, the endless repetition 
of certain motifs, the focus on some things that 
seemed to fascinate, almost hypnotize, him, and the 
absence of other obvious aspects of Elsah life. 

For example, Sylvester's cottage stood on the bluffs 
above the Elsah quarry, where drilling, blasting, and 
rock crushing were a daily business. Yet in his paintings 
of the area, he typically removes the quarry and its 
buildings, and even the railroad tracks that lay along 
the river bank. In one painting he put a tiny peasantlike 
figure on a sandbar below what looks much like 
Grassy Hollow, a half mile upriver from Elsah, within 
sight of the front lawn of Oak Ledge. (22) 

The prevailing mood of the paintings is one of 
peace and natural grandeur. The bluffs are seen in that 
way only. Sylvester did not take advantage of the 
wilder, more dramatic scenery along the river, those 
eroded curves and pinnacles that suggest the power 
of wind and water, the slow rasp of time. The weather- 
blasted trees so frequently included in earlier nine- 
teenth-century landscape paintings are present in 
plenty on the river bluffs, but not in Sylvester's 
paintings. He saw these things daily, but his attention 
lay elsewhere. He drew back from the ruggedness and 
perceived sublimity and peace. 

It is a peace mainly of summer scenery. People, 
houses, steamboats, if they are present, are swallowed 
up in the sweep of river, land, and sky, after the 
manner of the more transcendental of the Hudson 
River School painters in their quietest moods, or like 
the work of George Innes, whom Sylvester much 
admired for his sensitive coloration and treatment of 
land and cloud. 

In the Romantic tradition, Sylvester's river land- 
scapes involve both withdrawal and engagement, 



though in the late twentieth century the aspect of 
withdrawal seems so much more remarkable that 
modern viewers find Sylvester landscapes compara- 
tively inaccessible. Perhaps the absence of human 
focus, or even of humanity at all, first hits today's 
viewer, comparatively unaware of the symbolic weight 
of nature to the nineteenth-century mind. To many 
today, some of Sylvester's paintings scarcely seem to 
have a subject. "The Home Road" is simply a section 
of dirt road on a hill. "The Mirror" and its numerous 
variations are simply river and summer cloud. Bluff 
faces, bluff tops with their dark cedars or bright 
maples repeat themselves in great variety. River 
bottom scenes, sunsets, houses in the distance on 
enveloping hills, landscapes dissolving into dusk, 
overlooks between framing trees, bare hillsides all 
abound in Sylvester's work. (23) Pondering them one 
finds a sense of purgation from St. Louis industry and 
noise. 

But even in Elsah's retirement they are highly 
selective. One need but turn to Twain's LIFE ON THE 
MISSISSIPPI to get a wholly different apprehension of 
Mississippi River life, and if things had settled down 
since Samuel Clemens' young manhood, there were 
still bodies in the river, drunks on the road, caves in 
the bluff, steamboats, boredoms for every season, 
hogs, and practical jokes. The Sylvester outlook was in 
its way just as realistic as Twain's, but the two artists 
had a vastly different sense of artistic selectivity. 

It is remarkable, though, that in spite of the frequent 
sentimental idealism of his poetry, and the well- 
established American tradition of the heightening of 
natural scenes to produce the impression of the 
sublime, (24) Sylvester was so accurate in his portrayals. 
This is not to say that he rendered scenes literally. He 
altered the compositions to suit his own purposes, but 





7". Kajiwara (seated) and Sylvester at Elsah 



The artist sketching 



10 




The artist's wife, Frances Gerry Sylvester 



Frances Sylvester, their grandson, and daughter- 
in-law at Oakledge 




The artist and his son Kilburn ca. 7902 




11 



all of his work, with the exception of a few large 
decorative pieces like his "As the Sowing the Reap- 
ing," done for the Decatur, Illinois, High School, (25) 
and his large murals done for the Noonday Club of St. 
Louis, (26) was wholly realistic or impressionistic, and 
not Romantic in rendering. 

He did use sycamores in bluff-top compositions, 
though in fact they grow around Elsah only in well- 
watered valleys. And after his European trip in the 
summer of 1906, he began including the tall, slender 
Lombardy poplars he sketched in his European note- 
books in paintings of the Elsah bluffs, (27) but these are 
alterations for the impression, and not echoes of 
earlier Romantic motifs. 

Professor Percival Robertson, who began taking 
geological field trips to the Elsah area the year after 
Sylvester's passing, took his copy of THE GREAT RIVER 
with him in order to seek out Sylvester's points of 
vantage. His report was that the scenes were recog- 
nizable, though the foregrounds were much modified, 
at times apparently composites of different areas. But 
where small bluff plants are observable in the fore- 
ground of a painting, they are faithfully rendered, 
fitting ecology and season. 

True, the artist did dress a domestic servant as a 
peasant and use her as a figure in the large paintings 
for the Noonday Club, "The Great River" and "The 
Mighty Stream," (28) but this is an exception. And the 
very occasional appearance of sheep in a Sylvester 
painting may seem a bit Arcadian, but sheep did graze 
at Elsah. Henry Turner, for instance, had a large flock 
at his summer estate, Eliestoun. The Romantic attitudes 
of the artist seldom form a large element in the 
techniques of his painting. 

On the other hand, the apparent withdrawal of the 



subject matter of his paintings from the hurly-burly of 
St. Louis becomes a form of engagement in the light of 
the Romantic tradition of nature symbolism. Just as 
Thoreau went to Walden, among other reasons, to 
study the pond because, as he openly stated, it was to 
him a symbol of the pure and enduring, so Sylvester 
came to study the scene at Elsah because of the 
combination of symbolic elements it offered for 
study. 

The bluffs, the river, the sky, and the vegetation— 
these are the chief components of his work. Symbolic 
radiations from these are not hard to discern. They 
seem based on an assumption essentially transcen- 
dental, that the meaning of things is at its core good. 
As an artist, he found proof of this in the pervasive 
beauty he saw in, or selected from, things. His poem, 
"Appreciation," is a clear position statement of one in 
the Wordsworthian tradition: 

More beautiful to me than any dream 

is this great universe that is my home. 

The art of Athens and the craft of Rome, 

With all the vast varieties of beam 

And arch, of statue, dance and song, I deem 

Less wondrous than the charm of heaven's dome, 

The ocean's music, traceries of foam, 

And shy, wild blossoms by the woodland stream. 

Praise be to Him who set the poet's thought 

Of rhythm in the soul, and gave to me 

The painter's sense of art and loveliness! 

Yet oft I feel my very being brought 

In touch with some transcendent harmony 

That is too fair and holy to express. (RIVER 99) 



12 



Sylvester's major symbol, the river, has often been 
viewed in literature archetypally as suggesting the 
flow of life, and it seems to have this meaning also in 
Sylvester's work, but there is certainly a variation, and 
individual twist, to Sylvester's view. No sensitive 
viewer could take the brawling, muddy Mississippi for 
anotherquietand limpid Avon or Afton. Admitting its 
power, the variety of its scene, including the city with 
its "kiss and curse, sob and song," and sometimes, as 
in "The Flood," its "cruel feet to crush the grain," 
(RIVER 77) Sylvester seems to feel that, with an ideal 
angle of view, the whole melange is rendered beauti- 
ful. The point of view is provided by the sky, which 
frequently dominates his landscapes and provides the 
ideal beauty the river reflects. In his poem, "The Great 
River," the river speaks: 

Fair Heaven I clasp, a willing bride, 
To my ocean home to lead; 
Her garments of gold and azure light 
I fashion anew in our onward flight, 
I double the jewels she wears at night, 
Her every mood I heed. (RIVER 21) 



This concept is repeated in considerable variety. Even 
muddy water can reflect the ideal, if so seen, Sylvester 
implies, and the bluffs provide that elevation which 
eases the process of idealization. In the present 
generation, to which this transformation seems im- 
possible, Sylvester's attitude seems the product of a 
bucolic past. But at the time of his great success, 
Melville's works, later so popular, with their inverted 
symbolic focus on the sharks lurking beneath the 
beautiful surface of the ocean, were still languishing 
in obscurity. 



Perhaps because of such a shift in taste, Sylvester's 
paintings have lasted better than the poems. Surely 
they are different. They contain the hard facts of 
reality, not abstracted by the locutions familiar to all 
readers of nineteenth-century verse. Nothing is falsi- 
fied in the paintings. Sylvester selected from what he 
saw. There is no cliche, but real perception and 
considerable artistic skill. The painter himself is absent, 
as the poet, who states his feelings explicitly in neatly 
organized first-person assertions, is not. Sylvester's 
toughness of spirit comes through on canvas. As 
students of his have testified, he saw very clearly, and 
caught every evanescent touch of color in a landscape. 
His verse, on the other hand, is lucid, but heavily 
dependent on the abstract usage of popular late- 
nineteenth-century versifiers. 

Perhaps the paintings also are superior simply 
because of Sylvester's skill as an artist. But perhaps also 
it is the presence of a cerain implicit brooding in them, 
noticed by many viewers, which the artistwould never 
permit himself to state outright, but which is implied 
in paint, deepening the work. He frequently rendered 
dark masses of hill, landscape forms dissolving into 
evening, and the deep stillness of heavy trees, or views 
through trees (in Romantic thought forms of natural 
praise). (29) A favorite, of course, was the reflected 
ideal, the sky in water. (30) A certain pensiveness or 
elegaic mood is there, often a foreboding, a sense of 
the ongoing strength of nature merging the individual 
in the general impression, swallowing the each in the 
all. When he worked in verse, he could not leave such 
impressions alone, but somehow had to invert them in 
a symbolic prestidigitation less true than the simple 
symbolic perceptions presented even in his sunniest 
landscapes, or his river mirrors. An untitled poem 
from THE GREAT RIVER illustrates this dissipation of 



13 



the creative tension that is left to stand untouched and 
unmarred in numerous paintings: 

A stretch of darkening water, 
And mountains far away, 
And over the world the shadow 
Of half departing day -- 

Save one soft cloud of coral, 
And a group of sun-kissed trees, 
And all the rest a twilight 
Of minor symphonies. 
Yet, when the dusk shall deepen 
And fill the wells of space, 
The little cloud will linger 
As the sweetness of a face, 

And the sun-kissed trees be golden, 

Like a smile within the heart, 

As long as the world goes dreaming 

And dreams are the life of Art. (RIVER 221) 

One can only say that the hand of the artist saw more 
deeply into the human condition than the gentleman 
poet was willing to write down. Sylvester's success as a 
landscape painter lies in the insight that is beyond 
theory. 

For the local historian, the immediate significance 
of Sylvesterto Elsah climaxes in the publication in 1911 
of his book of poems, illustrated with small photo- 
graphs of his paintings, THE GREAT RIVER. Few small 
towns are so reverently praised as Elsah was here, not 
for its people, architecture, or culture, but for its 
setting. Even so, only four of the sixty-three poems in 
the book deal with Elsah, and thirteen poems focus on 
the river. The unity of the paintings is much more 
striking. Twenty of the twenty-four are specifically of 



the river and bluffs around Elsah, the remaining four 
of woodland scenes like many there. 

The poems on the river and Elsah appear at the 
beginning of the volume, establishing the theme. But 
after them Sylvester ranged more widely, with verses 
on nature, the sky, art, Christianity, European places 
such as Venice and Lake Como, and the artists Corot 
and Inness. Thirty-five of the poems are sonnets, the 
rest in simpler rimed stanzas or couplets, sometimes 
rather loosely constructed. 

THE GREAT RIVER appeared in a general edition of 
five hundred, with half-tone photographs, and a 
special edition of one hundred, costing a hundred 
dollars each, with platinum photographs throughout 
and a small original watercolor by Sylvester tipped in 
the front. These watercolors are bright and deftly 
done, testifying to the energetic productivity of the 
artist, but they are also simple and sometimes very 
similar. 

Sylvester sold all of the special edition with no 
trouble, many of them being bought by his close 
friends and patrons. W. K. Bixby, a St. Louis business- 
man, friend, and supporter, bought six copies. Kajiwara 
bought one, as did the artist's father, his great aunt 
Hannah Soule, his publisher, Henry Ware Eliot, Wil- 
liam Morgan, husband of the founder of The Principia, 
Mrs. Seneca Taylor, his neighbor on the Elsah bluffs, 
Henry Turner, owner of El iestoun, (31) Clark McAdams 
of the POST-DISPATCH, and many others. 

From the general edition, Sylvester gave away 
eighty-one copies, not only to potential reviewers but 
to pupils of the schools in which he had taught, 
friends, including Miss S. Stephany, Lawrence Keller, 
and Charles Ward, all of Elsah. He also sent one to Sara 
Teasdale and another to William Jennings Bryan, 



14 



whom he had met and sketched on a ship returning 
from Europe. (32) 

By 1913, W. K. Bixby was suggesting another edition, 
and Sylvester, delighted by his aid and business 
knowledge, thanked him profusely. The edition ap- 
peared that year. Subsequent reprints have been 
published by the artist's wife in 1925, and by Warren 
Sprague, a St. Louis printer and admirer of Sylvester, in 
1937. (33) Edward Orr provided a memoir for the 
Sprague edition from his boyhood recollections of 
Elsah, and Mary Kimball Morgan, founder of The 
Principia, added a short commentary. (34) 

During his last years, Sylvester was widely praised. In 
1904 he won a bronze medal at the St. Louis World's 
Fair, and a silver medallion at the Portland Exposition. 
He was awarded the Fine Arts Building of Chicago 
Prize in 1906 by the Society of Western Artists, an 
organization of which he was then vice president. In 
1909 and 1910 he served as president of the St. Louis 
Artists' Guild. In 1910 he showed twenty-eight paint- 
ings in Columbia, Missouri, for the Art Lover's Guild, 
selling fourteen of them and giving two lectures, 
"Artists' Ideals" and "The Relation of Art to Life" 
(Emberson79, 80). 

Articles on him appeared regularly in the St. Louis 
papers, and his work was discussed and illustrated in 
HARPER'S WEEKLY, in SCRIBNER'S MAGAZINE in 
1912, and ART AND PROGRESS in 1913 (GLOBE- 
DEMOCRAT). His work decorated many homes and 
clubs in St. Louis, Alton, Illinois, and the surrounding 
area. At the time of his death, he had received a 
commission from the State of Missouri to do the 
murals in the statehouse at Jefferson City, a commis- 
sion executed in his place by Neudescher and Benton. 

In spite of this general success, Sylvester continued 



to work both at Central High and Principia until ill 
health forced him to take a leave of absence in the fall 
of 1913. Even so, he continued to work, writing a 
revealing letter from Oak Ledge to his friend, W. K. 
Bixby, on October 26th of that year: 

I am here all alone on these great hills to-night 
and wind and rain are holding high carnival outside 
while I sit by the kitchen fire writing to you. Have 
just finished my "bachelor" supper of sardines on 
toast, apple sauce, tea and peanut butter. Was out 
sketching this morning but it was pretty cold and 
this afternoon too cold and wet altogether. After a 
while, about 8:30 PM I shall heat a brick and put in 
the bed and cover up till morning. I have no heat in 
the bedrooms and so have to heat a brick to keep 
my feet warm. 

Altogether I am having great fun, even if at times 
lonesome. (35) 

Even in his humility, Sylvester sensed the shifting of 
taste away from his approach to art, with some 
apprehension — not, one feels, from personal motives, 
but as a movement away from values he held to be 
needed for human happiness. From the vantage of 
today, he was in the rear guard of nineteenth-century 
aesthetics. The whole weight of his inclinations leaned 
toward a Romantic gentility increasingly weakened by 
pervasive modernism. In 1912 he was described in a 
newspaper clipping as regarding Post-Impressionism 
as the work of crazy men. He defined Futurist painting, 
according to the reporter, substantially as "trying to 
express something that hopes to depict what will be 
when something, sometime to come, is." (36) Even in 
the St. Louis Artists' Guild he was resisting recent 
trends. Two occasional poems of protest, addressed to 



16 



the Guild, survive. One, addressed to "Ladies and 
Gentlemen, good Guilders all," concludes thus: 

And there has come a vague Unrest, a thirst 
For novelty, that sports with Folly, spurns 
All precedent, discretion, taste, and burns 
With a consuming lust, wild to display 
Its nakedness. It treats the night as day, 
The day as night and pictures greed of show 
The goal of Art. So Beauty, famished, pleads 
In vain for sustenance and no one heeds. (37) 



By 1935, twenty years after his passing, a newspaper 
apology for him notes, " 'His work is too delicate, too 
reticent for this strident age,' is the general comment 
when one tries to arouse interest in that truly great 
man who immortalized the Mississippi River, in 
decorative paintings and rippling verse." (38) One 
feels that the river will outlast the immortalization, but 
the reporter's account of much modern opinion is 
accurate. Taste has shifted so far that it is hard today 
for the general public to get at the values of Sylvester's 
work, though there has been a recent upsurge of 
interest in his paintings. 

Part of the problem seems to lie in the pallidness of 
the commentary on that work in Sylvester's own time. 
The critics are so effusive that they never bind down in 
clear prose what the artist was after. Perhaps Romantic 
assumptions were so general that no explanation was 
felt necessary. Perhaps the courtesy of the time 
prevented forthright discussion. Negative comment is 
so guarded as to be nearly invisible, perhaps because 
the kindly Sylvester was universally liked. Though 
exhibiting some of the above faults, one of the best 
evaluations of Sylvester appeared in the BULLETIN OF 



THE SAINT LOUIS ART LEAGUE in July, 1915, four 
months after his death. The comment below is cau- 
tious and mixed: 

A fair estimate of Sylvester's work were not easily 
made. It had angles and points of contact with the 
life about him, left influences that are at work in 
lives after him— and who can measure these things? 
The question is not met by setting his canvas upon a 
convenient easel and inquiring whether by the 
standards emphasized of the hour it is as well 
painted as another's. If but Sylvester's decorations 
do what they ought to do toward awakening an 
interest in expressive art which must come for the 
building of new St. Louis, it will be enough. He will 
have had greater influence than most men who 
admit their success in the business world. 

If for his teaching in our public schools a few 
growing St. Louisans shall be kinder toward art, 
more open to the artists growing up with them, how 
shall measurement be made of such a service to the 
city? 

Sylvester lacked the ruthlessness that makes the 
great technician. As an artist his merit was most in 
his love, his sympathy and faithfulness and the 
insight and interpretive strength they gave him. His 
execution was not brilliant nor resourceful; and it is 
upon execution that nowadays American art lays its 
claims. 

Sylvester never felt himself to be the apotheosis 
of Nature and the fairy godfather of Art, as some do. 
He merely tried to picture Nature in a quiet and 
truthful, mirror-like way and help us to know her 
beauty. Hedidn'ttry to paint heroverintoan up-to- 
date minx with much put on in malice and more left 
off without extenuation, as many do; and for this 



17 



perhaps he lacks technique.... 

Sylvester's art was expressive. If often he gave us 
the minutiae of Nature, sometimes he painted 
simply and broadly and very clearly. There is in his 
work a personality, with a point of view. We shall 
turn again and again to his paintings. 

Many charming pictures, of the Mississippi, of the 
headlands, of the woods, the skies, were left by 
Sylvester, and in them one sees how a gentle nature 
yet a strong spirit could overcome in quiet perse- 
verance obstacles that discourage and appall. For 
wan and pale Sylvester long was the indefatigable 
worker among St. Louis artists. In ill-health and 
indomitable spirit he "pegged away," at times 
progressing, always working. The mere physical 
labor in the canvases he conscientiously produced, 
the while he taught our youth, put to shame the 
energies and ambitions of physically healthy men. 
That, afterall, was his physical and spiritual salvation, 
his gospel and the secret of his conquering— 
absorption in work. 

A great deal that is rather damning appears in this 
commentary, yet Sylvester the man haunts the expres- 
sive critic. He would like to apply the Romantic 
criterion of Schiller's beautiful soul, but his reserva- 
tions about technique will not let him. This problem in 
evaluating Sylvester has persisted. And yet the writer 
seems to miss as well the quiet, late-nineteenth- 
century symbolic import of his work, which appears to 
him "mirror-like" and "decorations." 

That Sylvester impressed those who worked with 
him can be seen by a letter from one of his students, 
Leona Bullivant, to the ST. LOUIS GLOBE-DEMO- 
CRAT, in support of the abortive movement to name 
Alton Lake after Sylvester. Mrs. Bullivant remarks, "I 



was one of those pupils at Central High whom you 
mention as having been inspired to a life of service 
and beauty by Mr. Sylvester's gentle influence. He it 
was who urged me to cultivate my talent for drawing." 
(39) She had gone on to become a teacher of art. 

But Sylvester had passed beyond concern. He had 
died in March, 1915, and had been given a widely 
reported funeral at the Artists' Guild. According to his 
request, Captain Brock's motor-launch had set out 
from Elsah upriverto the confluence of the Mississippi 
and Illinois Rivers, where Mrs. Sylvester and Takuma 
Kajiwara sprinkled his ashes on the water. He was, in 
this final Romantic act, merged with the great 
reflector, the stream which healed his sensibilities and 
illustrated his restlessness. (40) A nearby island was 
named after him, but with the rising of the river level 
with the impounding of Alton Lake, it too has dis- 
appeared. 

What chiefly remains are a great many paintings 
throughout the St. Louis area, a few personal mem- 
ories, and copies of THE GREAT RIVER. As the St. Louis 
Art League critic noted, the paintings do not dazzle 
the viewer with technical virtuosity. But they are easy 
to live with, instructive of peace, and we turn to them 
again and again. And then at times we see in a 
watercolor demonstration piece, a sketch, or an oil 
the sharp penetration of real genius. One who lives in 
the Elsah area finds repeatedly that the subtle colors of 
Sylvester's work, even his tonal pieces, bloom out of 
the actual landscape now and again with a startling 
perfection. 

Sylvester collectors are surprisingly numerous, and 
they find values in his work that make them prize the 
paintings as cherished aspects of their homes. Occa- 
sionally the St. Louis Art Museum hangs one or both of 



19 



its Sylvesters for viewing. The two in the St. Louis 
Public Library are always on view. A large number 
hang in the rooms and offices of The Principia, both 
on its St. Louis County campus and that at Elsah. 

The small village of Elsah could scarcely have asked 
for a more faithful celebrant than Sylvester. As it gave 
him the remoteness and grandeur that he needed in 
his last fifteen years, so he in return depicted its nobler 
and more timeless aspects for the refreshment of a 
region. The interaction was one that has enriched the 
area and assured Sylvester of an enduring appreci- 
ation. 











V 




1 

( 

j 




11 


L 




i 


b ! r 




■ ■ ■< 


\ 


1 ; 


} ■' J 1 | 


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Pen sketch by the artist 



Endnotes 

1. Kilburn G. Sylvester in an interview, 1 March 1970. The writer is 
grateful for much help from Kilburn and Marguerite Sylvester in 
many aspects of this study. 

2. Emberson 1-5. Emberson's short biography of Sylvester is the 
most complete source of facts about his early life. Other assets 
are its wealth of primary commentary from sources now unavail- 
able, its information on specific activities of Sylvester, and its 
information on specific paintings. Emberson was hampered in 
her documentation by the fact that information on Sylvester is 
available in clippings in many undocumented newspaper 
sources, some without any identification of the periodical, others 
without dates. These sources generally are not indexed, render- 
ing documentation nearly impossible. Such material is cited to 
collection source below. 

3. ColletteCollester has pointed out that some of the drawings in 
the anatomical notebooks are copies of drawings in the famous 
ART ANATOMY of William Rimmer published in Boston in 1876. 
One head appears to be close enough to be a tracing. In his 
introduction to the Dover reprint of 1961, Robert Hutchinson 
calls Rimmer's book, of which only fifty copies were made, 
"perhaps the finest work of art anatomy in America" (x). 

4. The Missouri Historical Society and the Principia College 
library both have collections of early Sylvester material given 
them by Kilburn Sylvester. 

5. Unidentified newspaper clipping from a scrapbook in the 
Missouri Historical Society collection. The concept of Sylvester's 
influence on students is often echoed. For example, Mrs. Fred 
Carpenter, in a letter of 3 April 1971, wrote that she took art from 
Sylvester at Central High School. He told her mother she had 
enough talent to pursue art at Washington University. She did 
and married her teacher, a friend of Sylvester, who, like Sylvester, 
"enjoyed the patronage of Wm. K. Bixby." Mrs. Carpenter also 
went on to be an artist. 

6. The writer has a copper dish given him by Kilburn Sylvester, 
who described it as a demonstration piece done for an art class. 
The Emberson thesis contains discussions of Sylvester's crafts 
(e. g., pp. 66, 67). In addition to those Emberson discusses, 
according to Kilburn Sylvester the artist designed and made 
many of the frames for his paintings. 



20 



7. The Piasa Bluffs Hotel and its surrounding summer cottages 
were built in 1891, probably as an outgrowth both of the 
establishment of Chautauqua, a mile and a half upriver from 
Elsah, in 1887, and of the building of the railroad along the base of 
the bluffs in 1890. It did not prosper. The hotel was bought and 
reopened by the Nugent family in 1897 but closed in 1898. Many 
of the cottages west of the hotel burned in a grass fire early in this 
century. Oak Ledge burned in 1924. Principia dismantled the 
empty hotel in the early 1930's and established a picnic grounds 
on the site. Two houses west of Oak Ledge remain from the initial 
project. The cistern of Oak Ledge can still be seen in the woods. 

8. Louis Keller, with his brother Cosmos, had come to Elsah in 
1856 and was well-known in the village for many years. A 
descendant of Louis, Edward, still lives in Elsah. Sylvester knewall 
the Kellers of his time, but Lawrence, grandson of Louis and 
father of Edward, took care of most of his needs. 

9. Grace Barnal Cresswell recalled Sylvester's lean frame, which 
caused the Elsah children to call him the "human beanpole." Asa 
teenager she occasionally cooked for the artist and his family and 
cleaned his cottage. 

10. "Soft Twilight Lingers," for example, exists in two quite similar 
versions, one owned by Principia, the other by the Warren 
Sprague family. This painting is included in THE GREAT RIVER. 

11. "Soft Twilight Lingers," for instance, was almost surely 
painted from Elsah Bar, the small island upriver from Portage 
Island. 

12. Dewey McDow.a friend of Willis Jacobson, also gardened for 
Sylvester. 

13. Segar had spent time in prison for homocide, but was 
generally well enough liked around the village, though disrepu- 
table. He appears in old photographs of quarry workers. For 
some time he lived alone in the Keyser-Read House. Stories of his 
remarks and escapades were frequent among older informants. 

14. THE GREAT RIVER. St. Louis: Clark-Sprague Printing Com- 
pany, 1937, p. 197. The editions of 1911 and 1913 have no 
pagination. Those of 1925 and 1937 do. Sprague, who edited the 
latter two, included further poems, an index of familiar lines and 
one of first lines, and other front matter to his editions, making 
them much more usable than the earlier books. The first edition 
was published by the Publishers Press, of Chicago, and the 



publisher was Henry Ware Eliot, Jr. T. S. Eliot's father was named 
Henry Ware Eliot and one of the poet's brothers Henry Ware 
Eliot, Jr. Circumstances make it doubtful that Sylvester's publisher 
was the poet's brother, however. See Emberson 73. 

15. Sylvester sketched the roadside weeds at times. Two fine 
pencil sketches exist in the collection of the Missouri Historical 
Society, one of New York ironweed, another of hairy vervain. 
Both bloom in Elsah in early July. The presence of blooming 
weeds helps identify the season of a number of Sylvester 
paintings. He took liberties with trees, but seems to have been 
realistic in his use of smaller flora. 

16. Several informants attested to this. 

17. According to geologist and longtime Elsah resident Percival 
Robertson, Cherry used to say that Sylvester painted "with mud," 
that is with mixed colors. She objected to this not only for artistic 
reasons but because she felt it disturbed the paint chemistry and 
would limit the life of the paintings. However, in a letter of 25 
March 1971, Josephine D. Lockwood, F. I, I. C, expressed the 
view that Sylvester was "an excellent technician." She had 
"restored a great many . . . Sylvester paintings," and said she had 
"not yet found a Sylvester that could not be cleaned so that the 
whites were white." 

18. The Artists' Guild of St. Louis owns a Kajiwara oil portrait of 
W. K. Bixby. 

19. Morgan interview. See also Virginia Landenberger, "High- 
lights in a Portrait," THE PRINCIPIA ALUMNI PURPOSE, 15 
(March 1931), 7, 8, 18. The "dinky" is now at the National 
Museum of Transport in Kirkwood, Missouri. 

20. The Taylor home stood on the bluffs near Oak Ledge on the 
site of the present Faerber home. 

21. The original is in a notebook in the Principia College 
collection. The poem appeared with notes in ELSAH HISTORY, 
No. 27 (April 1979): 4-6. 

22. This large painting now hangs in the livingroom of the 
Principia College Alumni Guest House. 

23. Sylvester was not alone in finding meaning in trees in 
untenanted meadows and such subjects. The Barbizon School 
produced hundreds of such canvases. Sylvester and his friend 
Edmund Weurpel gave paintings to the St. Louis City Art 



21 



Museum in 1913, both of which are of the type [see THE 
BULLETIN OF THE ST. LOUIS CITY ARTMUSEUM.1 (April 1914): 
20]. The New England photographer Herbert Cleason, who took 
the pictures used to illustrate THE WRITINGS OF HENRY DAVID 
THOREAU (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1906), took thousands of 
such photographs during the same period Sylvester was painting, 
and hand-colored hundreds of glass plates, the subject of which 
might be a bush by a small brook. The attraction of vegetative life 
to the Romantic mind is well known. 

24. The first known rendering of Elsah, a lithograph of 1866, raises 
the height of the bluffs by perhaps a third, apparently in search of 
a commonplace sublime. 

25. In 1977 the Stephen Decatur High School was razed and the 
mural placed on permanent loan at the North Fork Museum, 
according to the DECATUR SUNDAY HERALD AND REVIEW of 
15 May 1977. When the painting was first placed there, an article 
by Laura R. Way in the SCHOOL ARTS MAGAZINE of November 
1912, pp. 165-66 described its acquisition. 

26. Both of the murals were covered for years by panels, and 
generally thought destroyed, but when they were uncovered in 
1984, and one, "The Great River," was found intact, it was 
donated to Principia. After a heroic restoration effort it now 
hangs in the lobby of the Principia College Cox Auditorium. See 
Robert W. Duffy, "River of Coincidence Leads Old Mural to New 
Home," ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH, 2 September 1984, 5F. The 
writer was called to view the painting shortly after it was 
uncovered. I saw it just above scaffolding with a plasterer 
working around it. A call to Henry Holt of Principia, a Sylvester 
enthusiast, brought a quick response. Mr. Holt deserves much 
credit for saving the painting. 

27. For example in "Enchanted Twilight," painted for the Busy 
Bee Candy Company of St. Louis, and now at Principia College. 

28. It is a curiosity to see European peasants on the Elsah bluffs, 
but Sylvester also used foregound rock formations strange to the 
bluff area and put sycamores on the bluffs. The two murals are 
perhaps his least realistic river pictures. While high on the 
Noonday Club wall the heightening of the bluffs was not 
noticeable, it certainly is in the present eye-level setting of "The 
Great River." 

29. Examples of such symbolism applied to trees abound in 
nineteenth-century American poetry. Emerson's "Woodnotes" 
is one. So are Jones Very's "The Trees," "The Spirit," and many 



other poems. In THE MAINE WOODS, Thoreau assigns immor- 
tality to white pines. In Sylvester, the import of tree symbolism is 
much more muted. 

30. This symbolic concept is of course archetypal. Among 
Romantics, no one did more with it than Thoreau in WALDEN. 
For him the pond was "sky water." 

31. Eliestoun was built in 1890 by Henry Turner, who married Ada 
Ames, granddaughter of the founder of Elsah, General James 
Semple. A wealthy St. Louis real estate dealer, Turner used 
Eliestoun as his summer home. The estate is now a part of the 
Principia College campus. 

32. Bryan visited the Elsah area— at Chautauqua— probably twice. 
See William M. Fabian, CHAUTAUQUA, ILLINOIS: A BRIEF 
HISTORY (Elsah: Historic Elsah Foundation, 1975), p. 18. 

33. Warren Sprague admired Sylvester enough to build a small, 
unimproved vacation shack on the Elsah bluffs below Oak Ledge. 
Sprague did much to preserve the artist's memory. 

34. Morgan and Sylvester held each other in mutually high 
regard. A small oil showing the river at sunset, and inscribed to 
her, exists in the Principia archives. Her son, William Morgan, 
reportedly honeymooned at Oak Ledge. 

35. From the collection of The Missouri Historical Society. 
Reprinted with permission. 

36. Undated news clipping in the Missouri Historical Society 
scrapbook, entitled, "Sylvester Raps Art Futurists/Great Ameri- 
can Artist Thinks Post-Impressionism Work of Crazy Men," a 
report on an address at the Wiley High School. 

37. Ms. poem is the Principia College library collection. 

38. Unidentified newspaper clipping from the Missouri Historical 
Society scrapbook. 

39. Bullivant quoted by Emily Grant Hutchins, "Art and Artists," 
ST. LOUIS GLOBE-DEMOCRAT, 1935. The article was part of an 
abortive movement to name the newly dammed Alton Lake after 
Sylvester. A different attempt to name Slim Island, off Chau- 
tauqua, after Sylvester, also failed. Principia College collection. 
See also note 5 above. 

40. The symbolic act of merging with water is also a familiar 
Romantic symbol. One sees it for example in Thoreau's poem, 
"The Thaw," in MOBY DICK in Chapter 132, "The Symphony," 
and in Whitman's "Out of the Cradle, Endlessly Rocking." 



22 



Materials Cited in the Text 

Manuscript and Clipping Collections: 

The Missouri Historical Society 

The Principia College Library and Archives 

The St. Louis Public Library Art Department 

Unpublished Source: 

Emerson, Lulu Guthrie. "Life and Work of Frederick Oakes Sylvester." M. A. Thesis, U. of Mo. at Columbia, 1930. 

Personal Interviews: 

Cresswell, Grace Barnal. 30 November 1970. 

Delano, Jessie. 6 July 1971. 

Hamlin, Helen. 25 November 1970. 

McDow, Dewey. 18 November 1970. 

Morgan. Frederick E. 4 April 1973. 

Robertson, Percival. 11 November 1970. 

Sylvester, Kilburn Gerry and Marguerite. 1 March 1970. 

Published Services: 

"Frederick Oakes Sylvester." BULLETIN OF THE SAINT LOUIS ART LEAGUE 2: 2 (1915) 20-21. 
"Frederick Oakes Sylvester, Poet-Painter and Teacher, is Dead." ST. LOUIS GLOBE-DEMOCRAT 2 March 1915: 1. 
"Frederick Oakes Sylvester's Funeral Friday at Artists' Guild." ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH 3 March 1915: 11. 
Keller, Mrs. Lawrence. "A Few Words About Sylvester." THE PRINCIPIA ALUMNI PURPOSE March 1931: 15. 
Landenberger, Virginia. "Highlights in a Portrait." THE PRINCIPIA ALUMNI PURPOSE March 1931: 15. 
Sylvester, Frederick Oakes. THE GREAT RIVER. Chicago: Publishers' Press. 1911, 1913. 

THE GREAT RIVER. St. Louis: Clark-Sprague, 1925, 1937. 

VERSES. St. Louis: n. p., 1903. 

Note: An attempt has been made to keep the bibliography simple. Therefore sources cited only in the endnotes are not included because 
available there. The letters and interview sources noted above are available at Principia College. The Emberson thesis contains an extensive 
bibliography, though many listings are incomplete. 

The writer is also grateful for numerous informal interviews and discussions of Sylvester and would like to cite especially Lucy McDow.Mrs. John 
Cronin, Walter Cresswell, Carey Browne, Mrs. Warren Sprague, Mrs. Alfred Gertsch, and Edward Keller as helpful sources. 



24 



FREDERICK OAKES SYLVESTER - 
AN INFORMAL CHRONOLOGY 



1869. October 8. Frederick Oakes Sylvester born in North 
Bridgewater (now Brockton), Massachusetts. 
October 22. Mary Louise Sylvester, Frederick's mother, 
dies. 

1887. Sylvester takes a summer sketching and camping trip in 
Mass. & Conn. 

1888. Sylvester enters Massachusetts Normal Art School in 
Boston. 

1891. Sylvester completes M.N.A.S. course in three years 
instead of the usual five. 

December 25. Marries Florence I. Gerry, of Fall River, 
Mass. 

1891-92. Sylvester teaches art at Sophie Newcomb Memorial 
College, Tulane University. 

1892. After a summer in New England, the Sylvesters come to 
St. Louis, where F. O. S. becomes Art Director of the 
newly built Central High School. 

1894. Daughter, Dorothy Louise, born March 7. 

1899. Son, Kilburn Gerry, born May 2. F. O. S. admitted to the 
Society of Western Artists. He begins seriously to write 
verse. 

1902. Sylvester buys "Oak Ledge," a summer cottage on the 
Elsah bluffs. 

1903. Verses published. Sylvester becomes the first Art Direc- 
tor for Principia, St. Louis private school. He does this 
after work at Central High. 



1904. Sylvester in charge of exhibitions in Missouri Room at St. 
Louis World's Fair. Wins a bronze medallion for oil 
painting at the fair. Covered in an article in Harper's 

Weekly. 

1906. Sylvester takes a summer painting trip to Europe, mostly 
Italy. 

1907. Sylvester elected president of the society of Western 
Artists. 

Wins Silver Medal at Portland Exhibition. 

1909. Sylvester elected president of St. Louis Artists' Guild, 
re-elected next year. He conducts the first of several 
outings of Principia students to Elsah. 

1911. The Great River, poems and photographs of paintings, 
published. 

1912. Sylvester covered in an article in Scribner's Magazine. 

1913. Second edition of The Great River published. Sylvester 
takes a leave of absence from teaching duties because of 
ill health. 

1914. Daughter, Dorothy, marries. 

1915. Sylvester dies, March 2. His ashes sprinkled on the 
Mississippi near Grafton. 

1925, The Great River republished in enlarged editions, largely 
1937 through the efforts of Mrs. Sylvester and Warren 
Sprague. 



25 



THE SONG OF THE HILLS 



AVE I not lived at Elsah, 

HAnd climbed the Elsah hills 
And stood aloft on Elsah 's cliffs 
And felt, with heart-deep thrills, 
The glory of the sunset, 
The purple Grafton heights, 
The Mississippi's burnished gold 
Aglow with a million lights? 



Sylvester poem from the 1911 edition of THE GREAT RIVER 



PAUL OSBORNE WILLIAMS lived in Elsah from 1964 to 1986. 
He served on the faculty of the Principia College as Cornelius and 
Muriel Wood Professor of Humanities and English. Professor 
Williams also served on the Village Board from 1969-1975, on the 
Quarry-Elsah Volunteer Firefighters, and as director of the Elsah 
Museum from 1978 to 1984. When he came to Elsah Williams was 
researching the career of Henry David Thoreau, but in the late 
1960's his interests shifted into the field of local history. In 1967 he 
was co-author of Elsah: A Historic Guidebook. In 1971 he was one 
of the founding board members of Historic Elsah Foundation and 
served for eight years as editor of its newsletters and pamphlets. 
He began work on a book of essays dealing with various aspects 
of Elsah history. Only two of the chapters were completed when 
he began a new literary career in the field of science fiction. The 
first of those chapters was published by Historic Elsah Foundation 
in 1982 under the title The McNair Family of Elsah, Uncommon 
Common Men. The book on Frederick Oakes Sylvester is a 
revision of the second of those two chapters. Starting in 1981 
Professor Williams published an award winning series of seven 
novels that began with The Breaking of Northwall. All of these 
books center on the Mississippi valley in the general vicinity of 
Elsah about 1.000 years from now. Paul Williams also has 
published several poems in anthologies and he has written a 
large number of essays for various newspapers and magazines. 
He now lives in San Francisco where he is continuing to write 
novels. 

JEANNE COLETTE COLLESTER is an assistant professor of art 
history at Principia College. She is completing a graduate 
program at Washington University in St. Louis where she is 
evaluating the career of Frederick Oakes Sylvester. 



Historic Elsah Foundation has been serving its community 
since 1971. The principal activities have included publication of a 
series of newsletters and pamphlets on the Elsah area and its 
history, and the restoration and maintenance of two structures 
-the Old Village Hall and the Mott Commercial Building. The 
organization has sponsored occasional house tours and walks 
through the town along with some functions in the Old Village 
Hall. The publication of this book on Frederick Oakes Sylvester is 
a major step in the educational program of the Foundation. 

The Foundation is also dedicated to preserving the spirit of 
Elsah's quiet charm and unique character. Information about 
publications, activities, and memberships may be obtained by 
writing: 

HISTORIC ELSAH FOUNDATION 

Box 117 

Elsah, Illinois 62028