WITH ELS AH
Paul O. Williams
Digitized by the Internet Archive
in 2011 with funding from
CARLI: Consortium of Academic and Research Libraries in Illinois
FREDERICK OAKES SYLVESTER:
THE ARTISTS ENCOUNTER WITH ELSAH
Paul O. Williams
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
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
Have I not felt it countless nights
Is it a little thing when wonder
The soul and one's whole being wakes and
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
As far as vision goes the mighty streams
Mirror the sky, while field and grove and
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
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
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their movement was superceded by the next one.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
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-
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
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-
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.
Elsah, Illinois, June 1986
"Enchanted Twilight" by the artist
Portrait of the artist by Takuma Kajiwara
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
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
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
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
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
^ISt" 7 "" '■
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
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
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
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
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
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)
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
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-
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
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
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
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,
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"
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
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
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
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
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
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-
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
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
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-
b ! r
■ ■ ■<
} ■' J 1 |
Pen sketch by the artist
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.
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
12. Dewey McDow.a friend of Willis Jacobson, also gardened for
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
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
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
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."
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
Emerson, Lulu Guthrie. "Life and Work of Frederick Oakes Sylvester." M. A. Thesis, U. of Mo. at Columbia, 1930.
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.
"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.
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,
1887. Sylvester takes a summer sketching and camping trip in
Mass. & Conn.
1888. Sylvester enters Massachusetts Normal Art School in
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,
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
1902. Sylvester buys "Oak Ledge," a summer cottage on the
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
1906. Sylvester takes a summer painting trip to Europe, mostly
1907. Sylvester elected president of the society of Western
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,
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
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
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
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
HISTORIC ELSAH FOUNDATION
Elsah, Illinois 62028