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Artists of Lake George: John Henry Hill, “the Hermit of Lake George”

By Bernard Brown

Sunday, August 28, 2011

While artists began visiting Lake George as early as 1812, the first to make his home here, and, in fact, the first person to live year-round on one of the islands, was John Henry Hill.

Hill came to Lake George in 1869, and the following year he took up residence on Phantom Island in the Narrows, in a cabin he built and dubbed “Artist’s Retreat.”

Hill, the son of artist John William Hill, was born in West Nyack, NY in 1839 and first exhibited his work in 1856.  Both artists associated themselves with an American branch of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, a term adopted in 1848 by young English artists reacting against the academic painting of the day. Strongly influenced by the writings of John Ruskin, who insisted that the best art was a synthesis of nature and morality, the Pre-Raphaelites claimed to perceive nature and the human figure unfiltered by artistic conventions. Mid-nineteenth century America, still under the sway of the transcendentalists who equated nature with the divine, was fertile ground for the new school.

For an artist who wanted to work directly from nature, Phantom Island was an ideal place. Hill worked in watercolor, considered by Ruskin to be the medium that best “obeys the artist’s hand (and) recounts the subtlest pleasures of sight.” But he also etched copper plates (which he sold to curious visitors) and exchanged drawings for vegetables with local farmers.

Hill moved to Phantom Island shortly before Christmas, 1870, and began a journal which today is in the collections of the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake.

The journal is an account of his work, his progress, his reading, and his thoughts about the critics. But it also a detailed, descriptive account of nature on Lake George – the flora, the fauna, the passing of the seasons.

In on of the diary’s first entries , Hill makes note of “a beautiful sunset – golden and orange clouds with warm purple shadows and warm blue sky turning into pinkish at the horizon. The sun a blaze of golden light reflected in a perpindicular streak of fire on the transparent ice, glowing sky and fiery clouds streaming down also…ice of a delicate purple color, the islands with pine trees by dark distant mountains darkish purple where the wood is and lightish where the snow is.”

He describes the ice leaving the lake: “making rumbling noises, something like pigs grunting, only more irregular, not very musical,” and observes “Mayflowers in bloom on a rocky point where they grow in profusion.”

In summer he writes, “It is so quiet, that I can hear the noise of the fall on Indian Brook, three miles away,” and of autumn he says, “fall is the time of year for an artist to work – if he loves brilliant color – no danger of his overstepping the brightness of nature.”

Although dubbed a recluse, we can also infer somethimg of Hill’s social life from the diary. His days were filled not only with hiking, fishing and hunting, but trips to Bolton for supplies and visits from artists like David Johnson and local residents like E.C. Smith, who owned the hotel on Fourteen Mile Island, and Seneca Ray Stoddard, who wrote about Hill in his guide books.

Stoddard says that Hill was committed to an insane asylum in 1876. He died in 1922.

Dismissed by the critics of his own time, Hill’s work has become the focus of renewed attention from museums, scholars and collectors. His paintings are in the collections of the Metropolitain Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Brooklyn Museum, the Adirondack Museum and in the Fogg at Harvard. The American Pre-Raphaelites have secured a permanent status in art history, and John Henry Hill, Lake George’s hermit, is now acknowledged as the foremost painter among them.

Bernard Brown owns Bernard R. Brown Fine Art, which specializes in the buying and selling of exceptional 19th and 20th century American paintings of Lake George and the Adirondacks.  He can be reached at 518.644.2686.

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