Seymour Joseph Guy: 'Little Master' of American genre painting

November 2009 | Seymour Joseph Guy established a reputation in the United States in the mid-nineteenth century as one of the finest genre painters of children. His primarily cabinet-sized pictures were esteemed by his fellow artists and leading collectors of American art. He was widely respected for his technical ability and knowledge of the science of painting, but with the emergence of a younger generation of European-trained artists in the 1880s, Guy’s meticulous and smoothly polished scenes of childhood began to fall out of fashion. In recent decades his art and talent have been reappraised by museums, scholars, and collectors of early American art, but up to now almost nothing has been published about his life and career.

Guy was born and raised in Greenwich, England, a parliamentary borough of London. He was the son of Jane Delver Wilson and Frederick Bennett Guy (d. 1833), and he had two brothers, Frederick Bennett Guy Jr. (1823–1899) and Charles Henry Guy (1824–1861). Following their mother’s death, probably in the late 1820s, the children were raised by their father, an innkeeper and owner of various commercial properties. Upon Frederick’s death in July 1833, the siblings appear to have been raised under the guardianship of John Locke, the proprietor of the Spanish Galleon, a tavern that still stands on Church Street in Greenwich, or John Hughes, a Church Street cheese merchant.1

Growing up, Guy attended a day school in Surrey.2 He developed an early interest in art, and was fond of painting dogs and horses. At the age of thirteen he expressed a serious desire to become either an artist or a civil engineer. His guardian responded by taking away his pocket money in hopes of motivating him to make a different career choice. Undaunted, Guy took up sign painting and earned enough money to buy the supplies he needed to continue his art education. For a brief period in the later 1830s he studied with a marine painter named Butterworth or Buttersworth—probably Thomas Buttersworth (1768–1842), who was a resident of Greenwich and had a successful career as a painter of ships and coastal scenes.

About 1839 Guy’s guardian convinced him to seek training as an engraver, but the expense of placing him as an apprentice with an engraving firm proved prohibitive. Instead Guy began a seven year apprenticeship in the oil and color trade, which entailed making pigments and preparing binders, as well as combining those ingredients to make paint either by hand-grinding or working a steam driven machine.3 The experience led Guy to grind and mix pigments for his own work.

Frederick Bennett Guy had stipulated in his will that his estate be divided among his children when Charles reached the age of twenty-one. This occurred about 1845, and closely coincided with the conclusion of Seymour’s apprenticeship and the death of his guardian, providing him with the freedom and means to pursue an artistic career. An influential friend by the name of Müller asked him if he wanted to study at the Royal Academy in London, but Guy preferred to study on his own at the British Museum. The next day Müller provided him with the necessary permit to set up his easel and copy paintings in the galleries, an opportunity Guy would later recall with great gratitude.4

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by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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