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

Guy decided to supplement his experience at the museum by joining the studio of the painter Ambrosini Jerôme (1810–1883). For a period of probably four years, he spent four days a week on his own and three days with Jerôme, who worked as a portrait, mythological, historical, and genre painter, and in the mid-1840s served as portrait painter to Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld (1786–1861), the Duchess of Kent and mother of Queen Victoria (r. 1837–1901). Under Jerôme’s tutelage, Guy focused on whatever brought in money—portraiture, designs for naval basins, “effects” for architects, and plans for ships in isometrical perspective. Guy had probably accrued knowledge of naval vessels while studying under Buttersworth, who had served in the Royal Navy.

In 1851 Guy exhibited Cupid in Search of Psyche (whereabouts unknown) at the British Institution. A small related version or sketch for the picture shows Cupid sitting on a shell that is propelled by a sail (Fig. 2). The picture foreshadows Guy’s later interest in depicting children, as well as his occasional enthusiasm for mythological and nude subjects. According to the National Cyclopaedia of American Biography, before leaving England Guy painted “many copies of old masters and painted portraits with much success in London.”5 In 1852 he married Anna Maria Barber (c. 1832–1907), daughter of William Barber, an engraver. The couple had nine children6 who undoubtedly served as models for their father.

In 1854 Guy and his family immigrated to New York, settling in Brooklyn. He briefly became a prominent figure in the art life of the city. For several years he had a studio in the Dodworth Building on Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights, which housed the studios of a number of the city’s leading artists. In 1857 he became a founding member of the Sketch Club there, and at that time may have first come into contact with the English-born genre painter John George Brown (1831–1913), with whom he would form a close friendship.7 For many years the two were virtually inseparable. Guy and Brown were probably initially drawn together by their English background and training and their shared penchant for minute workmanship and careful finish. During their years together in Brooklyn, Guy and Brown gravitated toward artists and collectors of British heritage. They formed close friendships with the Scottish-born collector and amateur artist John M. Falconer (1820–1903) and the English-born collector and restaurateur John Campion Force (1810–1875). During this period Guy painted several portraits, including one in 1859 of Benjamin G. Edmonds (1821–1895) (New-York Historical Society, New York), Captain of the Thirteenth Regiment of the New York State Militia headquartered in Brooklyn, which he considered to be among his finest.8

In 1861 Guy and Brown headed across the East River to the artistic shores of Manhattan. Guy took a studio at the other Dodworth Building on Broadway, and Brown moved into the Tenth Street Studio Building. In 1863 Guy followed Brown into the now legendary three-story brick structure, which opened in 1857 and over the course of the next decade became the bastion of the American artistic establishment.

Among the many prominent artists to reside there during the course of Guy’s forty-seven year occupancy were Sanford Robinson Gifford, Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Edwin Church, and William Merritt Chase.9

Guy began to paint genre scenes of children about 1861, taking his cue from Brown, who started to picture children in rustic country settings by 1859. It is likely that the two artists made frequent visits together to Fort Lee, New Jersey, in the early 1860s, and that it was while there that Guy’s art moved in this new direction. Fort Lee, which was quickly and easily reachable by ferry, remained an agrarian outpost of New York City until the 1920s. Brown settled in the town in 1864, and Guy and his family moved there from Brooklyn two years later.10 In 1873 Guy and his family returned to New York, where he remained for the rest of his life, inhabiting a series of different residences in the vicinity of East 120th Street in Manhattan.

The majority of Guy’s genre scenes from 1861 to 1866 feature children playing in a country setting in summertime. A typical example is Open Your Mouth and Shut Your Eyes (Fig. 1), which is probably the work exhibited under the title Close Your Eyes at the Artists’ Fund Society in New York in late 1863. Several of Guy’s pictures of the period center on the interaction of a brother and sister, in which the sister is portrayed in the act of garnering her brother’s attention. As is typical of his genre paintings, the surface of the picture is marked by a smooth, glossy, enamel-like surface. Colors are carefully blended and fused, and brushstrokes are invisible. Guy’s early genre scenes typically include a picket fence, which spans the width of the background and creates a physical enclosure, which helps to convey a sense of intimacy, safety, and distance from the regular cares of the world. Also, small objects or pieces of furniture frequently appear in the right foreground of his scenes, such as the steps seen in Figure 1, which help to lead the viewer into the composition.

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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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