Saint Joseph College Gallery

West Hartford, CT



The following essay is the Introduction, by Vincenza Uccello, M.F.A., Director of Collections, Saint Joseph College Gallery, from the catalogue for the exhibition titled " Louis Michel Eilshemius, 1864-1941," held at the Gallery in April, 1999. This essay is reprinted with permission of the author and Saint Joseph College.


Louis Michel Eilshemius was an anomaly: both rich and poor, talented and deprived; his life, although free of ordinary cares, was weighted by the burden of rejection and accompanying exasperation. He was a loner, a visionary and self-contained individual. And it is these very characteristics that have secured his position as a unique and significant artist in the annals of American art. His works are now in most major museums and important collections here and abroad, including those of Saint Joseph College .

Born in 1864 of Dutch and Swiss-French ancestry, Eilshemius grew up on a 70 acre estate, Laurel Hill Manor, near Newark, New Jersey. At an early age he was sent to school in Switzerland and later attended school in Dresden for five years. While there he visited museums and began drawing. In 1881, he returned to America with the hope of studying art. But his father, who favored a business career, denied his request. As a compromise he studied agriculture at Cornell University from 1882-1884. It was during this time that he began to write poetry while continuing to draw and paint on his own. Finally, he persuaded his father to allow him to attend the Art Students League in New York. He also studied privately with Robert C. Minor. In 1886, he departed for Paris to study at the Académie Julian. On his return in 1888 his parents purchased as a winter residence a brownstone house on East 57th Street in New York City. This eventually became Eilshemius's home for the rest of his life. His father's death in 1892 gave him financial independence, which allowed him to travel extensively in the United States as well as Europe, the Pacific and North Africa.

Always drawn to the poetic aspects of nature, he found the changes in environment an inspiration for many of his works. His greatest influences were the Barbizon School of Painting, especially Corot and also the paintings of the American artists George Inness and Albert Pinkham Ryder. It was after a visit to Ryder's studio that his paintings became more decidedly romantic in expression. Still, with the exception of a few acceptances in juried exhibition, his work was poorly received by the art critics and public alike. In desperation, he reverted to calling attention to himself and his work by writing to editors of newspapers and periodicals and as a consequence became known as an "amusing eccentric". The letterhead of a letter addressed to the Rev. Andrew J. Kelly in the Saint Joseph College archives and reprinted in this catalogue is an example of his eccentricity. At first public ridicule did not hinder his creative productivity and he continued to paint and write poetry and musical compositions. He published over thirty works and it is estimated that he did over three thousand paintings. Yet, the sense of isolation and discouragement eventually did affect his mind and consequently his production.

In 1917, the French painter Marcel Duchamp saw several of Eilshemius's paintings at an exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists. He was so favorably impressed that he convinced the collector of modern art, Katherine S. Dreier, to co-sponsor an exhibition of his works. The exhibition took place in 1920 and was Eilshemius's first solo show. He was then 56 years of age. Again, the reviews were unfavorable and viewers were derisive. It was the final blow. Eilshemius abruptly ceased painting in 1921. There is only one known work of a later date, "Zeppelin in Flames over New Jersey," dated 1937.

Other efforts by galleries to show his paintings were equally unsuccessful until 1932 when the Valentine Gallery presented two exhibitions of his work entitled "Romantic Drama" and "Lyrical Poetry." Suddenly, the tide turned; the reviews were favorable and his public reputation as a significant artist was established. Duncan Phillips of Washington, D.C. purchased several paintings for his collection from these exhibitions. One work entitled The Rejected Suitor is a poignant autobiographical painting. The Metropolitan Museum of Art purchased Delaware Water Gap Village. Another exhibition held at the prestigious Durand-Ruel Galleries in Paris was enthusiastically received and the Musée du Jeu de Paume acquired The Gossips. But as Eilshemius's luck would have it, that same year he was involved in an automobile accident which confined him to his room for the rest of his life. Over the next ten years his rise to fame was eclipsed by a decrease in physical strength and mental alertness. His end came in 1941 when sick and deranged, he was taken to Bellevue Hospital where he died of pneumonia on December 29th.

The Rev. Andrew J. Kelly and Rev. John J. Kelley were early collectors of Eilshemius's paintings. Works in both collections date from as early as 1888 which is the year Eilshemius returned to this country from his study in Paris to 1919, three years before he stopped painting. Some of the works are signed "Elshemus". These works date from 1901 to 1913 when he felt it might be more advantageous to his professional image to shorten his name. A number of works are painted on board and one is painted on a paper cover possibly from one of his publications. Most of the paintings in the College's collections are of landscapes and seascapes.

Eilshemius's style of painting on the whole has perplexed art historians and critics alike because it cannot be easily categorized as belonging to any specific "ism" or art movement. The most accurate attempt has been to describe his work as romantic but not in the restrictive sense of the art movement but in the broader implications of the individualism of his expression.

The paintings in the College's collection, rendered with an economy of means, are evocations of harmony and peace ... all the more remarkable in view of the circumstances of their creation ... and as such are triumphs of the human spirit.

Read more about the Saint Joseph College Gallery in Resource Library Magazine

For further biographical information please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 6/3/11

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