I was looking at the website of a person who had commented on one of my blogs and I was fascinated by a painting he had posted. I had to find out more about it and the artist who had painted it. The title of the work is At the Opera and the creator of the work was the nineteenth century English-born, American genre painter, Seymour Joseph Guy. Genre paintings are works, which depict one or more persons going about their every day life. They could be scenes in the kitchen, at the market or in a tavern and they are nearly always realistic depictions, lacking any sense of idealisation. They are “warts and all” depictions of life. Seymour Joseph Guy’s later works, which were often quite small “cabinet pieces”, concentrated mainly on depictions of children. His works were meticulous in detail.
Seymour Joseph Guy was born in 1824 in England, in the south London borough of Greenwich. His father was Frederick Bennett Guy who owned an inn as well as a number of commercial properties. His mother was Jane Delver Wilson. Seymour had an elder brother, Frederick Bennett Guy Jnr. and a younger brother, Charles Henry. When Seymour was five years old, his mother died and he and his brothers were brought up by their father. Four years later their father died and the executors of their late father’s will were John Locke who was the owner of the inn called the Spanish Galleon and a local cheese merchant and friend of Seymour’s father, John Hughes. It is the thought that the three orphaned boys came under the legal guardianship of one of these gentlemen. Seymour’s schooling was at a local school in Surrey and it was during these early informative years that he took an interest in art and he liked to spend time drawing dogs and horses. He enjoyed drawing so much that, when he was thirteen years old, he made it known that he would like to become an artist, or maybe a civil engineer. This choice of career did not go down well with his guardian who actively discouraged the teenager, going as far as stopping his pocket money so he couldn’t buy any pencils and sketchbooks and that he believed would force his charge to abandon his artistic plans. Seymour was not to be put off and despite his lack of pocket money; he managed to earn enough to buy his own drawing materials by becoming a part time sign-painter.
Seymour Guy continued with his ambition to become a painter and in his late teenage years received some artistic tuition from Thomas Butterworth. Butterworth, who had served as a seaman in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic wars period, lived in Greenwich and was a marine painter. His guardian decided that a good career for Seymour, and in line with his artistic ambitions, would be to become an engraver. However the cost of an apprenticeship to learn the engraving trade was prohibitive and this proposed profession had to be abandoned and instead his guardian arranged for Seymour to begin a seven-year apprenticeship at an oil and colour firm which oversaw the making of pigments, preparing binders, as well as combining the two skills in order to make paint either by hand-grinding them or using a steam driven machine. This was a valuable experience for Seymour as he learnt the intricacies and expertise of mixing various pigments which he would himself use in the future for his own paintings.
In 1845 Seymour’s legal guardian died. It was also a time, when having reached the age of twenty-one, the brothers’ late father’s estate was split between them. In Seymour’s case this also coincided with the end of his seven-year apprenticeship at the colour factory. Seymour Guy was twenty-one years of age and now had sufficient money to pursue his dream of becoming a professional painter. A friend offered to sponsor him to enable his entrance to the Royal Academy but instead he decided to work on his own and so he obtained a copying permit and took his easel and brushes to the British Museum where he copied some of the works of art. Understanding that working alone was not the answer to learning about art he also enrolled at the studio of the portrait and historical painter, Ambrosini Jerome, who had received a number of commissions from the English royal family. Seymour Guy was to work with Jerome for the next four years.
In 1852, aged twenty-eight, Seymour married Anna Maria Barber, who was the daughter of William Barber, an engraver. The couple went on to have nine children, many of whom were used by Seymour as models for his genre paintings. Two years later in 1854, Seymour moved his family from London to New York and settled in Brooklyn. Here he set up his studio in Brooklyn Heights, played a leading role in the art life of the city and founded the Sketch Club and it was during these early times in Brooklyn that he met and became a close friend of another genre painter, John George Brown. Brown who was also English-born had left his home in Durham and immigrated to America in 1853. This close bond of friendship probably stemmed from them both being English born, and both genre painters who liked to concentrate on small-scale works which gave them the opportunity to demonstrate their intricate minute workmanship. In those early days in Brooklyn Seymour Guy also completed a number of portraits of leading local figures.
In 1861, the two friends, Seymour Guy and John Brown, decided to move their studios from Brooklyn to the more fashionable Manhattan. Seymour Guy had his studio on Broadway whilst John Brown moved into the Tenth Street Studio Building. Two years later Guy decided to leave his Broadway studio and move into the Tenth Street Studio Building. The Tenth Street Building, which was on 51 West 10th Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenue, was constructed in 1857 and was the first modern facility designed exclusively to the needs of artists. Soon it became the hub of the New York art world and would remain so for the rest of the nineteenth century. It was to be the home for many famous American artists including Winslow Homer, Frederic Edwin Church, William Merritt Chase and Albert Bierstadt.
The genre work of John Brown with its depiction of young children in rural settings influenced Seymour Guy for around about 1861 he too started to produce similar depictions. Around this time, the two artists made a number of ferry trips across the East River, to escape the manic setting of the big city, to the tranquil setting of Fort Lee in New Jersey. The two artists liked the peace and quiet so much that they decided to quit Manhattan and move home to the New Jersey countryside. Brown went in 1864 and Seymour Guy followed with his family two years later. Seymour Guy and his family lived the quiet existence in the country for seven years until in 1873 when they moved back to Manhattan where they remained for the rest of their life.
Seymour Joseph Guy died in 1910, aged 86, by which time his art was out of vogue and he was almost completely forgotten as an artist. During that first decade of the twentieth century Guy’s health had begun to fail and his role as an artist seemed simply to have acted as an elder statesman to younger artists who sought out his vast knowledge about the art and the craft of painting. One of the most complimentary eulogies to him following his death appeared in the Century Association’s annual journal, which stated:
“…He is remembered with deep affection by artists who came to him as to an older man of recognized position. He was most genial, cordial, and ready to place himself and the methods of his art at their disposal, rejoicing in their companionship and keeping himself young through participation in their pursuits. For twenty-two years he was of the rare artistic fellowship of The Century, though of late years, through the infirmities of age, seldom here…”
In 1866 Seymour Guy completed a painting entitled The Contest for the Bouquet: The Family of Robert Gordon in Their New York Dining-Room, which is a combination of a group portrait and a genre work. It is a conversation piece sometimes referred to as a narrative painting. Seymour had received the commission from the head of the family, Robert Gordon, a British-born financier and an avid collector of American art, who was also a founding trustee of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. The commission was for the portrait of Gordon’s wife, Frances, and four of their children. In this charming family portrayal we see the three older children of Robert Gordon playfully fighting to gain hold of a small floral corsage. The elder boy, who is by far the tallest, holds the flowers aloft out of the reach of his sister whilst his brother stands on a chair to help him reach the “prize”. To the right we can see the youngest child sitting on her mother’s lap, clinging to her, in order to avoid her three siblings. The setting is the family dining room and appears to be around breakfast time as the three older children are already dressed in their school clothes.
The final two paintings I am featuring were set in the same room. The painting The Story of Golden Locks by Seymour Guy was completed around 1870 and in it we see a young girl reading the story of Goldilocks to two young boys, probably her brothers. The storyteller is very animated and for the two young listeners it has probably turned the story telling into a somewhat nightmarish tale. Look at their faces. They are wide-eyed, unsure whether they want to hear more. Maybe the frightening shadow of the girl’s head on the curtain above their bed has added to their trepidation. On the chair next to the bed is the girl’s doll which lies in a drawer and this is thought to allude to the fact that the storyteller has finished with children’s toys and is transitioning between childhood and womanhood.
My final selected work by Seymour Guy was completed in 1867 and is entitled Making a Train. There is an innocence about this painting although I am sure its content, the semi-nudity of a female child, would be criticised as being too salacious if it had been exhibited now. In the same attic room as the setting for the previous work we see a young girl standing by her bed with a dress which has been lowered so that it drags along the ground like the train of a ball gown. She looks over her shoulder to see the finished effect. The painting is lit up by the light from an oil lamp which sits on a book on a wooden chair, to the right of the picture. Once again Guy is depicting this young girl as moving from childhood to womanhood. In the cabinet to the left of the picture we see a doll which has been put away. This is the end of the era of playing with toys. Now the interest is in fine clothing. Her small breasts are both an evocation of her child-like innocence but also the start of her journey towards being a young woman. In an era when realist painters liked to portray children as often sickly, dirty and poor street urchins many would have found favour with this work which depicts the young, clean, and healthy girl enjoying dressing-up. It is thought that Seymour Guy’s daughter Anna modelled for this work.
For a further and much more detailed look at the life of Seymour Joseph Guy have a look at the website below, from which I got most of my information:
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