Thursday, May 6, 2010

Montgomery Livingston, the Forgotten Painter

Given Clermont's proximity to the Hudson River School havens at Olana and Cedar Grove, it is no wonder that many visitors who enter the library at Clermont point eagerly to the big paintings at each end of the room and ask "are those Hudson River School?" The large works' peaceful, pastoral settings and and reverent feel for nature give them a similar look to familiar works by Thomas Cole or Frederic Church.

The two paintings in our library, and several others displayed or stored in the house, were produced in the early 19th century by Montgomery Livingston. Montgomery (pictured at right) was the son of Margaret Maria Livingston and Robert L. Livingston. Montgomery (pictured at right) was the son of Margaret Maria Livingston (the Chancellor's youger daughter) and Robert L. Livingston. Montgomery was born in 1816, and grew up at Arryl House as one of eight children.

In 1830, Montgomery was among the many lucky well-to-do young American men who was packed off to get cultured in Europe. He based himself in Geneva, where he focused on drawing, painting, and lithography. The painting shown above is one of these that he generated in Switzerland, showing cows grazing in a broad, shallow river with a small farm house watching over the scene.

Montgomery was by no means rooted in Switzerland however, and his letters show him gallavanting around a bit:

"Here I am in Dresden, but I think of leaving as soon as ___. HWL has made me a delightful offer to return to Paris and from there accompany him to Florence where he intends spending the summer." ---March 4, 1837

It was around the time of this letter that money began to be Montgomery's problem, as it was to be for the rest of his life. Soon after, the Panic of 1837 struck America by this time, and the banking crisis made finances were just as messy at home. The letter above ends with the following:

"One thing which I chall want very much will be money before the end of this year for I am afraid I shall get out before my next years letter of credit reaches me..."

In April and May he wrote home again, asking his father for money. With the banks no longer paying out silver, Robert L. first recommended that his son cultivate relationships with friends who could assist him and then that his son simply come home. Nevertheless, Robert L. still supported Montgomery and wanted him to "pursue his own inclinations." Montgomery managed to stay on in Europe for a little while longer before returning home that winter.

At home in New York, Montgomery continued to paint and draw, and he exhibited his work at the national Academy of Design. He soon married a woman named Mary Colden Swartout (shown here in her elder years).
Money continued to be a problem as the panic of 1837 degenerated into an econimic depression, and in January of 1840, a note was anxiously scrawled to his father:
"Times are very hard here no money to be had. I wish you would lend me $200 as soon as convenient for I am very hard pushed for money."
A note on the envelope, probably written by his father, indicated "Montgomery/ sent him $100."
Eventually, Montgomery moved to Arryl House in 1843 when his father passed away. There he set up a studio and lithography equipment in the house so that he could continue his artwork.
He maintained a low profile overall, staying out of politics or the turmoil over the Livingston landholdings in the Catskills. He solved his money problems by selling off pieces of the land holdings his father had left to him whenever his cash supply ran low (according to the family story, he kept this cash in a top hat under his bed).

With a dependable source of money at his back, Montgomery could continue to focus his energies on artwork without the pressure of having to look for buyers. A number of small sketchees like the one below remain in Clermont's collections. These appear to be images of the nearby lanscape; this one has always been thought to be a tenant's farmhouse. Images of the Catskills painted from Montgomery's front yard also figure prominently among these.

He died, as did several of his siblings, at a young age in 1855. With no children, his paintings were passed onto his family members, and his house (Arryl House) and belongings were auctioned off with the profits going to his surviving siblings. His widow walked across the green rolling sheep fold to marry his widower cousin Clermont Livingston (John Henry's father).

Montgomery Livingston is considered by some critics to be a member of the Hudson River School of artists. Others do not include him. Either way, he certainly added color to the palette of Livingstons who inhabited the Chancellor's estate at Clermont.

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