The career of Elihu Vedder, who was born in New York City in 1836 and died in Rome, Italy, in 1923, spanned some sixty-five years. He began to paint when Courbet was a name to enflame the young and raise the hackles of critics, and died when Cubism had already become academic. His work related to neither. Although he was quite aware of the various art currents of his time, he was far too concerned with his own perceptions, dreams, and inventions to stay long with any particular vogue. Living most of his life in Italy, Vedder was in many ways a truly expatriate artist; he realized early that art itself provided a homeland and to it he was a loyal citizen. For him, Italy was the closest approximation of that land to be found on earth.
Vedder has been remembered for several different accomplishments but rarely as a unified artistic personality. His extraordinary illustrations to accompany Omar Khayyám’s Rubáiyát, published in 1884, are an early and persuasive lesson in the compelling, evocative powers of a decorative style. His disarmingly simple, richly colored glimpses of the Italian landscape, however, celebrate the pleasures of direct perception. His work seems to be rooted firmly in two opposing traditions, each revolutionary in its way in the nineteenth century. Yet probably the most revolutionary aspect of Vedder was his refusal to take sides, to admit that the perceptual and visionary were at odds with each other.
Joshua C. Taylor, et al Perceptions and Evocations: The Art of Elihu Vedder (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press for the National Collection of Fine Arts, 1979)
Born in New York City, Elihu Vedder, a descendant of Dutch forebears who had settled in this land before 1657, had his early education in New York City and Long Island. He started drawing in his youth, selling his first painting at the age of nineteen. Apparently his education was sound for though Vedder never went to college, his knowledge of humanistic studies was wide; all his life he had writers, intellectuals, poets, and artists as his friends. His mother encouraged him in his wish to be an artist and early in 1851 he began lessons with a drawing master, later entering the studio of an artist in Shelburne, New York. In 1856 Vedder embarked for Europe, and later in Florence studied with a copyist and teacher, Bonaiuti, who revered antiquity and taught Vedder draftsmanship.
Vedder returned to the States a number of times, but for the rest of his life his home was Rome, where he was at the center of the comings and goings of artists and poets of many countries who came for the city itself as well as for each other’s company.
Vedder’s mother was a Universalist, holding with serene conviction that there was no judgment and no place of eternal punishment. Nonetheless, in later years Vedder remarked that “in those early days no Christian home was complete without a Hell.” Regina Soria remarked that his whole life was a struggle between faith and doubt. In his autobiographical Digressions of ‘V,’ he said of himself, “I am not a mystic, but I have a strong tendency to conjure up visions and to see in things more than meets the eye.” In reading Vedder’s letters and the family documents as well as the Digressions, his personality emerges as a compound of extroverted vigor, volatility, jocularity, and flirtatiousness, with an introverted fascination with dreams, a preoccupation with death, a tendency toward melancholia, and an appetite for the macabre.
Jane Dillenberger and Joshua C. Taylor The Hand and the Spirit: Religious Art in America 1700–1900 (Berkeley, Cal.: University Art Museum, 1972)