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Horatio Shaw: The Farmer-artist Of Michigan

July 2024
6min read

The paintings of an almost obscure Michigan farmer-artist named Horatio Shaw (1847-1918) are one of the treasures that have recently been unearthed by the Bicentennial Inventory of American Paintings Executed Before 1914, an ambitious federally sponsored project to compile for students, scholars, and researchers data on all American paintings up to World War I. Shaw lived and painted at a time when native American art—amateur and professional—was flourishing, and though he had academic training, the spirit that permeates his oils is that of rustic simplicity. No better description of the man and his art can be found than that written by his nephew, Wilfred B. Shaw, on the occasion of a brief exhibition sponsored by the Ann Arbor Art Association in 1940, and it is with the association’s kind permission that we reprint it here.

Something indomitable in my father’s brother, Horatio W. Shaw, drove him, some fifteen years after the end of the Civil War, to take up the study of painting under Thomas Eakins in Philadelphia. In this urge toward a career as an artist he was, of course, no different from many others who have recognized within themselves an inescapable impulse to creative expression; it was the environment of his youth and young manhood, the ties he was forced to sever, that made his decision so remarkable. A childhood on a farm in southern Michigan during the sixties, and a later period as a clerk and owner of a hardware store on the Kansas frontier, could have offered small encouragement to a young man who looked to a career in art. Moreover, he was over thirty years old at the time, no longer in his first youth, and faced the necessity of leaving a wife and child with his parents in Michigan.


When we consider the precise period in American culture covered by his life, particularly the inevitable narrowness of the pioneer environment of his boyhood and the later years in the West, the decision he made becomes almost heroic, although he would have been the last person in the world to consider it in those terms. Just what were the reasons which led Shaw to choose the Philadelphia Academy I do not know: perhaps it was simply that it was the leading art school, almost the only one, of his time.

His career under Eakins as revealed in his letters home was a period of intense and single-minded effort. He confessed at first to loneliness and discouragement, but later small successes and contacts with Philadelphia’s famous Sketch Club brought more interest and stimulation. Eakins proved a severe taskmaster, and his least word of praise was treasured. Shaw studied literally all the time. He even made sketches at night of his roommate in order to acquire a freer technique. He visited galleries and art sales and commented shrewdly in his letters to his wife on the technical qualities of the pictures he saw. Of his associates we get glimpses now and then—A. B. Frost, who also suffered from Eakins’ caustic methods, Percy Ives, and Frank Stephens, who wrote him letters of encouragement after he left the Academy.


As I look back over many happy boyhood summer days spent on my grandfather’s old farm, I have come to recognize the qualities that made “Uncle ‘Ratio,” as I always knew him, the rare spirit that he was. From the time of his return to Michigan in 1882, to enter cheerfully upon a unique career of forty years of lonely effort, the life of Horatio Shaw, outwardly at least, became that of a southern Michigan farmer on a prosperous 200-acre farm. Only in spare moments could he give play to his burning impulse to paint. This fact, perhaps, governed to some degree his method. Rarely did he paint the thing as he saw it; rather, he stored up pictures in his mind as he worked and wandered over the fields and woodlots, and then returned to paint these impressions. Thus, his pictures are sublimations of the countryside around him, as well as evocations of his own spirit.

As far as externals go, his life can be told in a few words. He was born February 18, 1847, in Dover Township, Lenawee County, six miles west of Adrian. When he was about eighteen years of age he began a business career as a clerk in Adrian, but in 1869 he left for the West and eventually became proprietor of a hardware store in White Cloud, Kansas. It was not until some ten years later that he broke with his past, sold his store, enrolled in the Philadelphia Academy, and entered upon what was to be his life career as a farmer-painter. After his return to Michigan in 1882, however, his first task was to assist his father in the management of the farm, with only spare time for painting. The farm eventually came into his possession, and he lived there until his death, June 28, 1918.


Horatio Shaw’s father, Brackley Shaw, whose Yankee forebears carried back to 1631, was one of that courageous band of early settlers who came to Michigan from New York over the old Erie Canal. An early painting by my uncle was a re-creation, from his father’s and mother’s memories, of their first log cabin set in a clearing in the wilderness [at left]. On the back of this picture is scratched a quotation from my grandfather: “Packed our earthly possessions and wormed our way through cottonwood swamp aug. 25 with a yoke of oxen, as horses were useless. Built our first cabin with stick chimney and bark roof. … Those were happy days. Would like to live them over, but wife says no.”

Life, however, moved rapidly for the men of that era who had energy and vision. By the time the son was a young man, Brackley Shaw was serving in the Michigan Legislature, and, later, became a member of the State Senate.

This was the background from which Horatio Shaw sprang; it was solid and substantial for the period, though it afforded little opportunity for formal schooling beyond what the district school could offer. Yet somewhere in my uncle’s formative years an authentic creative spirit in art was aroused. I like to feel that it was the encouragement of his mother, one of those fine and heroic women who were ready and able to form homes for their men in the wilderness. The one she made eventually revealed a creative clement in her own spirit. Upon the substantial country house which came to stand on the old farm she lavished all the available resources of the landscape art of the period; ornamental planting and shrubbery were everywhere, with long, flower-bordered gravel walks she tended herself; there was even a decorative mound topped by an urn in which gay plants were set. In later years, her son was to paint this home, including every flower and architectural feature, with loving and meticulous detail.


While the task of managing the farm devolved more and more upon my uncle, it must be said that it was inevitably a secondary interest for him, except, perhaps, in one aspect—his sheep. He was a born shepherd, and, as many of his paintings show, he loved his flocks. His rural associates undoubtedly thought him queer—spending his time painting when there were more important things to be done; but—and here his transplanted New England ancestry crops out—he was a nonconformist. He did more or less as he pleased and adhered to the principles upon which he had built his life.

He was never crabbed and misanthropic, despite the pressure of life that had hedged him in. It only gave a gentle and mellow satirical twist to his philosophical outlook on life. His was a keen, if uncultivated, intelligence, always governed and enriched by a humble but compelling appreciation of the beautiful and a never-ending effort to express it. It was characteristic of him, too, that in the difficulties of a double ménage over which his mother and his wife shared responsibilities he always spoke of his mother as “number one” and his wife as “number two.” I can still hear him say: “Well, you’d better go and talk to number one about that.” That he had solved all the problems incident to such a situation is perhaps too much to expect; but there was sanity and humor in his solution.

All of his work was done in a picturesque little studio he called his “Shanty,” built by himself in the orchard which then stood behind the house. It was heated by a Franklin stove, if I remember rightly, and one half was unfloored, so that he could introduce through a side door the only models he used—his sheep. The fragrance of that place still lingers in my memory—a sharp overtone of paint and turpentine, blended with the odors of wood smoke and sheep, as well as a hint drifting in of the woodsy smell of the orchard outside.


We cannot consider Horatio Shaw as an artist aside from his vocation as a farmer. Both activities represent essential aspects of his whole life. Only very rarely did he leave the farm. He sometimes visited the annual art exhibition in Detroit and returned with new inspiration, which, however, seemingly affected only incidentally the texture of his own work. He knew little of the European masters, ancient or modern; opportunities in America to study them were very few for even the most fortunate students of his era. It is probable that, outside of the encouragement received from Eakins, he was most influenced by the few pictures he saw of George lnness. He was thus authentically representative of his American period and environment, the Middle West of the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

Several different methods characterize his work—he was apparently always experimenting. Despite his studies in Philadelphia, and his approval, expressed in his letters, of the more modern artists of his day, he often painted, especially in the first years after his return, in a meticulous, almost naive style. The painting of his father’s log cabin, already mentioned, is an example. But at the same time there are other pictures of about the same period which are executed in a more summary manner, with a broader, less detailed handling.

No public recognition came to him, beyond a picture shown occasionally at the Pennsylvania Academy or at the Detroit Institute of Art, and few, very few, sales relieved the long discouragement. His only satisfaction and his true reward came from within.

Whatever limitations the critic may find in the work of Horatio W. Shaw, one must acknowledge a certain honesty and directness in everything he did. His field may have been prescribed but he cultivated it not only with an essential sincerity and simplicity, but also with a certain pervasive poetry that give it character and charm.



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