First Artist in America

First Artist in America

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John Vanderlyn “ pronounced to be the first painter that now is or ever has been in America.” ~ Aaron Burr, 1802

“The First Artist in America” is the story of John Vanderlyn, the celebrated artist who portrayed seven American presidents, rose to fame as a 19th century neoclassical history painter, and died penniless and alone in his hometown of Kingston, New York.

As the protégé of Aaron Burr, John Vanderlyn was the first American artist to study in France where he began his pursuit of history painting. His self portrait was the first painting by an American artist shown in the Paris Salon. Vanderlyn’s Marius Amid the Ruins of Carthage won a gold medal from Napoleon at the Paris Salon of 1808. His 1814 classical nude Ariadne Abandoned and Asleep on the Island of Naxos caused a scandal when shown in New York, requiring separate showings for men and women. In 1818 Vanderlyn opened the first American art gallery—the Rotunda—in New York City, exhibiting 360° panoramas, his history paintings and portraits of notables like presidents Madison and Monroe.

By 1829 Vanderlyn had lost his lease for the Rotunda, and he never recovered from the financial loss. He scrambled for portrait commissions and traveled west to New Orleans, north to Montreal, and to Havana, Cuba exhibiting his 125 foot Panorama of Versailles—now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Beginning in the mid 1830's, Vanderlyn returned to Paris for nearly ten years. With the help of French artists he worked on his Landing of Columbus, which was mounted in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda in 1847. This proved to be his final large history painting.

John Vanderlyn was born in Kingston, New York on October 18, 1775, and died in Kingston on September 23, 1852.

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