DescriptionThe Hon. Paul H. Buchanan, Jr. Collection
WILLIAM WILSON COWELL (American, 1819-1898)
Incoming Tide, 1877
Oil on canvas
18 x 30 inches (45.7 x 76.2 cm)
Initialed and dated lower left: WWCowell 1877
James S. Earle Auction and Galleries, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania;
Mr. and Mrs. Milton M. Sacks, Framingham, Massachusetts;
Purchased from D. Wigmore Fine Art, New York, March 14, 1984 (label verso).
Another of Judge Buchanan's "little masterpieces" of nineteenth-century American painting is this radiant coastal scene by marine specialist, William Wilson Cowell, whose works are quite rare. Though little is known about Cowell's life, the shape of his artistic career and his movements around the northeastern United States and the Great Lakes region can be reconstructed to some extent from his vital exhibition history and from the topographical details in his work. Since his seascapes are frequently dated, we can convincingly place the highpoint of his painterly activity during the 1860s and 1870s, toward the end of which he produced his accomplished Incoming Tide.
There are conflicting accounts of Cowell's birthplace. While some sources identify it as Boston, Massachusetts, others claim it was New York City. The confusion doubtless stems from the itinerant nature of his upbringing: his father, Joseph Leathley Cowell (1792-1863), was a British-born actor and self-taught painter from Torquay, who shuttled his young family back and forth across the Atlantic for several years in pursuit of theatrical opportunities. Before becoming an actor, Joseph Cowell had taken up portrait painting while serving in the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, but gave it up for the stage in 1812. He made his American theatrical debut in New York City the year William Wilson Cowell was born, although his success in low comedy parts took him to other cities along the eastern seaboard as well, including Boston, Charleston, Philadelphia, and Wilmington, among others. In 1821, the actor found enough work to remain in America permanently, and chose to settle in Philadelphia which is where his son received his formative artistic education.
Although it is likely that William Cowell's first art instructor was his father, the young man sought more professional training locally at the Ludington School, and worked as an engraver in Philadelphia, quite likely for Archer, Warner and Miskey who employed many artists, though the specific firm is not recorded. He also received encouragement from John Sartain, the famous English-born engraver established in Philadelphia, who knew the Cowell family well and had mentored James Hamilton who eventually became one of the most celebrated marine painters of the period. Around 1840 Cowell traveled to Europe to study at Düsseldorf, Paris, and Florence, and though Cowell family contacts was able to prolong his European art education for several years. Upon his return to Philadelphia he seems to have settled firmly upon a decision to make marine painting his specialty. He sought training under Edward Moran, oldest of the Moran brothers and a fine sea painter, at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts as well as with landscapist John Faulkner. The specific dates of his training at the Pennsylvania Academy are untraced.
Cowell exhibited his work at both the Gallery of the Artists' Fund Society and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, and each season also sent paintings to the New York and Cincinnati Art Unions. Thanks to Clark S. Marlor's History of the Brooklyn Art Association (New York, 1970), we know that Cowell exhibited five paintings at that institution in 1869, two in March and three in December. Of this group, two of the works (Sunset Lake Erie and Twilight on Lake Superior) treat the subject of the Great Lakes, corroborating vague accounts that Cowell had spent a considerable amount of time in the Chicago area. Around the same time he also exhibited at the National Academy of Design in New York. In addition to these larger venues, Cowell regularly showed his seascapes at the Earle Gallery in Philadelphia where the present work was once exhibited in the company of other notable contemporaries active there: Thomas, Edward and Percy Moran; James Hamilton; Alexander Lawrie; William Trost Richards; Carl and Paul Webber; and Xanthus and Russel Smith. Interestingly, the distinctive pink palette of Incoming Tide has a striking affinity with the color sensibilities of the Smith brothers - so much so as to suggest a level of particular influence.
During the Civil War, Cowell served in the Union army, perhaps as an artist-war correspondent. After the war he moved to New York where he maintained a studio from 1870 to 1872, moving thereafter to Nahant, Massachusetts, and to Narragansett, Rhode Island to paint the coastline which had so inspired Kensett, LaFarge, Bricher and many other distinguished painters. Some of Cowell's paintings also record coastal views of Nova Scotia, where the artist is believed to have occasionally summered.
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