Horatio Shaw: The Farmer-artist Of Michigan


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.