- Historic Sites
Horatio Shaw: The Farmer-artist Of Michigan
August 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 5
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.