GARRISON, N.Y.—Since its establishment at West Point, high above the Hudson River, in 1802, the United States Military Academy has included artistic studies as a core element of its curriculum. After the Revolutionary War, military figures and statesmen, such as George Washington, Henry Knox, Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, saw the need for an institution devoted to the arts and science of warfare. A moving force was the elimination of the new republic’s reliance on foreign engineers in times of war. War required drawings to accurately record battles and battlefields, troop movements and other events. What better place to acquire that skill than at the military academy? The solution was found in Robert Walter Weir, artist, instructor and later professor of drawing at West Point for 42 years.
The exhibition “Robert W. Weir and the Poetry of Art” illuminates the career of the man born in New York City in 1803 whose example and instruction influenced so many in so many ways. A group of 37 paintings, drawings and prints by Weir has made a voyage from the West Point Museum directly across the Hudson to Boscobel House and Gardens. Many of those paintings were made during his tenure at West Point; many have never been seen publicly until now. An exploration of these works reveals a man who believed in and acted on his belief of the interrelation of art, poetry and science. That the environment may have been perceived popularly as militaristic, the exhibit illustrates that essential interrelation in the military arts.
Highly talented and largely self-taught, Weir’s early efforts were well received, spurring a group of New York and Philadelphia businessmen to sponsor the 21-year-old for studies in Italy where he trained with Florentine painter and director of the Academy of Fine Arts Pietro Benvenuti. He also spent two years in Rome sketching and copying the architecture, paintings and frescoes he observed. By 1828, he had returned to New York and opened a studio there; in 1831, he was elected an academician at the National Academy of Design.
In 1834, succeeding a series of drawing instructors not overly well regarded, the 31-year-old Weir was appointed instructor of drawing at West Point, becoming a full professor in 1846. He was to remain there for 42 years, during which time he taught 1,855 cadets, including James McNeil Whistler and Seth Eastman, among other art luminaries. Other cadets who passed through the academy during his time there included Thomas J (Stonewall) Jackson, George Edward Pickett, Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman and George Armstrong Custer. Robert E. Lee was superintendent for a period.
Cadets were taught basic drawing skills, learning topography and landscape, perspective and measurement in order to sketch accurately in the field. Map-making was another essential skill, as was the ability to make engineering and architectural drawings. West Point graduates played a major role in the construction of railway lines, bridges, harbors and roads for the first half of the Nineteenth Century. Weir additionally introduced European academic art education methods he acquired in Europe, teaching copying original works, engravings and prints and copying plaster casts and copies of small sculptural pieces.
Throughout his teaching career, Weir continued to paint. That his paintings have now ventured across the Hudson to Boscobel is a resumption of the Nineteenth Century social intercourse among what preservationist James Marston Fitch described as “riverine gentry.” Hudson River landowners, professors, artists, officers and clergy enjoyed busy social lives by means of ferries back and forth across the river. Boscobel, the 1808 home of the Dyckman family, was located originally downstream in Montrose. Only in the mid-Twentieth Century was it moved to Garrison, across from West Point, and restored. Set on a bluff, Boscobel enjoys a direct view of West Point.
The works on view present the broad sweep of Weir’s career. The earliest is the 1825 pen and ink portrait of an Italian nobleman. It is an example of the artist’s habit of always having art supplies at the ready wherever he found himself. He was a serious student of the world and how the masters rendered it. Accordingly, as a quintessential observer and a self-taught artist, he spent much of his time in Italy looking at great art and architecture, sketching and painting it. The date of the portrait indicates that the image was made in Florence and the subject is an unknown actor. In 1826, Weir made a watercolor image of one of the wise men in Pietro Perugino’s 1497 fresco “Prudence and Justice with Six Antique Wisemen” at Perugia. “Prophet after Pietro Perugino” is another example of his painting after the masters.
Weir’s portraits of military officers are impressive. His oil on canvas “Portrait of Sylvanus Thayer” dates from about 1834, just after Thayer resigned as superintendent of the US Military Academy. Thayer had been appointed to the post in 1817 by President James Monroe and departed after a disagreement with President Andrew Jackson. His impact on the academy was profound: he standardized the education and training of cadets, established academics, introduced regimented military discipline and training and formulated ethical codes. He incorporated military and engineering subjects, arts, sciences, languages, philosophy and ethics into the curriculum.
Weir’s portrait of Thayer reflects the influence of Thomas Sully, 11 of whose portraits were in the collection at West Point. Another portrait with Sully influences is the 1847 oil on canvas of Major General Joseph Totten, an 1805 graduate of the academy whose army career spanned six decades. The painting was made on the occasion of Totten’s promotion to brevet brigadier general.
An oil on canvas portrait of Dennis Hart Mahan, a graduate in the class of 1824, was made in about 1871. Still a student, Mahan was appointed acting assistant professor of mathematics and was later chair of the engineering department, and he taught military science and wrote eight books on military strategies that were used in military academies around the world.
Weir’s best known work is not on view; instead, it hangs permanently with seven other paintings of historical American events in the US Capitol Rotunda. “Embarkation of the Pilgrims [from Delft Haven, Holland on July 22, 1620]” was commissioned from Weir in 1836. Weir worked on the picture for more than seven years, giving the work deep moral and religious significance, with a white Bible at its center and a prayer gathering led by John Robinson with Governor Carver, William Bradford and Miles Standish and their families. The ship is the Speedwell, the vessel that transported the Pilgrims from Delft Haven to Southampton to meet the Mayflower and the two ships set sail. The unseaworthy condition of the Speedwell caused it to be abandoned at Plymouth.
Deeply religious, Weir was said to have been the most active painter of theological scenes in the Nineteenth Century. Not only did he paint, he also designed. The Church of the Holy Innocents, just outside the main gate of West Point and established in 1841, was designed by Weir and consecrated in 1847. It was funded largely by Weir’s income from “The Embarkation of the Pilgrims.” The funeral service for Weir’s wife Louisa Ferguson Weir was the first conducted in the church at her death in 1845 at 38 after the birth of her ninth child.
Weir made several images of the church, which are on view: a charcoal study from about 1848, a circa 1852 engraving and a circa 1848 oil on canvas. The painting is the second likeness of the church; the first may have been a gift. It may be an homage to his late wife Louisa and his second wife, Susan Bayard, whom he married in July 1846, as it depicts two women and his ten living children. He ultimately had 16 children, nine by Louisa and seven by Susan. Two became well-known artists, John Ferguson Weir and J. Alden Weir.
Weir painted his family often, drawing on them for portraits and genre scenes. “Weir Family Interior” dates from about 1874 and is a scene of everyday life that was popular in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century. Such scenes relate also to wall murals in ancient Roman villas. The example on view portrays a family event, with some of Weir’s children and their spouses and his grandchildren, some 17 people in all. He may be the figure seated in a chair by the fireplace.
Weir retired in 1876 to Castle Point in Hoboken, N.J., still overlooking the Hudson River, and maintained a studio in New York City. He died in 1889.
“Robert W. Weir and the Poetry of Art” remains on view at Boscobel House and Gardens through November 30. Boscobel is on Route 9D. Open April through October, daily except Tuesday, 9:30 am to 5 pm; November and December 9:30 am to 4 pm. For information, www.Boscobel.org or 845-265-3638.