On April 6, 1846, Henry Lewis, shipping a picture from St. Louis to the American Art Union, wrote on the bill of lading: "Should this picture please I should be happy to fill any order for you, in the way of views of Western Scenery." Lewis was then at the beginning of a career that might have developed into an important one as a recorder of Mississippi Valley scenes had he not been diverted presently to another field. But even in the few years he devoted to western landscapes he produced dozens of oils and also filled several sketchbooks with records of the river, which were to result in a volume containing the most extensive set of lithographic views of the Mississippi Valley published during the nineteenth century.
Born in England in 1819, Lewis had come to St. Louis in 1836 after two years spent in Boston apprenticed to a carpenter. Tradition has it that he was employed in St. Louis as a stage carpenter, and he may have had a hand in scene painting. In some way, during his earliest years in St. Louis, he learned to paint sufficiently well for the local public to take him seriously as a landscape artist by the time he was twenty-five.
He was then sharing a studio with James F. Wilkins, whose principal work at this time was in portraiture. Early in 1845 the St. Louis papers showed their first interest in the work of Lewis. The Missouri Republican, on March 25, referred to him as a "landscape painter, of more than ordinary merit." The New Era, four days later, remarked that he possessed "very considerable skill" in his chosen branch of art. The following spring the Weekly Reveille (April 27, 1846) thought him "a young artist of uncommon industry, nor of industry only, as many original pieces of undoubted merit may witness." The paragraph added that he had sent several pictures to the Art Union but gave no titles or descriptions. According to Lewis, his "first original production" was the painting which he shipped in April 1846. Of this he wrote to the Art Union on April 6:
"I send you a view of St. Louis the ‘Western Metropolis’. This view is taken from the Illinois shore, and you may rely on it being a correct one of our City as I took great pains in making the sketches and also took advantage of the Daguerotype. The foreground is to a certain extent my own Composition, but it still preserves all the characteristics of the American bottom lands on this river, and although this City now contains a population of near forty thousand souls still the opposite shore remains in all its natural wildness, its very richness and vicinity to the river rendering it very unhealthy, it is also liable to overflow. I must beg of you Gentlemen to look with a lenient Eye as possible on this my first original production and allow me for it, just what you may think the
labour spent upon it, and its merits (if it has any) will justify."
Apparently the American Art Union did not like the piece well enough to buy it, for it was not listed in the annual distribution and it seems to be mentioned in several St. Louis newspaper items in 1847. (It cannot be located.) The local popularity of Lewis, however, was increasing rapidly, to judge from press comments. The Reveille on March 8, 1847, declared his landscapes were "lifting him rapidly to a high rank in his profession . . . several of our first citizens have availed themselves of his talent to place upon canvas the semblance of their truly elegant residences near the city." The New Era, in reporting the Mechanics Fair on April 10, mentioned his view of St. Louis from the Illinois shore (which was awarded first prize) and added that he had other paintings which reflected much credit on him. During the summer of 1847 Lewis made a trip up the Mississippi as far as the Falls of St. Anthony. The Missouri Republican (December 1, 1847) reported that he had "on his easel a large number of landscapes, taken by himself during the last summer and fall, of scenes and prominent places on the upper Mississippi."
A much fuller account of this trip appeared in the same paper on May 20, 1848. In the artist's studio then were "representations" of some of the wildest, richest, and most beautiful American scenery." Specifically, there were two views of the Falls of St. Anthony, and one each of Fort Snelling, Lake St. Croix, the Falls of St. Croix, and the Gorge of the St. Croix. In addition Lewis was showing two views of Italian scenery. But, though these Italian copies were "fine paintings . . . worthy of a place in the dwelling of any gentleman who can afford to buy them," the editor held that "his paintings of American scenery are the most to be admired; they are original— sketches from nature, taken in a new, wild, and by the landscape painter, unfrequented region of country, where the wild man of the American forest had his home for untold ages, and has not yet left it.
Attracted by these wild but beautiful regions of prairie and forest, Mr. Lewis has found scenes and landscapes out-rivaling in beauty and grandeur many of the far-
famed views of Switzerland and Italy; and here, at the foot of dashing water-falls, from the tops of high bluffs, and on the shores of silvery lakes, he has sketched his beautiful paintings. To a person who has ever traversed those high latitudes, these sketches are exceedingly interesting, and to such as have not, they furnish a capital idea of the appearance of the country; for he has painted, not only the landscape, but the Indian's hut - the Indian himself - the rocky bluff - the towering hemlock - the oak barrens - the high prairie - the winding river - the steamboat and canoe - the solitary warehouse - the far distant lone tree, and the white man's cabin - and has thrown around his views a pale blue atmosphere, hard to be painted, and peculiar only to those high northern latitudes."
It was apparently during this 1847 excursion to the North that Henry Lewis determined to undertake his great panorama. In this same news story we find the first published reference to his huge moving picture of the Mississippi which was to take him entirely away from western scenes. According to the Missouri Republican:
"It seems that the rich materials of the Upper Mississippi have suggested an enterprize of some considerable magnitude, in which Mr. Lewis, with two other accomplished artists, are about to engage. His is the idea of a gigantic and continuous painting of the Mississippi river, from the Falls of St. Anthony to where it empties into the Gulf of Mexico. It is to be painted on one hundred thousand feet of canvass - and is designed to represent the geological formations along the river, the landscapes, the islands, and, in fact, a truthful view of the river and all the principal objects on its shores the whole distance. The materials for the purpose are already purchased, the sketches of the river about Prairie du Chien already taken, and from the evidences of energy, taste, and talent which Mr. Lewis has given us in the paintings alluded to ... we have reason to expect that the contemplated work will prove worthy of the Great West."
By the time this story appeared Lewis was deep in his plans for completing preliminary work on the panorama. In June he went once more up to the Falls to fill more notebooks with sketches. There, we read in the Missouri Republican of September 11, 1848, "he provided himself with two small boats, or canoes, fastened together, on which a platform was raised, and this way he leisurely floated down to this city, stopping and sketching on the route every thing of interest or beauty. Taking an exact scale for the whole length of the river, he has included in his sketch several handsome views, embracing not only the prominent objects, but including the towns, farms, Indian encampments, &c., along the entire distance. We have seen these sketches, and cheerfully unite in the opinion, expressed by pilots and other gentlemen familiar with the river, in sustaining their accuracy and fidelity. When this work shall have been transferred to canvass and perpetuated in colors, it will, a few years hence, form an interesting piece of history."
The story of the making and the exhibition of the panorama is far too long to repeat here. With the assistance of other artists he painted, at Cincinnati, a picture thirteen hundred and twenty-five yards long and four yards high. (During this time he exhibited a view of ‘Davenport and Rock Island’ at the Cincinnati Western Art Union). After a debut in Cincinnati, Lewis brought the panorama to St. Louis in September 1849, and presently set out on an extended tour which carried him through Illinois and Wisconsin to Buffalo, Rochester, Washington, to New England and Canada, and finally, in November 1851, to Europe. Eventually he sold the picture to a retired planter from Java who expected to carry it to the East Indies as a speculation to sell, but four years after the "sale" Lewis was still hoping to collect his money.
Henry Lewis never returned to live in America. A temporary stay in the art colony at Dusseldorf was extended until it became a permanent residence and henceforth his pictures with some few exceptions were views of Rhineland, Italian, and Swiss scenery. He died in 1904. But the story of his western scenes is not yet complete. In Duisseldorf in 1853 he fathered a volume entitled ‘Das Illustrirte Mississippithal’; to illustrate it he supplied seventy-eight scenes which were lithographed in color. These views of town and riverside, and Indian custom, from the Falls of St. Anthony to the Balize, form one of our most valuable pictorial records of mid-nineteenth-century America, not merely historically and graphically but monetarily as well, for the complete original edition of which probably no more than forty copies now exist.
Out of all this what remains today? A handful of early pieces and a number of others Lewis painted about 1901 in Dusseldorf from his own original sketches. The Minnesota Historical Society has by far the largest collection: oil sketches of ‘Cheever's Mill on the St. Croix’, ‘St. Croix Gorge and Rapids’, and ‘Minnehaha Falls’, all signed and dated 1848; ‘Fort Armstrong and Davenport’, ‘Iowa’; five other sketches in oil of St. Croix and Mississippi River scenery which may likewise date from the 1840's; a view of Fort Snelling obtained after long possession by a member of the Lewis family; two views of the Falls of St. Anthony, a view of St. Paul, and views of Fort Crawford at Prairie du Chien and Fort Armstrong at Rock Island, all painted about 1901 from Lewis' original sketches. The Minneapolis Institute of Arts has a pair of Lewis paintings, ‘Cheever's Mill on the St. Croix’ and ‘The Gorge of the St. Croix River’ inscribed on the back “Painted by H. Lewis, St. Louis, Mo. 1847”, which are finished versions of the sketches of the same title in the Minnesota Historical Society; also a ‘Falls of St. Anthony’ signed and dated 1855. The Minneapolis Public Library has views of the Falls of St. Anthony and of Fort Snelling, both painted around 1901. Five other pictures by Lewis were sent to St. Paul in 1902 and placed on sale, but trace of them has been lost: Stillwater, Point Douglas, Red Stone Prairie, Barn Bluff at Red Wing, and Dubuque were the subjects.
Two Lewis paintings hang in St. Louis. ‘A Street in St. Louis’, dated Dusseldorf, 1863 is now in the City Art Museum. ‘View of St. Louis from Chouteau's Pond’, in the Missouri Historical Society's collections, represents St. Louis as of 1847 or 1848 but was painted about 1901. The Society has also two Lewis sketchbooks of Upper Mississippi River scenery filled on the panorama sketching trip of 1848. A few paintings by Lewis as well as two of his sketchbooks are known to be owned by descendants of his brothers. Besides these there are the rare lithographs already mentioned.
It is to be regretted that the advice offered by the Missouri Republican on May 20, 1848, was not better heeded. "Gentlemen who fill their parlors and drawing rooms with fancy sketches, or copies of European scenes, will do well to recollect that in Mr. Lewis' paintings they may now obtain accurate sketches of the country in all its native wildness. In a few years hence these scenes will be changed and altered by the march of civilization. How pleasing will it then be, and what richer legacy could be left to the future, than the opportunity which these paintings will furnish, of contrasting the past with the present, here in our own West."
On Aug. 28, 2009, a kind reader sent us the following additional information:
I am writing to point out that I visited the St. Louis Art Museum today and saw a painting by Henry Lewis that is titled: St. Louis in 1846. This painting resembles the description quoted by Henry Lewis in your article referenced in the subject line of this note. So perhaps this is the painting that "cannot be located". The painting is currently hanging in gallery 217. Here is a link: http://saintlouis.art.museum/emuseum/html/media_singleenlarged_EN.html
I enjoyed your article very much and learned more than a few things from it. Thank you.
Kind Regards, Chris H.