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Virginia Landscape, circa 1835
Joshua Shaw (1776 – 1860)

View Artist Bio
Oil on canvas
18 7/8 x 26 inches
Status: Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Texas

This oil painting is part of the fascinating history and rediscovery of Joshua Shaw, an intrepid artist, author, traveler, and inventor. Along with other scenic views of early America, it establishes Shaw as an important precursor to Thomas Cole and the Hudson River School, and significantly broadens our understanding of early landscape art in the South.

Born in rural Bellingborough, Lincolnshire, Shaw was orphaned at age seven and for years led a difficult existence with little formal education and various jobs. Early apprenticeships to commercial painters helped him acquire technical skills and a reputation for artistic talent. He went to London in 1802 and began exhibiting his work at the Royal Academy. Dissatisfied with his critical reception there, Shaw departed for Bath around 1804 or 1805. For the next seven years, he based himself at this fashionable resort city while traveling extensively through the countryside, painting portraits and landscapes. Refining his talents in the modish picturesque British landscape tradition, he achieved noteworthy early success.

During his rising career, he had befriended Benjamin West, the celebrated Pennsylvania-born expatriate artist and director of London's Royal Academy. When Shaw decided to immigrate to America in 1817, West gave him letters of introduction. In 1818, he began traveling to create sketches and narrative descriptions for his project, Picturesque Views of American Scenery, (1819-1821), the earliest, most comprehensive aquatint portfolio of landscapes, rivers, and landmarks in the United States. Produced in collaboration with the master engraver John Hill, the prints reveal that Shaw's sketching tours took him throughout the eastern seaboard states from New York to Georgia, and possibly as far inland as the St. Anthony Falls on the Mississippi in Minnesota.

In the Artists' Fund Society of Philadelphia's 1835 exhibition catalogue, Shaw announced a forthcoming "series about to be published in London by Fisher, Son, and Co., in the finest line manner, with letter press descriptive of the subjects, historical and domestic." Although this series seems never to have been issued, eight of the anticipated fifteen paintings were recently discovered, accompanied by lengthy manuscripts by the artist.

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This essay is copyrighted by Robert M. Hicklin Jr., Inc. and may not be reproduced or transmitted without written permission.

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