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Sunset on the New River, West Virginia, circa 1850
William G. Boardman (1815-1895)

View Artist Bio
Oil on canvas
25 x 30 inches
Signature Details: Signed lower left
Status: Private Collection, Huntsville, Alabama

Boardman, William G. (1815̄-95)

Sunset on the New River, Virginia

Oil on canvas

Circa 1850

25 x 30 inches

Signed lower left: “W. G. Boardman”

Private Collection, Huntsville AL

William G. Boardman’s Sunset on the New River, Virginia is a significant work in the history of American landscape painting.  Some of its significance stems from the artist’s inclusion of staffage---the two figures on the bridge---and images of the bridge and millhouse in his depiction of the New River and its mountain gorge.  Although Boardman is not often listed among the legendary landscape painters of his era, he was well-regarded in his day and has a legitimate claim to distinction as a founder of the White Mountain School of Landscape Painters.  Not many of his landscapes are known to exist---certainly no more than 150 or so---.  There are likely more of them but, perhaps their generic titles and lack of signatures make them difficult to authenticate.  But, among those that are known, only a handful include people or evidence of human activity.  Sunset on the New River may well be unique in that regard.  Boardman’s emphasis upon people and their works in this painting highlighted a vision of Nature that he shared with Southern landscape painters.  For them Nature was not a sublime, untainted by human presence.  Instead, Nature was an organic place where humans and their society complemented Nature’s bounteous world.  The arts, agriculture, and industry of the South were depicted by Southern landscape painters as in Sunset on the New River in benign terms of humanity in productive harmony within the natural world.  Human beings needed Nature to fulfill their aspirations, and Nature needed humans to be comprehended through art, science, and industry.  Southern landscape painters made these themes their own throughout the nineteenth century.

With its steep gorge, flowing water, and towering hilltops, Sunset on the New River is an example of the dominant schools of American landscape painting---the Hudson River and White Mountain schools---but within the painting human beings lived and thrived.  Boardman’s other depictions of the Virginia mountains are empty of people and machinery.  They represent a different, better-known landscape tradition---depictions of sublime, untamed Nature threatened by human intrusion.  Boardman brought that better-known tradition southward, but then offered in Sunset on the New River a contradictory vision of the natural world that made room for human beings.  His unification of contradictory themes is a distinguishing mark of Sunset on the New River.

          Even in today’s world of genealogical and primary-source databases, basic information is scarce regarding William G. Boardman’s origins, his artistic training, and his family life.  He was born in 1815---his probable tombstone recorded 1818---in Caznovia, NY.  In 1830 he was enrolled in the Cazenovia Academy, a local private academy.  By 1841, at the age of twenty-six he had established himself as a portrait painter in Cleveland, OH.  Within five years he had resided in New Haven, CT, Charlestown, MA, and New York City, having abandoned portraiture and taken up landscape painting.  For twenty years Boardman lived and worked in New York City, among the generation of painters famed as the Hudson River School.  He moved to Providence, RI, in the late 1860s and then to Boston, MA, during the 1870s.  Boardman exhibited landscapes in the annual exhibitions of the National Academy of Design, the short-lived American Art-Union, and the Boston Athenaeum.  What is remarkable about his works---as evidenced by their exhibition histories---was the fact that he was simultaneously painting scenes in Virginia, upstate New York, the White Mountains, and the Hudson River.  His peripatetic character prior to the American Civil War differed from that of his peers because his excursions included the western parts of Virginia.  Trekking through the White Mountains and the Virginia backcountry he was a hard-working intermediary between North and South.

          Boardman may have wed Mary M. Hawkes, on January 1, 1848, in Charlestown, MA.  However, no evidence has been found that they had children, and Mary Hawkes Boardman left no traces in her later life.  A man named William G. Boardman---probably the artist---died on October 28, 1895, and was interred in the Pocasset Cemetery, Cranston, RI.  With so little information at hand, useful knowledge of the man’s life and work must be derived from the subjects of his surviving paintings, the dates they were created, and when they were exhibited. Boardman’s artistic legacy grows clear even as the contours of his life remain uncertain. 

          During Boardman’s lifetime local historians of Carroll County and Jackson, NH, published a story that in the summer of 1847 the artist visited their locale; lodged with a local farmer named Joshua B. Trickey; and painted the mountains and lakes of Carroll County.  Benjamin Champney (1817-1907), the most prolific of the White Mountain painters, described in his autobiography, Sixty Years’ Memoir of Art and Artists (1900) how he and other Hudson River painters discovered the sublime geography of the White Mountains in the 1850s and made the region an artist’s Mecca.  However, by the time Champney et al. arrived Boardman was already painting and exhibiting White Mountain, Hudson River, and Virginia landscapes in New York City at the National Academy of Design and  the American Art-Union.

Born in Ipswich, NH, Champney was a friend and European travelling companion of John F. Kensett and John W. Casilear (1811-93).  After returning from study in Italy these three men and others---Thomas Cole (1801-48), Asher B. Durand (1796-1886), Samuel Coleman (1832-1920), and Samuel Lancaster Gerry (1813-91) to name a few---were creating their luminist, non-human landscapes of the Hudson River.  In the summer of 1849 Champney visited Ipswich for a season of sketching and plein-air painting.  In 1851 he traveled with David Johnson (1827-1908) and Casilear to nearby Conway.  By 1854 Boardman, Champney, and Jasper F. Cropsey (1823-1900) regularly painted and exhibited landscapes of Mount Chocorua, Squam Lake, and Franconia Notch alongside their scenes of Storm King Mountain and West Point on the Hudson.   Joshua Trickey reentered the founding tale when he expanded his boarding house to accommodate the onslaught of White Mountain painters.

Exhibition records that chronicle the rise of the White Mountain painters reveal that Boardman was not only the first among them but also that he was simultaneously painting and exhibiting landscapes of Virginia’s New River.  That river has its own stories to tell.  Despite its name the New River is one of the most ancient rivers in the world.  It has flowed within its present course for more than 65 million years.  Beginning in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, it flows northward through Virginia and into those parts of the state that became West Virginia in 1861.  It joins the Gauley River in Fayette County, WV, to form the Kanawha River, which is a tributary of the Ohio River.  Its geological age and the age of the Appalachian Mountains that embrace it make the New River the quintessence of antiquity in the South.  The New River is also ancient in the history of the American nation.  It had a Native American prehistory of thousands of years.  English explorers from Virginia visited the New River in the 1650s.  By the beginning of the nineteenth century it was the site of iron and coal mines and abounded with water-powered mills.  Boardman was early on the scene when he painted Sunset on the New River but the images he captured in that painting---busy humans, a practical bridge across a gorge, and a millhouse had been already essential elements of the New River landscape. 

National Academy of Design exhibition records document Boardman’s simultaneous 1840s travels on the New River and in the White Mountains.  In 1846 he exhibited a Scene on the Kanawha River.  Two years later he had on display two landscapes that depicted Conway and Jackson, NH.  The next year (1849) he had been back in Virginia with Clearing Up the Storm and in the Catskill Mountains, too.  His Cascade on White Face Mountain was exhibited in 1850, followed the next year by Headwaters of the Kanawha

By the start of the American Civil War in 1861 Boardman had become almost exclusively a White Mountain painter.  It may be surmised that the war years curtailed Boardman’s access to Virginia and led him to concentrate upon his familiar White Mountain and upstate New York locales.  Only one postwar Southern landscape, New River, [West] Virginia, dated 1869, has been identified.  Perhaps more southern scenes will emerge as scholars and collectors begin to realize the significance of Boardman’s works.  The artist has a worthy place in American art history as a founder and diligent practitioner of both regional and national genres of American landscape painting.   


American Art-Union.  Bulletins of the American Art-Union.  New York City, (1848), 9, 58; (1849), 73.

Champney, Benjamin. Sixty Years’ Memories of Art and Artists.  Woburn, MA: Wallace & Andrews. 1900.

Cowdrey, Mary Bartlett.  National Academy of Design Exhibition Records, 1826-1860 (New York: New-York Historical Society, 1943), 38-9.

Cuthbert, John A. Early Art and Artists in West Virginia (Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2008), 152.

Haverstock, Mary Sayre and others.  Artists in Ohio, 1787-1900: A Biographical Dictionary (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2000), 95.

Hudson River Valley Art & History. Facebook Page.  “William G. Boardman.”  Accessed February 14, 2021, by Alexander Moore.

Hugill, Peter J. “English Landscape Tastes in the United States.” Geographical Review 76, no. 4 (October 1986): 408-23.

Jackson, New Hampshire.  Town of Jackson Master Plan.  Background Studies. 2016.  Http://Jackson-nh.org/sites/g/files/vyhj3296/ . . . /master_plan_updatebackgroundfinal.pdf.  Accessed February 12, 2021, by Alexander Moore.

Merrill, Georgia Drew. History of Carroll County, New Hampshire (Boston: W.A. Ferguson Co., 1889), 883-4, 967-9.

Orcutt, Kimberley.  “Unintended Consequences: the American Art-Union and the Rise of a National Landscape School.”  Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide (an online journal) 18, no. 1 (Spring 2019).  Http://19thc-artworldwide.org/orcutt-omeka/items/show/97048.  Accessed February 10, 2021, by Alexander Moore.

Perkins, Robert F. and Gavin, William J. III. Boston Athenaeum Art Exhibition Index (Boston: Boston Athenaeum, 1980), 22, 218, 253, 260, 273 (entries for Boardman works).

Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.  Smithsonian Institution Reference Information system, Art Inventories.  “William G. Boardman.”  Accessed February 15, 2021, by Alexander Moore.

Whitemountainart.com/about-3/artists/William-g-boardman-c-1815-1895.  Accessed February 13, 2021, by Alexander Moore.


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