Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Samuel Hayden Sexton, Schenectady’s Artist

In the days before photography, untrained local artists, or limners, were often employed to capture the important people and places in a community. For Schenectady, one such artist who was able to elevate his work above the mere craftsmanship that characterized this group was Samuel Hayden Sexton, who lived and worked in the city his entire life. Over his fifty-seven year career, he produced portraits, as well as landscapes and historical paintings. Currently, about seventy works are known to exist, some unsigned but attributed to the artist.  

Sexton was born in Schenectady in 1813, the son of Ezekial Sexton and Henrietta Hayden, his second wife. Samuel initially followed his father into a career as a cobbler, but eventually was attracted to art. He wed Sarah Fullagar and worked from his State Street studio. The couple had two children, James and Langley, who died young. 

Sexton was known as a “face painter,” who could render a “reasonable likeness,” but he also produced landscapes. The details of his training are not entirely clear. In 1835 a local newspaper, Reflector and Schenectady Democrat, claimed that although Sexton was primarily a self-taught painter, for a short time he may have been mentored by an accomplished artist in New York City. This claim is disputed by Ona Curran, art historian and one-time curator of Decorative Arts at the Schenectady Museum, now the Museum of Innovation and Science. She believes that Sexton was untrained until 1838, based on his sudden change in technique and style, as well as the introduction of subjects that would likely be accessible only in metropolitan galleries that exhibited works embodying contemporary art trends. He likely studied at institutions such as New York City’s American Art-Union or the National Academy of Design, where he exhibited a few times in the 1840s and 1850s.


Portraits

Sexton painted portraits primarily using live models, but he was also known to use other paintings, and less commonly, sketches as his sources. He preferred his subjects to pose for a frontal rather than a profile view. Many of his subjects were well-known individuals, including lawyers, educators, politicians, and business people, as well as their wives and children. Ona Curran explains the composition, or arrangement of elements within his work:

As for composition, he usually placed a three-quarter view of the sitter on the canvas. One arm invariably rested on the side of a chair. The hand of the other arm often reposed in the sitter’s lap and usually held an accessory item such as a hat, book or pair of glasses. A drapery often appeared in the background. He paid a great deal of attention to details. Accessories such as shawls, beaver hats, lace caps and ruffles were painstakingly done. As for color, the costumes of his sitters were painted most often in tones of black and white, draperies and chairs in shades of red. Green was often blended into the background color (Curran, p. 12).

The art historian notes that the flatness that characterized his earlier work disappeared by 1840, by which time his portraits showed more realism, better body proportions, greater three-dimensionality and distinctiveness. As she notes, however, he still showed an inability to paint hands skillfully, a shortcoming common to those not trained as professional artists, as seen in the portrait below of Nicholas Marselis, a merchant and boat builder.

Painting of a old white man dressed in black, sitting in a red chair, holding wooden tools used boat building.
Samuel Hayden Sexton, Nicholas Marselis, 1848, oil on canvas. Schenectady County Historical Society.

According to Curran, his artistic ability peaked in 1855, after which his production decreased. This 1852 oil painting of Ichabod Spencer, noted minister and a founder of the Union Theological Seminary, reveals the artist’s skill, as well as his standard three-quarter pose.

Portrait of a middle-aged white man in voluminous collegiate robes, holding a book.
Samuel Haydon Sexton, Ichabod S. Spencer, D.D., 1852, oil on canvas, gift of Mrs. Katherine Spencer Leavitt, Union College Permanent Collection. https://muse.union.edu/mandeville/project/19th-century-portrait-collection/

A few of Sexton’s works were painted from earlier works. The inspiration for his depiction of DeWitt Clinton (1840) was Charles C. Ingham’s fine 1824 portrait of the New York governor. According to Curran, he also completed two paintings of subjects who were deceased, likely using daguerreotypes, although not enthusiastic about the practice. 

Although the artist’s output dropped, Curran lists twenty extant portraits produced between 1857 and 1877. Some of them are unsigned but attributed to Sexton, such as a painting of John Ellis, first president of Schenectady Locomotive Works. In addition to all of his existing portraits, the Frick Art Reference Library has attributed to him three additional portraits, whose whereabouts are unknown. Another attributed work, a portrait of Eliphalet Nott, noted minister and Union College president, was unfortunately lost in a fire.

Historical Paintings

Five of Sexton’s historical paintings are extant. His first known work is The Schenectady Massacre (ca. 1833), a depiction of the 1690 burning of the Schenectady stockade by the French and Indians. Interestingly, the work is not historically accurate. Although step-gable roofs were characteristic of Dutch architecture from the colonial era, Curran theorizes that the simpler A-line steep roof was more likely to be featured in a frontier settlement like 1690 Schenectady. Furthermore, according to Kathryn Weller, former curator of collections at the Schenectady County Historical Society, French attackers likely outnumbered their Indian counterparts.

Painting of Native American firing rifles at buildings in a Dutch colonial village with white colonists running away or lying on the snow-covered ground.
Samuel Sexton, Schenectady Massacre, circa 1833, oil on canvas. Schenectady County Historical Society.

An 1813 sketch by a local man, Giles F. Yates, was the inspiration for Sexton’s four paintings of the Old Dutch Church--two dated 1843 and two dated 1845--which stood on the corner of Union and Church Streets and was the congregation’s third building, the first at that location. Although the paintings of the 1813 building were done many years later, a new church building served parishioners starting in 1814. Curran is not sure if the works are accurate representations, noting that “it is highly probable that the paintings served as memorials to the venerable old church rather than a documentation of local architecture” (Curran, p. 14).

Painting of a church with Dutch colonial buildings in the background.
Samuel Sexton, A North View of the Old Dutch Church in Schenectada, 1843, oil on canvas. Schenectady County Historical Society.

Landscapes

Although considered a “face painter,” Sexton’s exhibition records in New York City from the 1840s and 1850s describe his paintings as landscapes and Biblical works, none of which have been located. Of Sexton’s seventy existing paintings, five are landscapes, all painted in 1890, the year of his death. Four are titled Mohawk Valley Landscape, offering four different scenes, and the other is Frog Alley River, referring to a part of the Mohawk which once separated Schenectady from Van Slyck’s Island before the land was filled in. According to John Caldwell, art historian and art critic, these works were inspired by the American Barbizon School, a movement characterized by naturalistic landscape painting. 

Samuel Sexton, Frog Alley River, 1890, oil on cardboard. Schenectady County Historical Society.

Caldwell also notes that Sexton’s commissions may have decreased during the second half of the century as photography became more popular. Like other artists, Sexton had to earn a living. A bill to J. B. Clute in 1846 reveals that Sexton did additional jobs to help generate income, including painting a statue as well as stove plate ornament. The same bill itemizes the costs of two drawings and a sketch. Perhaps Sexton did more of this work as the years progressed. 

Sexton enjoyed local, if not national, recognition for his work, and earned a reasonable income. However, Joel Monroe, author of Schenectady, Ancient And Modern, claims that the artist died in a state of poverty in 1890. Sexton’s significance is assessed by Ona Curran as follows: “Today, in the author’s opinion, his work has merit more from a historical point of view than an artistic one, and serves as a documentation of nineteenth century Schenectady persons and places” (Curran, p. 9).
Some of his paintings may be viewed at the Schenectady County Historical Society, which featured an exhibition of Sexton’s works in 2008.

Black and white photo of old white man sitting, surrounded by easels and painting supplies.
Sexton in his studio, 1889. From Schenectady Ancient and Modern by Joel Henry Monroe.

Bibliography

Caldwell, John, et al. A Catalogue of Works by Artists Born by 1815. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1994. Metropolitan Museum of Art, www.metmuseum.org.

Curran, Ona. 19th Century Artist Samuel Hayden Sexton. Schenectady, Schenectady Museum, 1970.

Monroe, Joel Henry. Schenectady, Ancient And Modern: a Complete And Connected History of Schenectady From the Granting of the First Patent In 1661 to 1914: Presenting Also Many Historic Pictures And Portraits of Those Who Have Been Conspicuous Figures In Its History. Geneva, N.Y.: Press of W.F. Humphrey, 1914.

Stanforth, Lauren. Learn about Artist Samuel Sexton and Visit the Exhibit about Him by Laura Linder and Ona Curran Rotterdam Square Mall. Facebook, 25 Sept. 2009, 4:35 pm, https://www.facebook.com/notes/schenectady-county-historical-society/learn-about-artist-samuel-sexton-and-visit-the-exhibit-about-him-by-laura-linder/137281358151. Accessed 30 Oct. 2020.