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 John Martin Tracy  (1843 - 1893)

About: John Martin Tracy
 

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Lived/Active: Missouri/Connecticut/California/Mississippi/Ohio      Known for: sporting genre-hunting and portrait painting

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BIOGRAPHY for John Tracy
Facts/Data
Birth
1843 (Rochester, Ohio)
 
Death
1893 (Ocean Springs, Mississippi)

Lived/Active
Missouri/Connecticut/California/Mississippi/Ohio

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sporting genre-hunting and portrait painting

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Biography from Charleston Renaissance Gallery:
J. M. Tracy was renowned in his lifetime as a painter of dogs, horses, and sporting scenes, but today he is one of the most elusive figures in American art. His obscurity is partially accounted for by the fact that his work seldom comes on the market. For reasons of pride and sentiment his paintings have remained largely in the families or clubs of the sportsmen who commissioned them.

Tracy was born near Rochester, Ohio, in 1843. (1) His father, a preacher and abolitionist, was killed by mob violence in an anti-slavery uprising. His mother, Maria Conant Tracy, provided for her three children as a journalist. She was sent by her Cleveland paper to cover the Crystal Palace Exhibition in London in 1851. This determined individual, who had also studied medicine, was a pioneer on behalf of women's suffrage and was active in the Women's Christian Temperance movement.

Tracy grew up for the most part in the home of his grandmother, Orpha Conant, and was said to be a high-strung, hyper-sensitive, imaginative little boy. The school run by his Uncle John Lynch in Circleville prepared him for Oberlin College and Northwestern University, which he attended.

In 1861 he enlisted as a volunteer in the 19th Illinois Infantry, in which he attained the rank of lieutenant. The wartime stories he told his children in later years attest to a great amount of fraternizing between the Confederate and Union lines. In this way Tracy formed lifelong friendships with many Southerners.

It seems that he made the decision to be an artist during the war. After discharge he worked as a school teacher and laborer in the orchards of southern Illinois until he had sufficient funds to go to the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. On his return to the United States, probably no more than a year later, he struck out for California and painted the scenery there. These subjects, according to his daughter, were in the grand style and on the grand scale which was then making the name of Albert Bierstadt a household term.

Between 1872 and 1873 Tracy had a studio in Chicago, but in the latter year he went again to Paris. He studied at a school tucked behind the Ecole which emphasized rigorous training in drawing from memory, which certainly proved to be a valuable skill when he later turned to painting field trial subjects. On this trip he fell in love with and married Melanie Guillemin, sister of the sculptor Emile Guillemin. Tracy's full-length portrait of her was exhibited in the Salon of 1874.

His interest seems to have changed at this time from landscape to portraiture. When he returned to the United States he opened a portrait studio in St. Louis, but perhaps feeling the effects of the daguerreotype which hindered most portraitists at one time or another in the nineteenth century, he moved to Greenwich, Connecticut in 1881 and began to paint sporting subjects. He purchased an historic farmhouse and filled it with Revolutionary War relics as well as colonial furniture, becoming one of the first collectors of early American antiques. Tracy's immense popularity as a painter of sporting subjects is due in large part to his accuracy. He was often called upon to do portraits of dogs, two of which belong to the American Kennel Club.

Perhaps because he suffered from a lingering illness, he moved to the milder climate of Ocean Springs, Mississippi, in the late 1880s or early 90s. He died at Ocean Springs in his forty-ninth year, and he was survived by his wife and three children. When he died, Tracy left on his easel "Candidates for the Horse Show", an ambitious canvas measuring four by eleven feet.


1. The only comprehensive biography on J.M. Tracy is the article by Freeman Lloyd, "The Dog Pictures of Tracy: Great American Artist Stopped Doing Battle Scenes to Place Animals on Canvas," The American Kennel Gazette, vol. 53, no. 5, May 1, 1936, pp. 7-11; 156-157. Most of the information contained therein is based on Mr. Lloyd's conversation with Miss Marguerite Tracy, daughter of the artist.


Cynthia Seibels
Copyright 1990 Robert M. Hicklin Jr., Inc.

Biography from The Johnson Collection:
There is relatively little record of the particulars of John Martin Tracy’s early years, education, or artistic influences. What is abundantly clear, however, is that Tracy’s reputation as one of the nation’s most admired sporting artists is unquestioned, despite his having come to the genre fairly late in his brief life. In 1895, a writer for the New York Times opined that “J. M. Tracy was a painter to delight the heart of all sporting men . . . He painted the hunter before the flock of birds, the dog with tail extended and paw uplifted, as he stood quivering over the scent; and he did it all con amore, faithfully and with full understanding and knowledge of his subject.”

A Mayflower descendant, John Martin Tracy was born in Rochester, Ohio. His father, an abolitionist preacher, was killed in a mob uprising at an anti-slavery rally shortly before the boy's birth. His mother, Hannah Conant Tracy (later Cutler), was able to support the couple’s three children by working as a highly respected journalist. Her professional duties in that capacity and pioneering role in the national suffrage movement required frequent travel; as a result, Tracy and his sisters spent a majority of their childhoods with their maternal grandmother in Rochester. A sensitive, gifted, and imaginative child, Tracy excelled in the local schools before advancing to Oberlin College and then Northwestern University, where he began his art studies. He was forced to abandon his education, however, at the onset of the Civil War; as a member of the 19th Illinois Infantry, Tracy quickly attained the rank of lieutenant and began to formulate his artistic ambitions.

Upon his discharge from the military, Tracy worked various odd jobs in southern Illinois to save money for European travel. He was enrolled at the École des Beaux-Arts from 1867–1868 and studied in the progressive atelier of the French portrait master Carolus-Duran. Following his year abroad, Tracy struck out for California, where artists like Alfred Bierstadt were creating dynamic landscapes of the western terrain. From 1872–1873, Tracy maintained a studio in Chicago, before returning to Paris. During his second stay in the city, he underwent rigorous training under Horace Lecoq de Boisbaudran to learn precise drawing from memory, a skill that served him well in his notably accurate renditions of sporting scenes. He also fraternized with fellow American artists John Singer Sargent and James Carroll Beckwith, who served as best man at Tracy’s wedding to Mélanie Guillemin, sister of the sculptor Emile Guillemin. Tracy’s full-length portrait of his wife was exhibited in the Paris Salon of 1874, marking a stylistic transition from romantic landscapes to portraiture.

Upon his return to the United States in 1878, Tracy established a studio in St Louis. Despite his success as portrait artist, he increasingly turned his attention to elaborate field and sporting landscapes, themes with which painters Arthur Burdett Frost and Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait were already enjoying patronage. His skill in capturing every element of the hunt—the glorious natural setting, the dynamic activity, the vitality of man and beast, the majesty of finely bred champion dogs and horses, and the revered dignity of the sport—soon catapulted him to the forefront of that specialty. Though he made a permanent home in Greenwich, Connecticut beginning in 1881, he traveled extensively—and especially throughout the South—executing commission for hunt scenes.

Tracy’s life and career were cut short. The artist was only forty-nine when he died in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, a warm retreat he had frequented during winter months. Shortly before his death, five paintings slated for inclusion in the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair were lost in a fire, a devastating blow to the artist. In the aftermath of that loss, the final painting on his easel was one of his largest and most ambitious works, Candidates for the Horse Show, now in the collection of the Morris Museum of Art. Tracy’s work rarely reaches the present-day art market, held closely by private collectors and sporting clubs. Examples of his work can be found at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the American Kennel Club.

The Johnson Collection, Spartanburg, South Carolina
www.thejohnsoncollection.org

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