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 Robert Melvin Decker  (1847 - 1921)

About: Robert Melvin Decker
 

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Lived/Active: New York      Known for: landscape

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BIOGRAPHY for Robert Decker
Facts/Data
Birth
1847 (Troy, New York)
 
Death
1921 (Melrose, New York)

Lived/Active
New York


Copyright by Owner


Often Known For
landscape

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Information for the following biography was submitted by Harry Haberman, and is protected by copyright.

"It is the fate of the artist, with an occasional exception, not to receive recognition during his life-time. The fortunes of a few sometimes improve after they die and one or two may achieve recognition and even fame. But it is the height of irony for an artist to be successful and famous during his lifetime and then to be completely forgotten shortly after death. Robert M. Decker has suffered such a fate." -H. Haberman

Robert M. Decker was born in Troy, New York on June 8, 1847. He was well known during his career for his Realist paintings of Adirondack scenes, and especially for his winter themes. Unlike many artists, Decker was quite famous and successful during his lifetime, but became almost completely forgotten after his death.

When Decker was still a child, his mother died, and his father, a furniture manufacturer, remarried. Decker's stepmother treated him poorly, and the boy had an unhappy childhood and youth. He had little formal education and never graduated from high school. He was, however, a copious reader in every sort of subject. Barbara Decker Wood, Decker's granddaughter, once shared in an interview that he was a direct descendant of Joshua Reynolds.

Decker studied painting under R. Swain Gifford and in 1883, when Decker was thirty-six he received his first important recognition at the National Academy of Design for his painting "Morning Among the Rockaway Hills", which was bought by the Peabody family. Later when the Peabody collection was put up for sale at Silo's Gallery in New York, that painting was in the company of such great artists as Corot, D.F. Dubigny, Bierstadt, and Courbet, among others. Also in 1883, in addition to the exhibition at the National Academy of Design, Decker exhibited a painting, 'November Twilight', in the annual exhibition of the Brooklyn Art Association. It was priced at $75, which for those days was a substantial price, considering that the Association at the time was renting a whole floor for its art school at 201-202 Montague Street for $240 for an entire year.

Between 1883 and 1885 Decker worked out of a studio at 191 Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights, New York. From 1885 he also owned a studio at Lake George, The Hague, in the Adirondacks, New York. It was a lovely two-story building on a terrace eighty feet above the lake. Verandas surrounded the house and its windows looked out onto wonderful views of the lake, the woods, the hills and the mountains, and it was this beauty that inspired most of his paintings.

From this time on Decker seemed to have been considered an artist of some achievement. He worked and exhibited regularly at one studio or another, spending part of the year in Brooklyn Heights, and the rest at Lake George. He was a member of the Brooklyn Art Club, a club open only to professional artists, and first exhibited his paintings at their exhibition in 1889. He enjoyed consistent gratifying sales and critical praise, especially from the Brooklyn newspapers. Among his patrons was Mrs. F.O. French, the mother of Mrs. Alfred Vanderbilt, and she purchased one of his finest works, ' Autumn'.

Robert Decker was known to have exhibited at the following: Meyers Fine Art Gallery, University at Plattsburgh; Hyde Collection, Glens Falls, N.Y.; Montauk Club, Long Island; Pittsburgh Athletic Club; Williams and Everett, Boston; Gillespies, Pittsburgh; Helman-Taylor Galleries, Cleveland; Hillside House, Adirondacks.

An early article by an art critic from the 'New York Herald' describes Decker's paintings as 'notable examples of art subordinated to nature, as all true art should be...' and goes on to refer to specific winter scenes that he viewed and enjoyed. Another 'N.Y. Herald' critic once stated 'there are few whose love of nature is more intense than Mr. Decker's' and that the way Decker manages with his art to convey nature's movement and moods in his snow scenes leaves 'the observer spellbound'. His winter themes were admired for their simplicity, and for their power to concentrate the viewer's attention, for example as they might when regarding one of his paintings of the rising of a hilly road, buried in deep, soft, dry snow. Decker was particularly talented with small canvases, and found favor with many critics because his works were 'painted for all time', not following a whim or school of art, but with truthful semblance of nature.

At the age of thirty-seven, Decker married Emma Haner, a wealthy woman, who was then twenty-eight. Theirs was not a happy marriage, although they remained together. Emma died at the age of 84, having survived Robert by nineteen years.

After her husband's death, Emma Decker organized two exhibitions of his works, the first being at their home at 44 Downing Street in the prestigious Clinton Hill section of Brooklyn. The house, their last Brooklyn residence, is an attractive two story brownstone with an angled-bay front, which still stands in a section of Downing Street included in the Clinton Hill Historic District established by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1981. Before Mrs. Decker left Brooklyn to live with her daughter's family in Schaghticoke N.Y., she stored her husband's unsold paintings at a church. After her death in 1940, the family could find neither the church nor the paintings. Apparently the church had merged with another, and then moved to a different location, presumably taking the paintings to the new location. They might have eventually been found, had it not been for the unfortunate accident of the new church burning down in 1951. Decker was known to have been a prolific painter, but the location of only about fifty of his works is known.

He was a Realist and leaned away from the Impressionist movement that became so much in vogue. An example of their differences can be seen in his treatment of tree trunks, where the Impressionist might use but a few strokes, Decker would use a myriad of touches and tones, worked and blended until the trunk stands out from the picture, a living semblance of the real.

Days after Decker's death, the art editor of the 'Brooklyn Daily Eagle', Hamilton Easter Field, wrote that he was 'Brooklyn's most distinguished artist'and that 'nothing is more incomprehensible to me than the fact that fashion has so much to do with taste in art. Here was a man who knew his technique as none of the younger men do, whose work was drawn with the skill and knowledge which none but the masters have.'

Decker died of heart failure in Melrose, New York, on October 27, 1921. Curiously, for a man so well known during his lifetime, his grave is uncelebrated, and marked only with his name and years of birth and death.
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Note from Pat Abelson:

I read in your biography of Robert Melvin Decker that "the location of only about fifty of his works is known." My husband and I own one. It looks very similar to the fourth image you show in your image gallery. Ours depicts more of a pathway through quite dense woods. Time of day seems to be the same, according to the shadows, and there is a bright patch of blue sky with puffy clouds. It is a very tranquil image.

The painting was given to us by my husband's parents. They lived in Queens, Forest Hills then Scarsdale. My mother in law told me that she bought the painting at an auction of paintings and other items from a Tiffany family auction sometime in the late 1940s. When she bought it the painting had a very large, dark, wooden frame, too large for her to use, so she had it re-framed but kept the original frame. The original frame got lost in one of their moves. The "new" frame is gold.

We had the painting cleaned about twelve years ago. It had hung in a dining room and had accumulated smoke over many years. It is now brighter than it was but could still benefit from another cleaning. The gentleman in Chicago who did the cleaning was recommended to us by the Art Institute in Chicago. He said the piece was worth around $1,000.00 and he also told us that there was a Decker in the Brooklyn Museum of Art, as your information confirms.

I had not been able to find much information on Decker until I got into this computer "Search" fun and thought I'd give it a go. Thank you for giving us interesting background on a painting we love.







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