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 William Jacob Hays, Sr  (1830 - 1875)

About: William Jacob Hays, Sr


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Lived/Active: New York/Kansas      Known for: wild animal, game birds, dogs, still life and race horse painting

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BIOGRAPHY for William Hays, Sr
1830 (New York City)
1875 (New York City)

New York/Kansas

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wild animal, game birds, dogs, still life and race horse painting

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
The following is written by Jennette Durham, an intern at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, spring 2003.

William Jacob Hays, Sr. (1830-1875)

Born on August 8, 1830 in New York, NY, William Jacob Hays developed a successful career as a painter.  While attending the National Academy of Design, Hays studied drawing from John Rubens Smith.  His first exhibited painting at the National Academy of Design was Dogs in a Field.  He went on to paint depictions of deer, race horses, game birds, fish, fruit and flowers.  Beginning in May of 1860, Hays further used his skills on a three-month trip up the Missouri River to Fort Union, located in what is now the state of North Dakota.  This trip would prove to be the most valuable in his artistic career.

During his journey, Hays sketched the flora and fauna of the American West, as well as forts and trading posts.  He was also fascinated by the abundance of buffalo, as well as other wildlife of the vast prairie.  Using the sketches he had gathered on his trip, Hays created several paintings in his New York studio that included buffalo.  A Herd of Bison Crossing the Missouri River, in the collection of the Whitney Gallery of Western Art the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, and Herd on the Move, in the collection of the Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, Oklahoma, both resulted from this studio time.  Hays' field sketches of trading posts and forts along the Missouri River are also of importance.  These sketches are the only visual references known in existence that depict some of these establishments.

Hays' paintings of the American West contributed to the history and knowledge of the area.  As a naturalist and observer, his paintings of prairie life, including plants, were rendered with accuracy and detail.  He portrayed his depictions of buffalo as realistically as possible, studying even the bone structure.

Hays died in New York City in 1875.  Hays' son, William Jacob Hays, Jr., also pursued an artistic career as a painter of western art.

Select, Annotated Bibliography

Samuels, Harold and Peggy. Samuels' Encyclopedia of Artists of the American West. United States: Book Sales, Inc., 1985. This book is the most comprehensive biographical entry on Hays.  Includes list where other Hays' works are located.

Taft, Robert. "The Pictorial Record of the Old West: II. W.J. Hays." The Kansas Historical Quarterly, May, 1946.

Biographical information, as well as a collection of letters written by Hays during his 1860 trip up the Missouri River.

Taft, Robert. Artists and Illustrators of the Old West 1850-1900. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982. Includes biographical information on Hays and contemporary artists of his time, as well as sketches and paintings.

These Notes from AskART represent the beginning of a possible future biography for this artist. Please click here if you wish to help in its development:
Born New York, NY, Aug. 8, 1830; died New York, NY, Mar. 13, 1875. Painter. Attended the National Academy of Design. In 1860 he made a threemonth trip up the Missouri River to sketch animals, especially buffalo. Some of his sketches of the forts along the Missouri are the only pictorial record of these landmarks.
Amon Carter Museum; Buffalo Bill Historical Center; Denver Art Museum; Gilcrease Museum; New York Historical Society; New York Public Library; Brooklyn Museum; Corcoran Gallery; St. Louis Art Museum

Susan Craig, "Biographical Dictionary of Kansas Artists (active before 1945)"
Dawdy, Doris Ostrander. Artists of the American West: A Biographical Dictionary. Chicago: Swallow Press, 1974. AskArt,, accessed Dec. 16, 2005; Orchid and wildflower studies by William Jacob Hays, 1830-1875. (New York: Berry-Hills Galleries, 1984); Kansas Historical Quarterly (May 1946)
This and over 1,750 other biographies can be found in Biographical Dictionary of Kansas Artists (active before 1945) compiled by Susan V. Craig, Art & Architecture Librarian at University of Kansas.

Biography from Red Fox Fine Art:
Excerpt from Animal and Sporting Artists in America by F. Turner Reuter, Jr. © 2008:

William Jacob Hays was born in New York City on 8 August 1830. He studied with John Rubens Smith. He was a naturalist as well as a painter, and his subjects were chiefly animals; he began his career painting canine portraits commissioned by wealthy patrons, but his best-known work was done in the West, particularly on a journey on the Missouri River in 1860.

He traveled by steamboat, starting from St. Louis, MO, in May and arriving at Fort Stewart, near what is now the border between North Dakota and Montana, about six weeks later. After a few weeks at Fort Stewart he returned east, passing through St. Louis toward the end of July; by the fall of 1860 he had been back in New York City for some time. He spent the next several years painting from his numerous sketches; some of his best known works were of the enormous herds of buffalo to which the plains were then home.

Several of these works, including Herd of Bison (now at the Denver Art Museum) and Prairie Fire and Buffalo Stampede (now at the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson, WY), are sympathetic depictions of the animal reflecting Hays' concern for the fate of the buffalo. He delivered a speech at The Lyceum of Natural History of the City of New York circa 1871 about the decline of the populations of wildlife such as bison, elk, goats, antelope, which he also painted, since the arrival of settlers in the West. In later years he went to Nova Scotia, Canada, and the Adirondacks of New York, painting deer, moose, caribou and a variety of upland game. He also went to England. He spent most of his life, however, in New York City. His sons William Jr. and Austin were also artists.

Hays was a member of the National Academy of Design in New York City, where he exhibited animal and sporting paintings regularly between 1850 and 1874. Examples include English Terriers, 1850, Setter and Game, 1853, The Retrieve, 1855, Rabbit Hunting, 1856, A Horse, 1857, Flushing the Covey, 1858, Wood Duck, 1860, Brook Trout, 1862, The Gathering of the Herds, 1866, American Elk, 1874.

He also exhibited at the American Art-Union in New York City. He exhibited at the Boston (MA) Athenaeum beginning in 1855, including Ruffed Grouse and Hunting Woodchucks in 1858. The New-York Historical Society in New York City has several of his works, among them Terrier's Head and Spaniel and Terrier. The Glenbow Museum in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, has his Study of a Pronghorn; the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, OK, has his Buffalo Herd on the Move, the central image of what was originally a triptych; and his Prairie Dog Village is at the Tweed Museum of Art at the University of Minnesota in Duluth.

Other institutions holding his work include the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC; the Denver (CO) Art Museum; the New York Public Library in New York City; the St. Louis Art Museum; Washington University in St. Louis; and the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, TX.

Hays died in New York City on 13 March 1875.

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