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 Flavius J. Fisher  (1832 - 1905)

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Lived/Active: Virginia/District Of Columbia      Known for: landscape, portrait

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Ad Code: 3
AskART Artist
from Auction House Records.
Portrait of a Girl
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
The following biography from an unpublished manuscript entitled Flavius James Fisher. From Vermillion Splotch to a Washington D.C. Favorite, by Skipper Steely of Paris, Texas:

Hanging on the walls of the expansive hallways of the National Portrait Gallery and on those of its conjunctive neighbor, the National Museum of American Art, are paintings by now famous artists.  These painters are catalogued by the librarian, listed in Baigell's Dictionary Of American Art, and Samuels' Encyclopedia of Artists of the American West, and have been publicized in articles by the Smithsonian Institute and others.  However, in the competitive world of artistry, hundreds of American painters have been lost in the shuffle of history.  Their work hangs elsewhere.

Flavius James Fisher is one of those.  Though prolific from the early days of his life, Fisher can hardly be called well-known in either the art world or outside in the public's eye.  Only in the past few years have curators, writers and museum directors discovered his contribution.  Since he marked his name lightly in red in a corner of his works, many of his portraits hang in homes and institutions in anonymity.  The red has long since faded into the dark tonality of his style.

As happened to many artists, fire destroyed much of Fisher's work up to 1868, but he cranked out portraits and some landscapes for many subsequent years.  However, what is known about his personality, his friends, his ideas and his family life can just about be placed in a short column.

Descendents of a Fisher cousin, William Henry Huddle, say that Fisher was born in 1832 at Wytheville, Virginia and grew up in eastern Tennessee.  Despite research, facts about Fisher's childhood are basically uncovered to date.

Some references say that Fisher was so good as a child that at the age of 12 he was sent to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, founded in 1805.  The Academy now is the second oldest public art gallery and art school in the country, created by the efforts of Charles Wilson Peale and associates in Philadelphia.  It had for years the only American collection of old European master paintings, mostly copies, and sculpture casts from the Louvre in Paris, France.  Annual exhibitions were held when Fisher arrived.

An article in the Southern Literary Messenger tells the story a bit differently.  The editor, Mrs. A. Trueheart Buck, said in May of 1895 that Fisher's father settled in Athens, Tennessee, about 28 miles northeast of Cleveland.  The family fell into financial embarrassment by 1850.  At this time Fisher was 18 and serious about his artistic talent. For years he saved money and through some apparent contact, traveled to Philadelpha to study one winter. 
Research in Athens, Tennessee reveals that Fisher's father and mother, Jacob and Rebecca, moved from Pennsylvania to Botetourt County, Virginia, to Wytheville, Virginia and on to eastern Tennessee in 1835.  Fisher was at that time named Flavius Josephus.  Called Joe by eastern Tennesseans, he was the ninth of ten children.

During his time in Philadelphia, Fisher worked and studied probably with James Reid Lambdin, a successful portrait and miniature painter who at the same time was training his son George Cochran Lambdin.  Fisher then worked some in the 1850's in Memphis, Nashville, Petersburg and Richmond.  He was building quite a reputation in the eastern United States.   However, most of his studio work was done during that decade in Lynchburg.  It is possible that he went back periodically to Philadelphia.

While at the Pennsylvania Academy, Fisher experimented in a crayon study with the stump or blender alone, discarding the use of the pencil entirely.  A fellow student badgered Fisher to draw this way.  The challenge produced a work of the head of the Greek king Mino's daughter, Ariadne, which in the 1870's was in the possession of a Richmond resident.  Two decades after that first effort Fisher was considered to be without peer in this style of portraiture.  

Though none of Fisher's works are listed as engravings, expert mezzotintengraver John Sartain was on the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts faculty in the mid-1800's.  His European-trained influence most certainly rubbed off on Fisher to a degree.  Sartain is attributed to completion of over 1,500 plates, serving as engraver for several magazines in Philadelphia.  His son John may have been in New York in the early 1870's when Fisher's cousin Huddle studied at the New York Academy of Design and with the Art Students League.

A more influencial force attached itself to Fisher after the formal schooling.  When Fisher set up a studio in Lynchburg about 1855, he met sculptor Edward V. Valentine, and the two became close friends.  Fisher in 1857 then set up a Richmond studio on Broad Street, between what is 8th and 9th Streets.  He produced portraits in oil and crayon, and his 1856 portrait of Valentine is still hanging in Richmond.  Fisher may have kept a studio in Lynchburg simultaneously.  He was rather mobile at that stage of his career.

In 1858 Fisher exhibited two works, including one called Crayon Portrait of the Curator and Sleeping Cupid, from a Plaster Cast, in the Rotunda at the 35th annual exhibition of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. At that time his address was listed as Petersburg. Other known Fisher acquaintances of that time or later in the exhibit were A. Zeno Shindler, John Mix Stanley and G.P.A. Healy. Among others of note in the show were John and Samuel Sartain,  J.R. and George C. Lambdin, Rembrandt Peale and Thomas A. Sully.  Most of these have works hanging in Washington D.C.

As with other American artists, the desire to study in Europe was strong. At the age of 26, in the autumn of 1859, Fisher became the first American admitted to the German Art Institute in Berlin, called the Berliner Kunstakademie. He entered in the life class, studying under a Professor Schrader. Some references indicate that by the time Fisher wanted to return to the United States, a blockade made an attempt rather dangerous. He continued study in Berlin, and spent some time in Dusseldorf, Paris and London.

Traveling at that time in Europe were Fisher's friends, the brothers Edward and William W. Valentine. Luckily for Fisher they were there in time to nurse the artist back to health.  He had contracted smallpox.  By February of 1863 Fisher was resuming work, seemingly intent on a creation of Edgar Allen Poe in crayon based upon a daguerreotype of the writer.  One version went to Edward Valentine in gratitude for the assistance during the illness, and it now is in the Valentine Museum in Richmond.

From correspondence between the states and Valentine in April, 1863, news is not positive on the sales of Fisher work in Germany. "I advised him to keep them, and sell them in Virginia," wrote Edward Valentine.  It was a statement in the next sentence that reveals perhaps the Fisher and Huddle families were not too happy that their artist relative stayed in Europe during the Civil War.

The Southern Literary Messenger article indicated that Fisher did sell some paintings in Europe, "...the last three years supporting himself by his brush. His pictures were all sold to, or ordered by Europeans."  Editor Buck was of the understanding that Fisher was a member of the Society of Artists in both Berlin and Dusseldorf, and a member of the National German Art Association, the first American named to that roll.  His first painting to be placed on exhibition there was in the Academy Exhibition of Dusseldorf.

In Lynchburg after the Civil War, the local newspaper wrote that Fisher became "a leading member of one of the brightest and most intellectual coteries of young men that Lynchburg perhaps ever had."  He had begun painting history and landscapes, as well as portraits.  In his portraits he insisted on giving special attention to facial details and expressions.  He immediately obtained a commission to paint wholesale grocer and banker James Franklin. This painting now owned by the Lynchburg City Museum.  During the post war days Fisher did portraits of Tennessee Union Reconstruction Governors William G. Brownlow and Dewitt C. Senter, and is touted as once riding into Knoxville on horseback to paint portraits of Colonel J.W. Gaut and Mrs. William Gibbs McAdoo. 

Brownlow's oil on canvas is not dated, but it was probably done in the early years after the Civil War. Born in Wythevile, Virginia,  in 1805, he was a jack of all trades and probably knew Fisher's father.  Brownlow was a carpenter, Methodist Church preacher and controversial journalist in eastern Tennessee.  He ran a newspaper in Knoxville between 1849-1861, was a staunch Unionist and served as governor from 1865-1869. Then he served as a United States Senator until 1875.  He lived in Knoxville, dying in 1877.  The painting is now owned by the Tennessee State Museum.

Senter was a state representative from Grainger County, Tennessee and voted against secession in 1861.  Driven from his home by Confederates, he returned in 1865.  He was Tennessee governor following Brownlow's ascension to Congress, and served two years in Nashville.  Also a Methodist, he was a lawyer and legislator. He retired from public office when his term was up in 1871, dying in Morristown.  It is not known how he selected Fisher to paint his portrait.

Like Huddle, Fisher has portraits hanging in a capitol. Virginia Governors Edmund Randolph and Gilbert Carlton Walker both have their Fisher portraits hanging in the Richmond complex.

A studio fire in Lynchburg in 1868 destroyed most his work, and he devoted himself in the following decade to create a large number of works, including scenes and landmarks of Lynchburg.  In late 1873 he moved his studio to Richmond.  After 1876 Fisher began to basically headquarter some of his work in and around Washington D.C., though he would visit Lynchburg often.  Several of Fisher's works were exhibited at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, and later at the Chicago [1893], Nashville [1897], and St. Louis [1904] shows, where he received high marks.  Sources from Mississippi to Connecticut reveal that many Fisher paintings are still displayed, but not one complete biography of the man has been uncovered. Not even the Corcoran Gallery can find information on Fisher's use of its facility from 1882-1905.  But, there he is, all around the Capital!  In the Walter Reed Institute of Research, in the hallway of the Treasury Building, over in the National Health and Medicine Museum and on the wall at the Department of State are portraits by F.J. Fisher.

In the Fall of 1975 L. Moody Simms, Jr., a professor of history at Illinois State University in Normal, had an article published in the Virginia Cavalcade, telling the story of three 19th Century portraitists, including Fisher.  The other two mentioned were John Blennerhassett Martin and William Garl Brown, both older than Fisher by at least a decade, but both worked in Richmond.  Brown also painted the Valentine family members.  However, Martin and Brown were foreign born Virginians.

Only three photographs of Fisher are so far discovered. One is a standing shot of Fisher made in Berlin apparently about 1863. He stands, with cane, and hand in jacket, revealing that large, receeding forehead so characteristic of the Huddle clan. The second is similar, with a top hat on, and with three of his Hyena Club buddies.  A third is from the files of the Smithsonian Institution's Library of the National Portrait Gallery, and is a large facial shot.  He was active in Washington, becoming an original member of the Art Club.  He was one of those, along with sculptress Vinnie Ream Hoxie, who petitioned the directors of the Corcoran Gallery in 1879 to allow artists to use the facility in the evenings to sketch from the antique.  He exhibited frequently in local groups.  His future wife's work was at times included.

In 1882 he finally settled down in a permanent studio, located apparently in the Renwick Building or perhaps in the Corcoran Building at Pennsylvania and 15th NW.  As he entered into his sixth decade of life, Fisher apparently found work plentiful and had abounding energy to complete more and more portraits and a few personal items.  As for the next ten years?  Paintings discovered today give us a look at his social surroundings.  At the time of death, Fisher was acclaimed by the Washington Post as "one of the best known portrait painters in the United States." So, the man was not a recluse nor was his work unappreciated.  The Lynchburg City Museum and the Maier Museum of Art at Randolph-Macon Woman's College have borne the large burden of work to re-discover Fisher.  As Dr. Simms related in his 1975 article, Fisher and others who deserve artistic recognition "worked hard and seriously at their art" and they used a variety of media.  In addition, they gave us history to view.  Their work "sustains no claim to outstanding literary merit" Simms concluded, "but the work of these talented artists faithfully records the faces, events, and tastes of their day, and earns them due recognition for genuine accomplishment."
Most of all, Fisher's desire to paint earned him a living, allowing him to spend a lifetime working with his genius!

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