Walter Shirlaw, born on August 6, 1838, was only three (fourteen according to one obituary) when he came to Hoboken, New Jersey from his place of birth, Paisley, Scotland. As a young man, he found work as a bank note engraver, a profession that he continued in Chicago, where he lived between 1865 and 1870. But already in 1861 he was exhibiting genre paintings at the National Academy of Design. In 1868, Shirlaw was a member of the Chicago Academy of Design, which would become the Art Institute of Chicago, after changing its name from the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts.
Shirlaw spent the years 1870-77 in Munich, at the height of the movement led by Wilhelm Leibl in which a low-keyed, dark palette, combined with bold, virtuoso brushwork, were applied to realist subject matter. Michael Quick (in Quick, Ruhmer, and West, 1978, p. 28) defined the time of Shirlaw’s arrival (1870-73) as an especially experimental period in progressive German painting. Shirlaw’s teachers, however, sided with tradition. The genre painter Arthur Ramberg (1819-1895) and Wilhelm von Lindenschmidt (1829-1895), his successor at the Munich Academy, taught Shirlaw composition. The painter of genre scenes and landscapes, Alexander von Wagner (1838-1919) was Shirlaw’s teacher in painting. T. H. Bartlett (in American Artists and Their Works, 1889, vol. 1, p. 23) mentioned that Shirlaw regarded Leibl as too realistic.
Shirlaw won a scholarship at the Academy in 1874, the year in which he executed Toning the Bell (Art Institute of Chicago). Meanwhile, he was active as one of the ”Duveneck Boys” in Polling. Sheep Shearing in the Bavarian Highlands (Private collection), painted under Lindenschmidt’s direction in 1876, is regarded as one of Shirlaw’s most important pictures. He exhibited it upon his return to America at the National Academy in the following year; in 1878, it won an Honorable Mention in Paris.
In 1877, the second school year of the Art Students League, Lemuel E. Wilmarth announced that he would be returning to teach at the NAD. Frank Waller (1842-1923) took over as president of the ASL, and Shirlaw was hired to teach painting and drawing. The appointment was endorsed by Waller: “In Munich . . . he was regarded as one of the strongest of the American students and had the strong personality which would attract and influence others to have confidence in him, was so genuine in his artistic impulses and in his interest in the development of art in this country. . . .” (quoted by Landgren, 1940, p. 32).
The hiring of Shirlaw and William Merritt Chase seemed to signify a preference of Munich over Paris among the members of the Art Students League, however, while Chase was under Leibl’s spell, Shirlaw was strictly academic. During the fourth season at the ASL, Shirlaw taught composition. Thomas Wilmer Dewing replaced Shirlaw in this position in 1880. Although an Associate of the National Academy of Design, Shirlaw resigned, explaining that the Academy was too much focused on exhibitions, at the expense of teaching. He turned to the Society of American Artists, a more liberal group founded in June of 1877 in the home of Richard Watson Gilder and his wife Helena de Kay. Shirlaw himself, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and Wyatt Eaton were the artists-founders of the SAA. Within a year, there were twenty-two members (Fink and Taylor, 1975, p. 80). This new, mostly younger group of painters collectively expressed more liberal aesthetic tastes, compared to the less progressive members of the National Academy.
Doll and Richards Gallery in Boston was the setting for Shirlaw’s one-man exhibition in 1880. Meanwhile, he was active as an illustrator. The artist published drawings in Scribner’s Monthly and Harper’s Magazine, and did illustrations for various books. In 1889, Shirlaw visited Crow and Cheyenne reservations to illustrate scenes from the life of these tribes. He was also a muralist and a designer of stained-glass windows. Four murals, representing “The Abundance of Land and Sea,” were painted for the dome of the Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building at Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition, where he showed popular favorites Toning the Bell and Sheep Shearing in the Bavarian Highlands, along with a pompous nude entitled Rufina (Century Association, New York). Later (1896-97), he executed Sciences, a mural for the Library of Congress. Walter Shirlaw was an American artist who helped the younger painters promote French impressionism, by founding the Society of American Artists. When Shirlaw died on December 26, 1909, another movement in American art was under way: the Ash Can School, an updated urban American realism, which utilized a painterly technique derived from the Munich School, where Shirlaw was inspired.
Benjamin, S. G. W., Our American Artists . Boston: D. Lothrop and Co., 1886, pp. 88-103; Sheldon, George William, American Painters. New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1879, pp. 96-98; Benjamin, S. G. W., Art in America: A Critical and Historical Sketch. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1880, p. 207; Bartlett, T. H., ‘Walter Shirlaw,” American Art Review 2 (1881): 97-102, 145-149; American Artists and Their Works. Boston: Estes and Lauriat, 1889, vol. 1, pp. 19-32; Hartmann, Sadakichi, A History of American Art. Boston: L. C. Page and Co., 1902, vol. 1, p. 232; Caffin, Charles H., The Story of American Painting. New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1907, pp. 114, 119; Huneker, James Gibbons, “Seen in the World of Art,” New York Sun, 12 March 1911, sec. 3, p. 4; LaFollette, Suzanne, Art in America: From Colonial Times to the Present Day. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1929, p. 207; Isham, Samuel, The History of American Painting. New York: Macmillan, 1936, pp. 382, 445; Landgren, Marshal, Years of Art: The Story of the Art Students League of New York. New York: Robert M. McBride & Co., 1940, pp. 27-28, 32-34, 42; Weimer, Aloysius G., “The Munich Period in American Art,” Diss., University of Michigan, 1940, pp. 151-161; Saint-Gaudens, Homer, The American Artist and His Times. New York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1941, p. 160; Clark, Eliot Candee, History of the National Academy of Design. New York: Columbia University Press, 1954, pp. 105-106, 130, 172; Hayes, Bartlett H., Jr., American Drawings. Drawings of the Masters Series. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1965, pp. 58, 136; Gerdts, William H., The Great American Nude: A History in Art. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1974, pp. 110-111; Fink, Lois Marie and Joshua C. Taylor, Academy: The Academic Tradition in American Art. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1975, pp. 153-155; National Academy of Design, A Century and a Half of American Art. New York: 1975, pp. 108-109; Sellin, David, American Art in the Making: Preparatory Studies for Masterpieces of American Painting, 1800-1900. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1976, pp. 53, 58-59; Stebbins, Theodore E., American Master Drawings and Watercolors. New York: Harper and Row, 1976, pp. 212, 214; Quick, Michael, Eberhard Ruhmer and Richard V. West, Munich and American Realism in the 19th Century. Sacramento, CA: E. B. Crocker Art Gallery, 1978, cat. nos. 59-60; Quick, Michael, Artists by Themselves: Artists’ Portraits from the National Academy of Design. New York: 1983, pp. 80, 82; Hirschl and Adler Galleries, The Arts of the American Renaissance. New York: 1985, cat. nos. 70-71; Spassky, Natalie, American Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York: 1985, pp. 529-530; Zellman, Michael David, 300 Years of American Art. Secaucus, NJ: Wellfleet Press, 1987, p. 294; Revisiting the White City: American Art at the 1893 World’s Fair. Hanover: University Press of New England, 1993, p. 317; American Arts at the Art Institute of Chicago: From Colonial Times to World War I. New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1998, cat. no. 96; James C. Cooke, in Encyclopedia of American Art before 1914. Ed. Jane Turner. London: Macmillan, 2000, pp. 463-464; Dingwerth, Shawn and Leland G. Howard, “Walter Shirlaw: The Other American in Munich,” Fine Art Connoisseur 4 (January-February 2007): 48-53.
Submitted by Richard H. Love and Michael Preston Worley, Ph.D.