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Vedder, Elihu (1836-1923)

Artist, Essayist, Illustrator

While still an adolescent, Elihu Vedder left New York and traveled with his family to the Caribbean, where he determined to be an artist. He journeyed to France in 1856 to study painting with Francois Edouard Picot; while in Europe he traveled in Italy and began a lifelong fascination with its art and landscape. Vedder returned to New York prior to the outbreak of the Civil War and tried to complete sketches for Vanity Fair while trying to succeed as an artist.

By 1865 he had finished some of the paintings that would bring him critical acclaim. Appleton’s Journal states that Vedder’s Egyptian "Sphinx" and "Sea Serpent" was "the talk in art circles," and characterizes his work as "striking and original," though lacking in finish (“Brief Notes” 155). In 1869 Vedder married Caroline Beach Rosekrans with whom he had three children, and though he frequently visited and exhibited in America, he relocated to Italy, maintaining homes in Rome and Capri. One of his most well-known endeavors is his illustration of Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam; Vedder composed a series of fifty intricate drawings which were exhibited in Boston in 1887 and are now held by the Smithsonian.

Vedder published his autobiographical ruminations as The Digressions of V (1910). In this work, Vedder discusses his connection to the Pfaffian group. He describes that he became part of the group because the people with whom he lived in the 10th Street Studio often went to Pfaff's, saying "As every question started in the Studio ended with, ‘Let’s go over to Pfaff’s,’ I became for a time one of the Pfaff crowd of the Bohemians, as they were then called.” The commentary in his autobiography also includes a description of the establishment writing that “Pfaff’s was situated in a basement, and the room under the sidewalk was the den where writers and artists -- the latter mostly drawers on wood but not drinkers of water -- met.” In frequenting Pfaff's, Vedder also met Walt Whitman who he noted "had not become famous yet, and I then regarded many of the [Pfaff's] Boys as his superiors, as they did themselves" (226).

From painting and illustrating, Vedder turned to mural work and fulfilled a commission at the Library of Congress in 1896-97. His mural, Government, on the walls of the library "represents the abstract conception of a republic as the ideal state" (Library of Congress). His mural work also appears in Bowdoin College’s Walker Art Building on the west wall (1894) and on the ceiling of the Collis P. Huntington mansion in New York (W. Downes, “Elihu Vedder”). His paintings hang in galleries, colleges, and museums across the country including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Carnegie Institute, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Cornell University, Brigham Young University, Wellesley College, and the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco (Downes). He may have written his own epitaph on the dedication page of Digressions of V, characterizing himself as "[s]ome what o’ershadowed by great names... His aims if any are but these,--To be remembered and to please" (Vedder). He died in Rome in 1923.