Daniel Folger Bigelow, the nationally known landscape painter, was born on a farm in Peru, Clinton County, NY, on July 20 1823. As a child, Daniel stood on a chair and studied a wall painting. Between farm chores, he would sit on a fence and look across Lake Champlain, watching the magnificent change of colors on Mount Mansfield.
His pencil sketches pleased his parents, but they did not take his talent seriously, believing it was an impractical way to make a living.
As a teenager, to earn money for paints, he designed leaves and folded hands for gravestones at the local quarry. Some of the old tombstones in the local cemeteries are believed to contain his designs.
He also painted some portraits to obtain money for paints, but his first love was nature. When he was young, he met Asahel Powers, the itinerant Vermont folk artist, and portrait painter. He credited Powers for teaching him “the delicacy of colors.” and later said that he had a “passionate love” for the colors of his native Northern New York.
When he was 20, Bigelow went to the city of New York and decided to make painting his life’s work. At 35 years of age, he moved to Chicago and established a studio in the Crosby Opera House. After 13 successful years, his studio and lifelong work were destroyed during the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. He relocated to another studio and rebuilt his career.
Although he lived in the Midwest, Bigelow’s painting was influenced by the Hudson River School. His brush would paint every leaf, twig, and pebble, using soft misty colors, making his work almost photographic and the art correspondent for the Chicago Tribune in the 1870s labeled his paintings “gems.”
During the summer and autumn, he would roam, sketching, through Northern New York and New England. He then spend the winter in his Chicago studio, working from his sketches and painting the colors from memory. Since painted dishes were popular in the Victorian era, Bigelow also spent some time painting china. (Nine of these sketches and some of his painted china are in the collections of the Clinton County Historical Association in Plattsburgh).
About 1887, Bigelow was asked to become a charter member of the Academy of Design, which developed into the Art Institute of Chicago. He also exhibited at the National Academy of Design, the Philadelphia Centennial of 1876, and the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.
In 1865 at 41, Bigelow married Charlotte Barnes of Schuyler Falls, Clinton County, NY, the oldest daughter of Dr. Melvin A. Barnes. They had three children, all born in Chicago. The oldest was Folger Allen Bigelow, who was accidentally shot by a friend in 1891 when he was only 23 years old. Folger painted still-life pictures and he and his father taught and painted together in the Chicago studio. The only daughter, Florence Edgerton Bigelow, painted flowers with watercolors and exhibited them in several galleries around the city.
According to his wife, Charlotte, Daniel Bigelow was a fussy dresser, always wearing neat, clean, starched white shirts. The artist had complimentary press throughout his life and was considered “a delightful man” with a mild manner and a kindly face.
In his 1880s, Bigelow was honored at a banquet given by the Society of Artists for his services to art in Chicago. One of the reasons for the popularity of his work in the Midwest was the interest of the new wealthy industrialists and railroad promoters who originally came from the East. They could afford to buy landscapes of New England and scenes of old
homesteads they remembered growing up.
Daniel Folger Bigelow painted up to the day he died at 87 on July 14, 1910. For over 50 years, the artist recorded the scenery and magnificent colors of Northern New York home on canvas for posterity.
Illustrations, from above: Daniel Folger Bigelow painting in his Chicago studio; “View of Old Bennington, Vermont,” by Daniel Folger Bigelow, ca. 1870, (courtesy Bennington Museum); and a summer sketch Daniel Folger Bigelow, 1876 (courtesy Clinton County Historical Association).
A version of this article first appeared in Antiquarian. It was written by his granddaughter Caroline Bigelow Gregorvorius and published by the Clinton County Historical Association. Copies of the entire piece are available free of charge by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.