Editor's note: The following essay, with Endnotes, is printed with permission of the Springfield Library and Museums Association. The essay was included in the 256 page illustrated 1999 catalogue titled Selections from the American Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts and the George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum, ISBN 0-916746-18-6, pp. 100-102. In addition to the essay, the catalogue contains an image and provenance of the painting and an exhibition schedule. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or if you have interest in purchasing the catalogue, please contact the George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts directly through either this phone number or web address:


Edward Lamson Henry, 1841-1919

The Peddler, 1879

(Oil on canvas, 13 5/8 X 19 1/2 inches, Inscribed at lower right: E L Henry / 79, George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum, Gift of Louis Cutler Hyde in memory of his wife, Marguerite Kirkham Hyde, 1.76.1)


Perhaps no artist played so consistently and so durably to the American cult of nostalgia in the last quarter of the 19th century as Edward Lamson Henry. Henry devised laboriously researched and detailed images intent upon preserving appearances and experiences that disappeared in reality even as they appeared in fiction in his art. He worked to shape a collective memory for a society anxiously conscious of obsolescence. The Civil War was past, but the present was in crisis, especially as science and technology -- the dominant forces at the Centennial Exhibition held in Philadelphia in 1876 - -remade society. Enough collectors responded to Henry's vision of an American ethos sited in rural experience, an American identity that originated in colonial achievement, and an American present on the cusp of fundamental change to make him a successful artist, perhaps the most successful in the specialized vein of historical genre. When Henry died in 1919, artist Will Low reported in the New York Evening Post that "few American artists ... have better served their country in preserving for the future the quaint and provincial aspects of a life which has all but disappeared."[1] In the early modernist age, Henry seemed the last anachronism, but he painted with conviction and sustained a strong following until his death.

Henry was born in Charleston, South Carolina, but, an orphan by seven, he grew up with cousins in New York. He studied painting there and in Philadelphia. While in Europe from 1860 to 1862 he worked with Charles Gleyre and Gustave Courbet in Paris. He served briefly in the Civil War as clerk on a Union transport ship, sketching African Americans and Union camps along the Virginia rivers. When he translated these experiences to paintings, he tapped a vein of interest that led to recognition as full academician at the National Academy of Design in 1869.

In New York, Henry was a fixture of the artistic community. He rented space at the Studio Building at 51 West Tenth Street, the hub of the American art scene, and later kept a studio at 3 North Washington Square. He joined the essential roster of clubs (Century, Salmagundi, Lotus, Union League) and artists' organizations (American Watercolor Society, Artists' Fund Society), and he was a central figure in the artists' colony at Cragsmoor in the Catskill Mountains, where, beginning in 1884, he established his principal residence. Henry was an avid collector of Americana, stuffing his house and studio with antique furniture, textiles, ceramics, metalware, architectural fragments, a research library and photographic archives, and, out back, an array of old carriages. Art critic Clarence Cook described the Cragsmoor house as "a museum of antiquarian curiosities in the field of relies of colonial life."[2] Henry used his collections as primary source material in devising his paintings, aiming for an unassailable historical authenticity. "Nothing annoyed him more," his wife Frances recalled, "than to see a wheel, a bit of architecture etc. carelessly drawn or out of keeping with the time it was supposed to portray."[3] An active member of the New-York Historical Society, Henry was regarded as an authority on American material culture, social history, and historic preservation, and his paintings were accepted as authoritative reconstructions: "in depicting scenes from the quiet, domestic life of a hundred years ago ... he is entirely in his element, and no one can be more familiar than he with all the details of the furniture, dress, and architecture of that time."[4] Henry's art and professional activities both derived from and contributed to the Colonial Revival of the postwar period. [5]

The Peddler is unmistakably typical of Henry's art. The painting is small, closely crafted, and characterized by clear lines, bright colors, and a straightforward narrative that is annotated with myriad authentic-seeming details and enlivened by touches of humor and local color. In 1880, critic S. G. W. Benjamin did not find such elements especially praiseworthy, slighting "the elaboration of his work," "the crudeness in color and hardness in outline," yet Benjamin placed Henry in context with admired genre artists John George Brown (Henry's particular friend) and Thomas Waterman Wood in a field dominated by Eastman Johnson and Winslow Homer.[6]

The peddler has arrived at a substantial old farmhouse on a warm and sunny summer's day (a door and several windows are open, and the flowers -- many of them staked or potted -- are in full bloom). His horse grazes, still harnessed to the wagon; lying on the seat, his dog nonchalantly regards the farm watchdog chained to the doghouse. An African-American woman carrying a basket of produce approaches from the left with a droopy-drawered child. The composition centers on the peddler himself and two white women, one young, the other older and presumably her mother. The peddler leans slightly backward to read the numbers on the scale from which is suspended a white sack containing angular objects. The older woman, who wears a pocketbook outside her apron, frowns slightly and makes a point by raising her left hand. On the ground behind the peddler is an assortment of shiny new tin hollowware; more tinware hangs from the wagon, which also contains dusters, brooms, and other household items. The story seems clearly told. The Yankee peddler and his characteristic wagon with racks, drawers, and cabinets are midway out on the circuit (he has sold a number of his Hadley brooms) from Connecticut (where most tinware was made) to points south and back. His main commodity, the gleaming tinware, may be of special interest to the young woman, whose age and pink dress suggest her eligibility for marriage; tinware was essential to setting up housekeeping in the mid-19th century.[7] The older woman, however, is directing the bargaining, arguing for a better price for the contents of the sack being weighed.

If the negotiation is the focus of the composition, the main figure is the house. The house brings to mind Quaker domestic architecture of southeastern Pennsylvania, in Chester, Montgomery, and Bucks counties: the random masonry, overall asymmetry of conjoined units, discontinuous stringcourse, layered cornice molding on the facade, several chimney stacks, forked lightning rod, dormer windows, the sequence of doorways, flag terraces, porches, and numerous other details are typical of the stone farmhouses of that area. At the peak of the gable the characteristic stone tablet bears the date 1741, clearly signifying the structure's colonial origins.[8] Henry was familiar with the region's architecture, having served on the committee charged with the restoration of Independence Hall for the Centennial. In 1880, furthermore, he exhibited what must have been a similar painting, The Old Trimble House, Chester Co., Penn: Built in 1741 (unlocated), at Gill's Gallery in Springfield, where The Peddler, too, may have been shown (indeed, Henry was "a particular favorite" at the Gill annual, showing a total of 20 paintings at 16 exhibitions there from 1878 to 1919).[9] Though the architecture is colonial, the scene is antebellum, for the peddler's wares and dress, especially the derby, likely date the narrative to around 1840.

According to Henry's wife, Frances, Henry "always tried to give some deeper meaning to a painting than to show just a pleasing picture."[10] Often he generated contrasts between male and female, rich and poor, black and white, old and new. Such contrasts are at play in The Peddler. The long-established homestead, the fixedness of the assiduously cultivated flowers, and the immovability of the white women stand against the transience of the traveling salesman and his vehicle, only momentarily stopped. The women's presumed virtue and natural conduct contrast with the stereotype of the Yankee as cunning, manipulative, and unlikely to conclude a fair trade. The white women, associated visually with the house and garden which they tend, contrast with the black woman and child, who wait at the margin to trade with the peddler (since, Henry suggests, the peddler will not stop at their house) and are associated with the stone carriage steps, now unused but alive with connotations of servitude. Perhaps the most stark confrontation is between a self-sufficient agrarian life and the increasingly intrusive, but not necessarily unwelcome, world of commerce and factory-made goods.



1. Quoted in Elizabeth McCausland, The Life and Work of Edward Lamson Henry, N.A., 1841-1919, New York State Museum Bulletin, no. 339) (Albany: 1345), p. 65.

2. Clarence Cook, Art and Artists of Our Time (1888; reprint, New York: Garland, 1978), Vol. 3, p. 267.

3. McCausland, p. 340.

4. Cook, p. 267.

5. See Alan Axelrod, ed., The Colonial Revival in America (New York: W. W. Norton & Company for The Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum, 1985).

6. S. G. W. Benjamin, Art in America: A Critical and Historical Sketch, H. Barbara Weinberg, ed. (1880; reprint, New York: Garland, 1976), p. 115. For The Peddler, see McCausland, p. 174, no. 139, fig. 189; Christian Klackner, Reproductions of the Works of E. L. Henry (New York: 1906), no. 47; Dean Flower and Francis Murphy, A Catalogue of American Paintings, Water Colors and Drawings (to 1923) in the George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum, Springfield, Massachusetts (Springfield, Mass.: George Waiter Vincent Smith Art Museum, 1976), p. 49.

7. See J. R. Dolan, The Yankee Peddlers of Early America (New York: Ciarkson N. Potter, 1964), pp. 141-148, 181-182.

8. See Aaron Siskind and William Morgan, Bucks County: Photographs of Early Architecture (New York: Horizon Press for The Bucks County Historical Society, 1974), c.g. pp. 28, 65, 71.

9. McCausland, p. 56.

10. Ibid., p. 339.

About the author

At the time of publication of the essay, these biographical notes for the author were included in the catalogue.

William T. Oedel (Ph.D., University of Delaware) is associate professor in the Art History Department at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. A former museum curator, he has contributed to several exhibitions and their catalogues, including The Peale Family: Creation of a Legacy, 1770-1870 (1996). Professor Oedcl is preparing a monograph on the artist John Vanderlyn and to that end was Smithsonian Senior Postdoctoral Fellow at the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C. He has held a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship in American art and a National Endowment for the Humanities Research Fellowship at the H.F. du Pont Winterthur Museum.

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