Seth Steward Lake Painting
The painting is housed in its original deep molded gilt-gesso frame (some minor losses) with overall dimensions of 33.5″ x 21.5″ and a sight size of 27″ x 15″.
This oil on canvas scene was painted in 1914 (signed and dated lower left) by Seth Wyman Steward, Jr. (1844-1927) of Monson, Maine when the artist was 70 years old.
This photo of Seth working in his studio was taken circa 1915, so it captures how he would have looked during the time period when he created this lake painting.
At that point in his life he had been working as a professional painter for nearly 50 years, ever since returning home to Maine in 1865 after serving in the Union Army during the Civil War. He advertised himself as a “painter, decorator and artist in oil” who also “hung paper and painted carriages.”
Seth was the ninth of ten children born to Seth W. and Eliza Steward. The Stewards were early settlers and farmers in Monson, a small town that was established in 1822 in the north-central lakes region of the state. The existence of Steward Road and Wyman Road in the rural outskirts of Monson today are a testament to the artist’s family roots in the town.
Fortunately for Seth, the decades following the Civil War were relatively prosperous ones for Monson, due largely to the 1870 discovery of an abundance of high quality slate throughout the township which led to a population boom as quarry workers and managers moved into the region.
Seth’s formal education as an artist was minimal, however, consisting of some lessons by a Mr. Cameron, a California artist who summered just north of Monson in a resort community on Mount Kineo Island in Maine’s largest body of freshwater, Moosehead Lake.
Despite his lack of academic art training, Steward’s talent allowed him to earn a living and support a family as a self-employed artist throughout his adult life. He relied almost exclusively on the beguiling lake scenery, pastoral settings and native wildlife in his home region as the subject matter for his paintings.
Steward painted Moosehead Lake from multiple perspectives, as well as the 638-acre Lake Hebron, around which the town of Monson was settled. Although much smaller than Moosehead Lake, Monson’s Lake Hebron also attracted tourists during its boom years (roughly 1870-1920), which correspond to the most productive years of Steward’s career.
Our 1914 painting is a good example of Steward’s Lake Hebron landscapes. The bird’s eye view of Monson below helps to pinpoint the exact location Steward chose for the painting.
Imagine entering and zooming in on the map above until you are standing in front of the pine tree that emerges in profile near the village at the very bottom of the lake (click on the image to enlarge it). Looking up the lake, you would see topography that is very much like what is shown in Steward’s painting – a narrow channel marked by an island tuft on the right, a small bay extending behind the point on the left, and a mountain peak and foothills extending from left to right in the distance. (The Appalachian Trail now passes through those hills.)
Lake Hebron has an east (village end) to west (mountains end) orientation, so the painting’s rosy glow and illumination on the northeastern side of the slope tells us that Steward is portraying the light at sunrise rather than sunset. There are also five limbed logs floating in the water, a common sight during the 19th and early 20th centuries on Maine lakes and rivers that were waterways for logs to travel the long distances between timber harvesting sites and downstream lumber yards.
Although Monson is near a major north/south waterway, the Piscataquis River, these logs more likely would have been cut nearby and floated down the lake to be processed at a local mill. Indeed, the segment of the bird’s eye map of Monson below shows floating logs clustered between a boat and the village, where historical records document the location of an early sawmill at the lake’s outlet.
Interestingly, we found photos of another Seth Steward painting of a nearly identical scene which the seller had titled “View from the bridge, Moosehead Lake, Maine.”
That painting (shown above) was in the personal collection of the prominent New York art dealer Richard T. York and sold at Christies after his death in 2003. The composition differs from our painting only in the position of the boat, the lack of logs in the foreground, the slightly more expansive perspective relative to the distance across water to the small island at the center, and its wider angle view of the area to the left (south) of the mountain.
Since Steward was well known for his portrayals of Moosehead Lake, we can only assume that either the art dealer or the auction house made the uninformed assumption that the painting depicted Moosehead – despite it being inscribed “Monson Village” on the back, which more likely identified the location of the scene itself than simply the artist’s home base. Furthermore, the painting shown above is unlike any of Steward’s other paintings of Moosehead Lake, which tended to boldly emphasize the dramatic mountainous topography all around that lake, as shown in the following images of Seth Steward Moosehead paintings from the James D. Julia Auction archives.
In addition to his landscape paintings of lake and pastoral scenes, Steward created wildlife paintings to sell to affluent rusticators who visited his home region. Below is an example of just such a souvenir, a small painting created as a rebus-like memento of Moosehead Lake.
The Moosehead region was particularly popular among sportsmen who traveled from urban areas to hunt and fish with local guides. Steward decorated the souvenir canoe paddles below with a moose on the blade and a rifle on the handle of one, and a trout on the blade and a canoe, rod and line on the handle of the other. The paddles have the characteristic long, flat-handled shape of traditional Moosehead guide paddles.
Steward also painted full-size fish portraits to sell to wealthy sports, such as this brook trout hanging against a faux birch bark background. Creating paintings for sportsmen must have been an increasingly successful business venture, as Seth’s son Walter L. Steward (b. 1877) became a painter whose work focused much more on wildlife art than on the large landscape paintings upon which his father built his career. W. L. Steward’s brook trout and pickerel paintings with a faux birch background (dated 1908 and 1909) below are very similar to his father’s fish paintings.
The photo below, given to us by a member of the Steward family, shows a trade show booth that the Stewards set up to exhibit their work in the early 20th century. This booth was perhaps at one of the annual Sportsmen’s Exhibition Association meetings in New York, which attracted a contingent of Maine guides and sporting camp owners from the late 1800’s into the early 1900’s.
Other paintings aimed at the tourist industry were scenes painted on renowned Monson slate, such as this circa 1920 lake painting by W. L. Steward.
Over the years we have met and acquired art from some of Seth Steward’s direct descendants and extended family members, and have enjoyed traveling and canoeing in the Moosehead Lake region that provided the Stewards with seemingly endless inspiration. While knowing the cultural and physical contexts that shaped Seth Steward’s art enhances our appreciation and understanding of it, his lake paintings also have a more universal aesthetic appeal. Anyone who has ever had the pleasure of being on a lake during the quiet moments of sunrise will be emotionally transported there again thanks to this artist’s enduring legacy.