John Robinson Tate’s detailed ‘Old Sawmill, Maryland’ captures change in the image of a neglected mill

By Daniel Fulco, Ph.D., Agnita M. Stine Schreiber Curator

To mark the special exhibition Treasures of State: Maryland’s Art Collection (on view through Oct. 22), we hope that you enjoy this landscape. If you visit the museum, this work is included in the exhibition


John Robinson Tait (American, 1834–1909)
The Old Sawmill, Maryland, c. 1871–95
Oil on canvas
18 3/4″h x 27 7/8″w
Collection of Washington County Museum of Fine Arts
Museum purchase, A1475,67.0002

In The Old Sawmill, Maryland, John Robinson Tait painted a meticulously detailed scene, full of striking contrasts of light and shadow on the logs, ground, and foliage. He created the textures of the tree bark by using the pointed end of a brush to scratch lines into the wet pigment. The dazzling sunlight imbuing the scene, as well as the lush browns and greens, lend the painting a remarkable liveliness. This work is a poignant evocation of change, for it appears that the mill has been neglected or fallen on hard times. After the Civil War, many paintings shared similar, nostalgic themes about the passing of a quieter, simpler American life, particularly as industrialization advanced.

Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, Tait was artistically inclined as a child and first studied at Woodward College (located in his hometown). Upon graduating from Bethany College (West Virginia) in 1852, Tait became a pupil of Hudson River School artist William L. Sonntag (1822–1900), with whom he traveled to paint in Florence and Rome. While studying in Italy from 1853–59, Tait met several celebrated writers, including Thomas Buchanan Read (1822–72, also a portraitist), Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806–61) and Robert Browning (1812–89), and Frederick Tennyson (1807–98), brother of famed author, Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–92). For a time, Frederick led Tait to devote his energies more to literature than painting. In fact, Tait was often called a “poet artist” because he was an active cultural and social commentator, writing travel essays, poetry, and art criticism for periodicals.

Beginning in 1859, Tait relocated to Düsseldorf, where he spent twelve years and dedicated his time almost exclusively to painting, establishing his reputation as a landscape painter. The precise, realistic style found in The Old Sawmill, Maryland betrays the influence of German landscape painting techniques taught by artists such as Andreas Achenbach (1815–1910) and Johann Wilhelm Schirmer (1807–63) at the Düsseldorf Art Academy. From 1873–76, Tait returned to Europe, this time undertaking further landscape painting studies under Adolf Heinrich Lier (1826–82) and Hermann Baisch (1846–94) in Munich. After going back to America in 1877, Tait settled in Baltimore, where he continued to paint and write until his death. Interestingly, his wife, Anna Delores Tiernan (1838–1910), was the granddaughter of Luke Tiernan (1757–1839), who had originally settled in Hagerstown in 1784 but later relocated to Baltimore to pursue a career as an affluent merchant and philanthropist.

This WeekendArt is sponsored by Mr. Howard S. Kaylor