Henry Livingston Hillyer’s ‘Spring on Rock Creek’ celebrates the season

By Daniel Fulco, Ph.D., Agnita M. Stine Schreiber Curator
In the spirit of spring, we hope you enjoy this painting in our collection.

spring on rock creek

Henry Livingston Hillyer (American, 1840–1886)
Spring on Rock Creek, 1880
Oil on canvas
14″ H x 24″ W
Collection of Washington County Museum of Fine Arts
Gif of Joseph Brewer, A1639,70.0022

In Spring on Rock Creek, Henry Livingston Hillyer created a serene, verdant view of this waterway, an adjoining path, and a nearby swing bridge. Judging by the color and size of the foliage and other greenery, this scene likely unfolds in April or May. Hillyer displayed his keen interest in the local geological formations by including the rocks in the foreground and small cliffs in the distance. On the right, the artist drew our attention to a large tree, the branches of which overhang the Creek, casting a beautiful reflection on the water.

An Ohio native, Hillyer (despite being blind in one eye) first studied art in New York with Aaron Draper Shattuck (1832–1928). Like his teacher, he was influenced considerably by Hudson River School painting and worked in this style for much of his career. After his training under Shattuck, Hillyer traveled to Europe to study art and after his return, he and members of his family moved to Washington, DC, where he established his first art studio. While living in Washington, Hillyer developed a passion for drawing and painting the local scenery, including Rock Creek, a tributary of the Potomac River that runs through what is now Rock Creek Park in DC and Maryland. Showing foresight, Hillyer wrote a letter to several local newspapers and lobbied Congress to designate Rock Creek as a public park, which eventually occurred through the passage of an official act in 1890.

Unfortunately, Hillyer had difficulty establishing himself in the art world because there were so many competing American landscape painters in the mid-1800s. Making very little money painting and teaching art, Hillyer had to work various jobs, including as a nurse during the Civil War and later for the US Postal Service. Since Hillyer’s family owned land in southeastern Georgia, the artist and his wife temporarily relocated there during the late 1870s and early 1880s, where they established some of the first schools in Camden County for young African Americans. The Hillyers taught there while Henry completed many watercolors of the surrounding landscape. In 1885, Hillyer went to Florida to help his brothers manage the family’s orange groves but sadly contracted malaria. Shortly thereafter, the artist returned to Michigan to visit relatives, though he died less than a week after arriving home.

This WeekendArt is sponsored by Mr. Roger Fairbourn