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William Coventry Wall
American Hudson River School Painter
At age 11, William Coventry Wall (1810 - 1886) emigrated with his parents to the United States from Oxford, England, settling in Mt. Pleasant, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. As a young man, he opened a shop for "Plain and Fancy Portrait and Picture Frames" in Pittsburgh where he offered art supplies and frames for sale. The Great Fire of 1845, consuming 56 acres of the city, destroyed Wall's shop and marked a turning point in his artistic career. Self trained as a painter; Wall completed oils of Pittsburgh after the fire from which lithographic prints were made for sale to the public. The prints, which were highly successful, earned Wall a reputation as an artist and brought him more commissions.
Wall occasionally left the city to accompany fellow artists George Hetzel and Joseph Woodwell to Scalp Level, an artist's retreat near Johnstown. He also traveled through the Monongahela, Allegheny, Conemaugh, and Susquehanna River valleys to paint "en plein air," or directly from nature. On the Monongahela is the result of one of Wall's trips through this river valley. It shows a pioneer cabin along the placid curve of the riverbed. A yellow tinged, late afternoon sky sheds a golden light over the mountains and along the path that leads to the cabin. It is a harmonious view of man in nature although the distant view of a steamboat on the water suggests the future encroachment of civilization. The painting carries a certain primitive quality in the sharp focus, attention to every detail and lack of atmospheric perspective, all of which speaks to Wall's lack of formal training. These things do not diminish the quality of the painting but rather add to its charm.
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
The following biography is based on information sent to AskART.com by Frank J. Kurtik, who co-authored the essay for "Wall to Wall to Wall," 1998 museum exhibition featuring the artist by the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art:
William Coventry Wall was born in England in 1810, and in 1821, emigrated with his parents, William and Lucy, to the United States. The family settled in Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania, a small town in the southwestern corner of the state. Not much is known about his youth, especially anything conclusive about any form of education in the arts. It is known that he married Catherine Westervelt in the 1830s and that they resided in Louisville, Kentucky where William established a business as a looking glass manufacturer.
In 1841, the young couple moved up the Ohio River to Pittsburgh, where William opened a shop for "Plain and Fancy Portrait and Picture Frames" and also sold art supplies such as brushes, canvas and varnish. Four years later, much of Pittsburgh was destroyed by fire, including William's shop. Fortunately for him and his family, their home was spared and William was able to save some materials from his shop. He painted views of what became known as the Great Fire of 1845 and sent them to Philadelphia to have lithographs made from them. The prints were widely circulated and brought William much acclaim.
Soon after the success of his lithographs, William received a commission to paint a scene of the Ohio river below Pittsburgh for "Arthur's Magazine." An engraving made from this scene was published in the February 1846 issue. During this period, William also engaged in decorative banner painting and theatrical scene painting, and in 1847, he and fellow Pittsburgh artist, Jasper Lawman, accompanied a theatrical troupe down the Ohio and the Mississippi all the way to Vicksburg.
In the 1850s, William took up photography, still in its infancy, and entered photographs in local exhibitions. He continued to paint, giving much attention to the depiction of historical events, commissioned views of homes and landscapes. He traveled far afield in the pursuit of the last category to paint directly from nature throughout western and central Pennsylvania.
He also went with a small group of fellow artists, including George Hetzel, on summer trips to Scalp Level, a rural area near Johnstown, Pennsylvania that became identified as a small, seasonal, portable colony of Pittsburgh artists who painted en plein air.
William Coventry Wall lived in or near Pittsburgh the rest of his life. He and his wife raised a rather large family, and he was apparently successful as a full-time artist. He fully engaged himself in his community, from being active politically, such as serving as president of the Buchanan and Breckenridge Club in the 1850s, to frequently entering regional art exhibitions. Much of his work was sold through two Pittsburgh galleries, Boyd's and J. J. Gillespie. He painted up to the end of his life which came in 1886.
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