“Paint each object as though it were the figure of your beloved,” wrote landscape painter Henry Hillyer in the front cover of his journal. In his short lifetime, Hillyer traveled widely and left a precious legacy of mostly small, jewel-like oils, painted with skill and with love, of scenes in the many parts of America where he worked and lived: Connecticut, New York State, Ohio, Michigan, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and the District of Columbia.
Hillyer was born into a prosperous family in Utica, Ohio, where his father was in the produce business. As a young man, Henry worked in his father’s business, by then located in the Fulton Market in New York City, but showed little aptitude for it. He enrolled in New York University and studied with landscape painter Aaron D. Shattuck. Like Shattuck, he was much influenced by the Hudson River School of landscape painting.
During the Civil War, Hillyer spent two months as a civilian nurse with McLelland’s Army and nursed the wounded at the Battle of Yorktown. After the war, Hillyer married and spent four months in Europe painting and studying. In 1868 he moved to a family rice plantation in Georgia where he built two schools for newly freed slaves. He also became active in local politics and was elected to two terms in the Georgia legislature.
Hillyer lived for a short time in Granville, Michigan, but finding the climate disagreeable, he moved with his family to Washington, D. C..
In Washington he opened an art studio in the Colonization Building on 14th Street and was a founder of the Washington Art Club. He often painted in Rock Creek Valley and was among the early advocates of its preservation as a park. In 1880, commenting on his many visits to Rock Creek Valley, he wrote: “Each visit has increased my love for its beauties, and my convictions that it was designed by the Creator for the rest and refreshment of this nation’s official slaves.”
In 1876, while continuing to paint, Hillyer accepted a job in the Money Order Division of the Post Office Department. About this time, his wife enrolled in the medical school of Howard University from which she graduated with honors. In 1881, she accepted a position at the Reform School for Girls in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and the Hillyers moved there. Henry became the superintendent of the grounds and buildings of the school, but did not enjoy the work, and after a succession of odd jobs, went to Florida in 1885 to help manage the family orange groves near Citra. After fifteen months in Florida, he contracted malaria and unwisely made a train journey back to Michigan to see his family. He died in Grand Rapids a few days after his return. His wife, Dr. Frances Hillyer, lived on until 1926, a respected physician in the
Fletcher/Copenhaver Fine Art is pleased to present a collection of Hillyer’s exquisite small landscapes. See them all on our web site: www.fc-fineart.com