Thomas Hill immigrated to America from England as a child in 1844. He began his art career as a carriage and chair painter and then entered the Pennsylvania Academy in 1853 in Philadelphia studying under Peter F. Rothermel, a painter of portraits and dramatic historical themes.
When health problems led him to seek the warmer California climate, he first moved to San Francisco in 1861 at age 32 and advertised as a portrait painter before making his first trip to Yosemite in 1862 with landscape artists Willam Keith and Virgil Williams. In San Francisco Hill’s ability to paint portraits and animals in landscape settings led to commissions such as the Pioneer Society’s William Ralston Driving His Two Horse Buggy, an example of Hills early “stiff technique” (Harrison, 1989:22) before development of his mature style. Ralston became a notable patron reputedly buying the entire contents of Hill’s San Francisco studio in 1864 to decorate his Belmont manor (Harrison, 1989). Hill had begun exhibiting paintings of Yosemite before traveling to Paris in 1866 to study with Paul Meyerheim, known for his animal subjects. While in Paris, Hill was influenced by the Barbizon landscape painters. He returned to Boston for a few years before returning to San Francisco in 1871 to join the expanding art movement and to help found the San Francisco Art Association.
Unhappily married, Hill maintained a family home in Oakland while he spent most of his time in a studio built in Yosemite at Wawona. He wintered in nearby Raymond or in San Francisco where he had a studio in the Flood Building. He became a member of the Bohemian Club in 1873 and by the late 1870’s was a wealthy man from his grand landscapes, particularly the scenes of Yosemite which he painted over 5,000 times in his lifetime earning him the title of “Artist of the Yosemite” (AskArt, Thomas Nygard Gallery). Hill has been considered the most prominent landscape painter in California in the late nineteenth century and his spectacular landscape scenes were popular in art expositions across the country (AskArt, Braarud Fine Art). He was also was well known for paintings of the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and landscapes of Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, Yellowstone National Park, and the Sierra Nevada Mountains. A Hill painting of the Muir Glacier in Alaska, commissioned by John Muir, is recognized as one of the most important works of art of the period (AskArt). He was a prolific painter who was known for the speed in which he created paintings. His son, Edward Rufus Hill also became a professional artist and often accompanied his famous father on painting trips (Baird, 1970). By the late 1890s his works fell out of favor and he fell upon hard economic times. He suffered a series of strokes beginning in 1896 which left him paralyzed and during the last three years of his life he needed constant care and was unable to paint. His death in 1908 is believed to have been a suicide.
Hill was versatile in style from very tightly executed ultra-realistic paintings to spontaneous brushstrokes of strong color. He painted both grandiose masterpieces and dashed off souvenir paintings of Yosemite (Mills, 1956). Hill’s prosperity vacillated with the general economic decline of the 1880s and the favoring of European art by wealthy art patrons. The grand landscapes of the nineteenth century were out of favor for most of the twentieth century with the advent of modern art, but have been rediscovered with growing appreciation in the twenty-first century.
AskArt – Art Appraisals, Art Value. Action Prices, Art Database. www.askart.com
Baird, Dr. Joseph A., ed. 1970. Catalog: “A Century of California Painting 1870-1970- Treasures of the Society of
California Pioneers.” CA: Crocker-Citizens National Bank
Harrison, Alfred C. Jr. June/July, 1989. Collections. Magazine Art of California.
Mills, Paul. 1956. Catalog: “Early Paintings of California.” Oakland Art Museum.