Originally published in the Union College Magazine, Fall 2014
We like to think of multitasking and career flexibility as contemporary phenomena, but the work of one Union alumnus of the 19th century was diverse enough to put even the most accomplished “Renaissance man” to shame.
William James Stillman was born in Schenectady in 1828, into a family of staunch Seventh-Day Baptists. Though a somewhat sickly and weak child, he developed a deep and abiding love of nature and an exploratory spirit in the then-wild Mohawk Valley. At Union, he was profoundly influenced by Eliphalet Nott’s intellectual generosity and rigor, which helped him reconcile his faith in divine providence with empiricism, reason and critical thinking.
Stillman graduated in 1848 and moved to New York City to become an artist—something not taught at Union at the time. He studied briefly with the painter Frederic Edwin Church, but soon began writing about art instead. In 1855, he co-founded The Crayon, America’s first periodical dedicated exclusively to the fine arts. As editor, Stillman promoted ideas drawn from the influential British art critic John Ruskin, the modern French Realist movement, and the progressive transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson. The Crayon articulated a distinctly American aesthetic, one that looked back to the old world while celebrating the unique visual character of the new.
In the late 1850s, Stillman took up photography, which at the time required knowledge and skills in fields ranging from optics to chemistry. In 1859, he published one of the first photographic portfolios of the Adirondacks, which included views that showcased both the grand and the old union intimate beauty of the mountain wilderness. The portfolio was dedicated to the group of intellectuals who joined him on a two-week camping trip on Follensby Pond (about six miles southeast of Tupper Lake) in 1858.
“The Philosopher’s Camp,” as it was known, included famed scientist Louis Agassiz, poet James Russell Lowell and Emerson himself. Stillman also memorialized the trip in a painting (now in the Concord Free Public Library) that depicts this group of luminaries in camp, immersed in nature and bathed in sparkling light. It was a particularly transformative experience for Emerson, who celebrated the trip and Stillman’s prowess as a woodsman in his poem, The Adirondacks, of 1867.
In 1861, Stillman was appointed Consul to Rome by William Henry Seward (Class of 1820), with the endorsement of their mutual mentor Nott. In 1865, he transferred to the Consulate in Crete, where he was active in the movement to obtain political independence from the Ottoman Empire. In addition to his diplomatic duties and political activism, he also developed a passion for archaeology and conducted early exploratory studies of sites on the island.
From Crete, Stillman went to Athens, where he produced an important portfolio of photographs of the Acropolis, published in London in 1870. He was the first photographer to study the site systematically and scientifically: he used a special lens to minimize optical distortion, and photographed the buildings from consistent distances to convey a uniform sense of their scale. Celebrated at the time, Stillman’s Acropolis photographs now figure in such collections as the Getty Museum and the Avery Library at Columbia University. Union’s Special Collections houses a unique set of prints from 1882 that duplicates and elaborates on this pioneering photographic work.
Stillman continued to draw and paint, and maintained close connections to contemporary art in both Britain and the US. His second wife, Marie Spartali, was a prominent painter of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, and their circle included Ruskin, the poet-artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and the designer-reformers William and Jane Morris. He continued to write art criticism, and in the 1870s began covering contemporary political events.
In 1886, he was appointed permanent correspondent at the Times of London for Greece and Italy. Based in Rome, he spent the next twelve years until his retirement traveling Europe and the U.S. He wrote on such contemporary events as the insurrections in the Balkans against Ottoman rule, the deadly clashes between Italian and Irish gangs in New York and New Orleans in 1891, and the scandalous bankruptcy of the Italian Banca Romana in 1893.
His last decade saw publications on a variety of subjects: a history of the unification of Italy, a biography of the Italian statesman Francesco Crispi, an archaeological work titled On the Track of Ulysses, and a study of the figures of Venus and Apollo in art. He also served as a consultant to the Metropolitan Museum of Art on its collection of ancient art from Cyprus, and was active in the Archaeological Institute of America, whose founding president was his close friend Charles Eliot Norton, the first professor of the history of art at Harvard.
Stillman completed his Autobiography of a Journalist less than a year before his death in 1901. It is an engaging chronicle of his international adventures as a painter, art critic, diplomat, photographer and reporter. Aside from his many concrete contributions to the artistic and cultural life of the late 19th century, Stillman truly lived out the principles of the liberal arts through his intellectual curiosity, his capacity for critical thinking, his aesthetic sensitivity, and his enduring, active engagement with the world.