Oil painting on canvas. From the CFPL Art Collection. From the bequest of Ebenezer Rockwood Hoar, 1895.
William James Stillman’s The Philosophers’ Camp in the Adirondacks depicts a visit by the Adirondack Club—an offshoot of the Saturday Club—to the Adirondack wilderness in 1858. The trip was organized by the artist, who was a friend of a number of Saturday Club members. Stillman was a talented man of wide-ranging interests and occupations. He trained as an artist with Frederic Church—American landscape painter of the Hudson River School—and in London, where he was influenced by the pre-Raphaelites. He was also, at different points in his life, a journalist; a writer on art, current events, and other subjects; a diplomat (he was United States Consul in Crete and Rome); a political activist, involved in Kossuth’s Hungarian revolution; and a photographer. In 1855, he founded The Crayon: A Journal Devoted to the Graphic Arts and the Literature Related to Them, and through this periodical became acquainted with a number of the thinkers and writers of his time.
An outdoorsman, Stillman persuaded some of his friends in the Saturday Club to make a camping expedition to Follansbee Pond in the Adirondacks in August 1858. The party included Emerson, James Russell Lowell, Louis Agassiz, Estes Howe, Jeffries Wyman, John Holmes, Ebenezer Rockwood Hoar, Horatio Woodman, Amos Binney, Stillman, and a number of local Adirondack guides. Others were invited but declined to go.
Stillman’s interpretive painting of those who accompanied him on this trip was bequeathed to the Concord Free Public Library in 1895 by Ebenezer Rockwood Hoar, Emerson’s good friend in Concord and one of the 1858 campers. Identification of the figures in the piece is possible through a key sketched in pencil by Edward Waldo Emerson, also held by the library.
Ralph Waldo Emerson stands alone in the center, between two trees. Judge Hoar is the first figure from Emerson to the viewer’s right. Behind Emerson, at the left, a cluster of campers (a guide, Holmes, Howe, and Wyman) is grouped around scientific naturalist Agassiz, who is dissecting a fish. In front of Emerson, on the right side of the painting, marksmen (including Hoar, Lowell, and Woodman) engage in target practice under Stillman’s direction. (Stillman stands elbow-to-elbow with the figure raising a gun).
The Philosophers’ Camp is more than a record of the 1858 Adirondack Club trip. It conveys the artist’s sense of Emerson’s elevated relation to nature as expressed on this outing. The unprepossessing, even humble, figure of Emerson in the painting—too small for the inclusion of the kind of portrait detail that would allow the viewer readily to recognize the subject if not already aware of his identity—is central but not imposing, dwarfed by the massive trees surrounding it. But even with details of individual form and personality omitted, Emerson is conspicuous among the other campers—independent of his comrades, soaking up the wild majesty around him in contrast with his busy fellows, who are preoccupied with the concrete reality of nature. Stillman’s Emerson—who suggests the “transparent eye-ball” of Nature—is moved and defined by his immersion in the virgin forest, responding to it in a deeper, more direct, more spiritual way than the other campers.In his Autobiography of a Journalist, Stillman acknowledged his response to Emerson as the most important of the campers: “[T]his image of Emerson claiming kinship with the forest stands out alone, and I feel as if I had stood for a moment on a mount of transfiguration, and seen, as if in a vision, the typical American, the noblest in the idealization of . . . all the race . . . [A]s a unique, idealized individuality, Emerson looms up in that Arcadian dream more and more the dominant personality. It is as character, and not as accomplishment or education, that he holds his own in all comparisons with his contemporaries, the fine, crystallized mind, the keen, clear-faceted thinker and seer.”
This image may not be reproduced in any form, including electronic, without permission from the copyright holder(s), and without crediting the William Munroe Special Collections, Concord Free Public Library, Concord, Mass.