Art & Culture

William Preston Phelps

The New England Art Exchange recently acquired a number of intimate landscape paintings by well known Dublin, New Hampshire artist William Preston Phelps (1848-1923).

William Preston Phelps was born on the family farm at the foot of Mount Monadnock in what is now known as Chesham. His father, Jason, was a successful farmer, painter, and furniture maker. The young Phelps worked hard alongside him and later used his knowledge of farms and animals to accurately depict them in many of his paintings. Even at a young age, he made money for the family by creating paintings of his neighbors’ horses and cows.

Phelps went to school in Dublin where he was constantly drawing and filling his sketchbooks. At age 14, he began working for a sign painter in Lowell, Massachusetts and within seven years had not only married his boss’s daughter, but started his own sign making company in the same city.

He soon branched out to paint many of the landscapes he used on his handmade signs. Placing his finished paintings in the windows of his shop, Phelps developed quite a following in Lowell. Some of his local patrons thought that he deserved a more complete artistic education – one that could only be found at that time in Europe. They chipped in to pay for his trip to Munich in 1876. He began his studies at the Royal Academy of Art, where he studied painting under the European masters.

Phelps became quite lonely without his wife and returned to Lowell. Within two years he was ready to try Europe again, this time bringing his wife and two children with him. Back in Munich, he studied with Wilheim Velton, and explored the new art movement at the time called plein-air – painting outdoor scenes directly from life. Up until then, the tradition was to create studies in pencil, chalk, and watercolor. From these studies the artist would return to his studio and work from memory. The plein-air style was much more immediate and expressive.

Phelps spent five years living in Paris and traveling throughout Great Britain, often enjoying the company of other Lowell artists who made their way to Europe during this time including James Whistler, Walter Shirlaw, Frank Duveneck, and William Merritt Chase.

When Phelps returned to America he was hailed as a “conquering hero“ by his friends and patrons in Lowell. In 1890, his father died, leaving him the family farm to run. Phelps decided to move back to his birthplace in Chesham. He became reacquainted with the New Hampshire landscape and, of course, Mount Monadnock.

Because he still wanted to work directly from nature, he had to figure out how to handle painting in winter and stormy weather. He created a movable, horse-drawn studio heated by an oil stove. Some of his best works are his winter studies of Mount Monadnock, one of which hangs in the Currier Museum in Manchester.

Although Phelps lived until 1923, most of his artistic creativity ended after the accidental death of his son, and subsequent divorce from his wife, in 1904.

Phelps is best known for his paintings of Mount Monadnock in all kinds of weather, but many of his other studies of autumn woods, running brooks, and life on the farm are equally compelling. They show a freshness and impressionistic feeling of the landscape in and around Dublin. His family farm is still there on Brown Road, in Chesham, although his studio burned down in the early 1970’s. Many of his paintings were created in and around our area of New Hampshire.

New England Art Exchange
14 Depot Street, Peterborough