William H. Beard was born in Painesville, Ohio, in 1824. He studied with his older brother as a portrait painter, but was always interested in subjects found in nature. He also painted animals and landscapes before gaining a national reputation as a painter of satirical subjects of animals acting like humans. He began his career as a portrait painter in New York City, then joined Hudson River artists Albert Bierstadt, Sanford Gifford, and Worthington Whittredge for two years in Europe. When he returned to America in 1858 he opened a studio in Buffalo, New York, where he met his future wife, Caroline LeClaire (1), the daughter of prominent portrait and genre artist, Thomas LeClaire (2).
In 1866, Beard traveled by stage coach through Kansas to Denver, Colorado, with the noted travel writer Bayard Taylor. It was Beard’s intent to create sketches and study the mountain landscape for future paintings back in his New York studio. Even though he journeyed 400 miles by horseback in the mountains, he was not impressed with the western landscape and returned by stage coach through Nebraska via the South Platte and Platte River route to Lone Tree (Central City, Nebraska) where he was able to connect with a train returning to Omaha (3).
Although William H. Beard probably made several sketches on this western journey, most historians agree there is no record of his Colorado work. The Smithsonian Inventory of American Paintings (4) lists 127 paintings created by Beard and only a few of them seem to be related to this 1866 journey through Kansas, Colorado, and Nebraska: Indians on the plains, prairie chickens, a fox and a wildcat, deer and antelope paintings, and a grizzly in a western landscape. The Museum of Nebraska Art also has two significant Beard works associated with this 1866 journey, a 8½ x 12½" steel engraving titled On the Prairie and a 24 x 18" oil painting, Deer on the Prairie. MONA also has an excellent oil, a 20 x 24" self portrait.
Beard spent most of the last 40 years of his career working in his studio in the renowned The Studio Building, located on 10th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues in New York City, a structure built in 1857 for artists. In 1897, a reporter with The New York Times interviewed Beard and listed the artists Beard knew who had studios there in the past and present (5): Albert Bierstadt, J.G. Brown, William Merritt Chase, Frederick Church, Lockwood de Forest, William De Haas, Sanford Gifford, Winslow Homer, Emanuel Leutze, William Page, T. B. Reid, James Suydam, Hendrik-Kirk Kruseman Van Elten, Horatio Walker, Worthington Whittredge, and Thomas W. Wood. Beard was quoted that he had been working in this studio for over 36 years, further saying that Whittredge was there before him and still had a studio there.
Although William H. Beard was an excellent portrait and landscape painter, his major income derived from his paintings of allegorical and fantasy subjects, especially bears. As a member of the National Academy of Design, he exhibited those works there. It is also important to note his association with Albert Bierstadt, Sanford Gifford, and Worthington Whittredge, artists who also visited the Nebraska landscape and were influenced by the prairie.
William Holbrook’s works can be found in the following selected collections:
The Museum of Nebraska Art holds 3 works by William Holbrook Beard.
Researched and written by Gary Zaruba, 2011, a project of MONA’s Bison Society.
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