John Dodgson Barrow (1824-1906) is one of a relatively few artists who are equally admired for both portraits and landscapes. Born in New York City, at age 15 Barrow moved with his family to the small central New York town of Skaneateles. This move was to prove hugely important to Barrow as an artist: the majority of his paintings are of people and places located in or near this Finger Lakes village.
Barrow was sent to England to complete his schooling, where he began his lifelong study of painting. Upon returning from England, Barrow moved to New York City, where in 1856, he opened a studio next to that of Charles Loring Elliott (1817-1868), one of America’s leading portrait artists and himself a former resident of Skaneateles. Barrow deeply admired and was influenced by Elliott. During this period, Barrow sketched Abraham Lincoln when he spoke at Cooper Union in 1860. The resulting portrait, probably Barrow’s best-known, is currently owned and displayed by the Chicago Historical Society.
Another influence on Barrow while he lived in New York City was George Inness (1825-1894), who encouraged Barrow’s interest in landscape painting. In his early years, Inness was associated with the Hudson River School of art, and in time, Barrow would be classified as “second generation” Hudson River School artist. Both Inness and Barrow show a thorough knowledge of nature, and their landscapes glorify it, especially through their use of light.
Between 1852 and 1879, Barrow’s works were included in 19 of the Annual Exhibitions of the National Academy. His paintings were also included in exhibits at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Boston’s Athenaeum, and the Union League of New York City. Many of these works were oils completed in winter based on sketches and memories of Skaneateles when Barrow visited in summer.
Barrow returned to Skaneateles for good in the 1880’s. He not only continued to paint but involved himself in civic and church affairs, taught in the Department of Fine Arts at Syracuse University, and wrote both poetry and art criticism. He designed the Soldiers and Sailors monument that stands in Skaneateles Lake View Cemetery. In 1900, he designed and built a large studio on land belonging to the Skaneateles Library, and he continued to paint there until his death in 1906.
Barrow left his studio and his paintings in trust to the Library in 1905, with the provision that only his artwork may be exhibited there. Now known as the John D. Barrow Art Gallery, the space has been expanded and renovated since Barrow’s time, and is currently home to more than 400 of Barrow’s works.
The recurring theme of Barrow’ s landscapes, and indeed of much of his life, is his enduring love for Skaneateles Lake and its surrounding hills. His most often quoted words were prophetic when first written, and are even more so today (taken from Barrow’s Centennial Address on July 4, 1876) :
“Let us especially remember the beauty of our lake and its shores, and resolve, that henceforth that present beauty, and in some measure at least, the restoration of the old shall ever be in our thoughts and among the constant and zealous efforts of our lives. May we all do something to this end, so that after another hundred years, our successors shall meet together and rejoice, and thank us for what we may have done for the pleasure and honest pride of their lives; when Skaneateles Lake shall be, as nature intended it, the loveliest and the most alluring of all our inland waters.”
–“A Conservation Strategy for a Static Non-Funded Collection: The John D. Barrow Art Gallery” (article by Susan Blakney of West Lake Conservators)