Film explores life of John Vanderlyn, first local artist to gain worldwide fame

Self portrait of Vanderlyn

Thomas Cole and the rest of the Hudson River School of landscape painters get all the notice these days, but Kingston’s John Vanderlyn was the first local artist to gain major fame around the globe. And what fame he gained, from his start as a protegé of the eternally controversial Aaron Burr and his years painting top portraits and murals to his opening of, and eventual bankrupting from, America’s first art gallery.

At 2 p.m. Sunday, May 7, West Hurley-based documentarian Tobe Carey and his Willow Mixed Media will be presenting a premiere screening of his latest work, The First Artist in America: The Life and Times of John Vanderlyn-Artist at — where else? SUNY Ulster’s Vanderlyn Hall in Stone Ridge.

It’s a great story…Vanderlyn was the first American artist to study in France, on Burr’s dime, and the first American artist to show in the Paris Salon — his self portrait. Later, the artist who’d started off studying methodology from his Kingston-based painter father, then style under the great Gilbert Stuart, won awards from the same Paris Salon and started scandals showing nudes in New York that required separate viewings for men and women.


Vanderlyn opened the first American art gallery, the Rotunda, dedicated to his 360° panoramas, his history paintings and his portraits of presidents and other notables, in New York City. But the enterprise broke him, forcing the painter into a peripatetic lifestyle chasing down paying portrait gigs until he ended up in Paris for a second stint of nearly ten years, only to return to live his final years back in Kingston penniless.

And yet the man’s art has lasted, even as it’s been seen as aged and anachronistic by various en suing art ages. Vanderlyn’s last big history painting, ‘Landing of Columbus,’ still dominates the U.S. Capitol Rotunda to this day; his 125 foot Panorama of Versailles has its own popular room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the same city that bankrupted him when he dared opening his own gallery.
Previous to The First Artist in America, Carey’s other recent films have included Rails to the Catskills, The Catskill Mountain House and The World Around, Sweet Violets, and Deep Water — Building the Catskill Water System.

This Sunday’s screening of the film starts at 2 PM in Vanderlyn Hall on the main SUNY Ulster campus in Stone Ridge. See Carey’s website at for more information.