An eccentric loner paints New York at dusk and in moonlight

Louis Michel Eilshemius had the right background to become an establishment painter.

Born to a wealthy family in New Jersey in 1864, he was educated in Europe and then Cornell University. After persuading his father to let him enroll in the Art Students League and pursue painting, he returned to live at his family’s Manhattan brownstone at 118 East 57th Street.

His early work earned notoriety and was selected for exhibition at the National Academy of Design in the 1880s.

“Eilshemius’s early artistic style was rooted in lessons he gleaned from his studies abroad, specifically the landscape aesthetics of the Barbizon School and French impressionism,” states the National Gallery of Art.

New York Rooftops,” undated

In the 1890s and 1900s he traveled the world, published books of poetry and a novel, and continued to paint. But what one critic called his “outsized” ego led Eilshemius, by all accounts a loner and eccentric, to reject the contemporary art scene.

“By 1911, disconcerted by the lack of attention his paintings attracted, he had renounced his formal training and transitioned to an entirely self-conscious and seemingly self-taught style.”

That self-taught style was dreamy, romantic, and visionary. Influenced by reclusive 19th century painter Albert Pinkham Ryder, it was described as having a “sinister magic.”

“Autumn Evening, Park Avenue,” 1915

“The paintings of this time became increasingly less conventional and punctuated by an element of fantasy, depicting voluptuous nudes and moonlit landscapes,” states the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery. “With whimsical flourish, Eilshemius also painted sinuous frames onto these pictures, thereby adding both dimensionality and flatness to his lyrical and romantic scenes.” 

Though he isn’t known as a New York City streetscapes painter, Eilshemius seems to have occasionally painted the city around him—creating muted, mystical scenes of Gotham’s shabbier neighborhoods in twilight and moonlight.

As Eilshamius turned away from the art world, he became more of an oddball, a “bearded, querulous, erratic man whose gaunt figure was a stock one in the galleries that never hung his work,” according to his obituary in the New York Times.

East Side New York,” undated

Now he was living in the dusty family brownstone with just his brother, Henry. When he wasn’t haranguing gallery owners to buy his work, he was handing out pamphlets touting himself as an artistic genius, or writing thousands of letters to city newspapers. (The Sun printed some of them under amusing headlines, states his obituary.)

As the 20th century went on, however, Eilshemius was rediscovered by the art world. In the 1920s and 1930s he had numerous exhibits, and his talent was recognized by the critics of the era.

“At this time, his success both confounded and fueled his perceived peculiarities and erratic behavior and, injured in an automobile accident in 1932, Eilshemius became increasingly reclusive,” according to the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery.

“New York Street at Dusk,” undated

When Henry died in 1940, Eilshemius was left ailing and impoverished in the family’s “gloomy, gaslit” brownstone. In 1941 he came down with pneumonia, but he protested going to the hospital, so doctors put him in Bellevue’s psych ward.

He died in December of that year, in debt but with the recognition he always wanted.

“A feisty rebel and a tireless iconoclast, he never painted to satisfy the fashions of his day, but only to please his own strange and sometimes nightmarish vision,” wrote David L. Shirey in the New York Times in 1978, in a piece on an exhibit of Eilshemius’ work. “It was a vision characterized by extraordinary personal insight and imagination.”

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25 Responses to “An eccentric loner paints New York at dusk and in moonlight”

  1. countrypaul Says:

    As with the last artist you posted, the boxy tower in “New York at Night (1910)” seems to come from a later time than the more spire-topped buildings of that era. Perhaps it’s just the murky texture. I do like his work, though.

  2. Larry Gertner Says:

    Even for an Impressionist, his people are just so weird looking.

  3. An eccentric loner paints New York at dusk and in moonlight — Ephemeral New York – yellow in grey Says:

    […] An eccentric loner paints New York at dusk and in moonlight — Ephemeral New York […]

  4. Irina Says:

    Why do you think the galleries didn’t want to give him a chance and his work didn’t get recognition? It doesn’t look to be half as bad as some other art that was for sale during this period.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I’d guess it has to do with the clubby sensibility of the art world, then and now. Think of all the excellent writers, painters, filmmakers, and other artists who can’t get their foot in the door because their work isn’t trendy in the moment.

  5. VirginiaLB Says:

    These are wonderful paintings. Too bad he wasn’t accepted in his day. Thanks for sharing these.

  6. Greg Says:

    Pretty cool stuff. I wonder where “New York Street at Dusk” could be – you don’t see slopes like that much in Manhattan. Maybe somewhere uptown.

  7. Greg Says:

    It looks like a dramatic hill to me, which would not jibe with 57th street at all. But if it is intented to be more abstract, then you may be right.

    • Bob Says:

      It is uphill from 3rd avenue to 2nd avenue along 57th Street, if not exactly Himalayan in its slope.

  8. Bob Says:

    New York Rooftops was painted in 1908. This photograph is from Lexington and 57th looking west, and the spires seem to follow.

  9. Jennifer Says:

    I enjoy your artist profiles immensely. Thank you.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      You’re welcome, this painter was new to me, but very interesting to research and write about.

  10. The Naked City, Louis Michel Eilshemius – This isnt happiness Says:

    […] The Naked City, Louis Michel Eilshemius […]

  11. Tom B Says:

    In the 1976 movie “LIFEGUARD” Ann Archer worked in an LA Art Gallery. She told Sam Elliot she sold an Eilshemius. Now I know what that means. Thanks ENY.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      You’re welcome Tom! I’ve never heard of that movie, but if it mentions Eilshemius, someone connected to it must know their painters.

  12. velovixen Says:

    When people say this city “isn’t what it used to be,” they might mention a favorite restaurant that’s gone or how expensive it’s become to live here. Such things are certainly lamentable. I believe, however, that what’s being mourned, as often as not, is the loss of an atmosphere.

    Eilshemius captured at least one aspect: light, or more precisely, the way it feels as it’s refracted through urban spaces—narrow streets, waterfronts and such—defined by shapes of brick, stone and other materials used to build the spaces in which people of all classes lived and worked.

    Those old buildings are being replaced by things that look like they’re made of auto windshields and Lego blocks in neutral colors. The difference between the light and space they define,’and what we see in the paintings (and, for some of us, in our memories) is like the difference between an LED light in a gleaming coffee bar and the incandescent glow inside an old Greenwich Village or working-class Brooklyn cafe.

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