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The Last Amateur: The Life of William J. Stillman

The Last Amateur: The Life of William J. Stillman

By Stephen L. Dyson. Pp. x + 379, figs. 32. State University of New York Press, Albany 2014. $29.95. ISBN 978-1-4384-5261-6 (cloth).

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Dyson presents a well-researched biography of William J. Stillman, 19th-century artist, photographer, art critic, journalist, and amateur classical archaeologist. He applies an anthropological-archaeology perspective to portray the cultural and political history of Stillman’s world. Chapter titles emphasize landmarks in Stillman’s life (e.g., ch. 1, “A Schenectady Youth”; ch. 2, “The Making of an Artist and Critic”), and each chapter is enriched with lengthy descriptions of places, people, and relevant events. From historic maps and directories, Dyson describes the Stillman family home on Canal Street in Schenectady, New York, surrounded by a culturally and ethnically diverse neighborhood. The context of this environment is enhanced by a watercolor painting from 1832 of Schenectady by John William Hill (fig. 1.1). 

Stillman was born June 1, 1828, after his family moved to New York from Rhode Island due to economic circumstances. Through a discussion of social and economic problems faced by Stillman’s family, Dyson illustrates the impact of political and historic events. Stillman’s grandfather, for example, was born a loyal subject to King George III; thus, the American Revolution necessitated a difficult new allegiance to the republic. Stillman’s father imposed practical mechanical training on his son; however, to escape apprenticing with his father, Stillman attended Union College, as his mother wished. Years later, he said his “budding artistic interests” were “fatally delayed” by intellectual distractions of college (15). During his teens, he experimented successfully with daguerreotypes and continued to update his skills as a photographer and innovative developer in photography; in fact, paid commissions resulted from this work.

Dyson lists John Ruskin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles E. Norton, Alfred Emerson, and dozens of other influential friends who impacted Stillman’s life. For example, Stillman studied and critiqued the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and also befriended Lajos Kozuth, refugee leader of the Hungarian rebellion. Stillman’s reports of Cretan conflicts and the Balkan uprising were clearly impacted by his association with the latter (chs. 6–9).  Women artists, authors, and sponsors of the arts also influenced him professionally and personally (e.g., ch. 2, intellectual-spiritualist, Mrs. Henry Kirke Brown; ch. 4, Boston intellectual and Transcendentalist, Sarah Ann Freeman Clarke; ch. 5, Boston sculptress, Harriet Hosmer; ch. 10, Greek Pre-Raphaelite artist Marie Spartali Stillman, his second wife).

Today, Stillman’s photographic contributions to classical archaeology are emphasized, often overshadowing his other archaeological activities. Occasionally, he assisted with antiquities sales encouraged by competing American museums; however, he worked to expose fakery or poor artifact provenance (194). Dyson highlights the strikingly painful and elitist snobbery directed by some individuals with academic credentials against Stillman and other amateur archaeologists and historians, who were categorized unequivocally as dabblers who destroyed evidence (ch. 9).

Artistic, political, religious, and economic conditions in 19th-century America are clearly woven into Stillman’s biography by Dyson. Thus, he explores how the American Civil War and Lincoln’s assassination, which had far-reaching impacts on affiliations between countries and America’s North and South, also impacted Stillman’s career and actions. In later chapters, Dyson’s discussion of the expansion of European culture and politics also provides useful context and clarity to Stillman’s story.

While abroad, Stillman trained with an array of art masters, residing in France, Italy, and England for years at a time. Clearly, reliance on family and influential friends among the wealthy for support was awkward and stressful. Financial dependency on the interests of others to pay for projects, sporadic sales of his paintings, occasional commissioned photographic art projects, and honoraria for published essays and literary criticism all lacked guarantees. His position as a U.S. Consul in Florence, Rome, and elsewhere, paid poorly and inconsistently, and was always insecure.  

Dyson notes that Stillman lacked the benefits of a Harvard University classical education, which identified the social and intellectual elite of mid 19th-century America; he emphasizes this distinction throughout the book. Dyson also stresses the social distinctions between those born and raised in elite families of Boston and Concord, and to a lesser degree Philadelphia and New York City. Indeed, Stillman needed to maintain strong ties to and interaction with the elite of these centers throughout his life.

Dyson mined a variety of sources in research; for example, letters proved indispensible to his research on Stillman’s activities, beliefs, and reactions to world events through these informal and formal channels. Likewise, Dyson consulted Stillman’s autobiography for various details, collaborations, and personal reactions to events. For example, Stillman and his physician brother, Jacob, attempted a scientific study of the 1850s spiritualism fad, uncovering hoaxes. Interestingly, in later years, Stillman stated his belief that “a human being possesses ‘spiritual sense, parallel with the physical’” (33).

Stillman’s skills in investigative journalism and participant observation of spiritualists and séances reflected his evolving pantheistic view of the natural world. Stillman invited influential friends to explore the Adirondacks with him, where he painted, hunted and fished, and debated current events and concerns about environmental degradation. In particular, Stillman found solace from his physical and mental health issues, as well as the financial problems associated with The Crayon (a short-lived literary journal that Stillman founded). The Crayon included literary criticism and essays by Stillman and a number of well-known authors, but it relied on subscriptions for survival. His own literary talent and social-intellectual contacts made the journal successful, and in later years many remembered him because of it; however, the journal offered no outlet for art, other than the design of the cover.

Dyson has produced a well-organized, readable, and rich illustration of Stillman’s life that will be of interest to anyone concerned with this fascinating period of archaeology’s early years. The book, as a whole, paints a poignant picture of 19th-century America and Europe as seen through the eyes of one of its most interesting figures.

Ellis McDowell-Loudan
Department of Sociology/Anthropology
State University College at Cortland, New York

Book Review of The Last Amateur: The Life of William J. Stillman, by Stephen L. Dyson

Reviewed by Ellis McDowell-Loudan

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 121, No. 1 (January 2017)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1211.McDowellLoudan

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