Charles Lewis Fussell was born on October 25, 1840, in West Vincent, Chester County, Pennsylvania, where his parents were visiting his maternal grandmother. He was one of six children born to Dr. Edwin Fussell (1814–1882) and Rebecca Lewis Fussell (1820–1893), who were both members of prominent Hicksite Quaker families.1 The Quaker hierarchy disapproved of the marriage because the couple were first cousins and expelled them from Quaker meeting houses shortly after they were wed on January 20, 1838. The Fussells then moved to Pendelton in Madison County, Indiana.
Both the Fussells came from progressive, intellectual families that were active participants in the abolitionist movement. Dr. Fussell was elected an officer in the American Anti-Slavery Society in April 1842, and his wife’s family had operated an Underground Railroad stop at their house in Chester County.2 The couple were present at a famous incident in which an anti-abolitionist mob almost murdered Frederick Douglass while he was delivering a speech at Pendelton in September 1843. Rebecca Fussell reputedly saved Douglass’s life by interposing her infant son Linnaeus between him and an assailant.3 The Fussells returned to Pennsylvania after anti-abolitionists threatened to burn down their house. After a brief stay in West Vincent, they settled in Philadelphia, where Dr. Fussell became one of the founders of Women’s Medical College of Philadelphia in 1850, and later served as its dean. Rebecca Fussell studied medicine at the college and received her degree in 1858, becoming one of the city’s first female doctors.4
Charles Lewis Fussell attended Friends High School and later Central High School, where he was a classmate of Eakins and William Sartain (1843–1924). He began to draw from the casts of antique statues at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1859. Eakins joined him there later, and the two became lifelong friends. One art historian has suggested that it was Fussell who taught Eakins how to paint in oil.5 Fussell made a sketch of a nude Eakins seated and sketching, Young Art Student (Sketch of Thomas Eakins) (c. 1860, Philadelphia Museum of Art). Fussell attended the academy’s life sketching classes around 1861, and was made an honorary member of the group in 1864. Although a formal curriculum had not yet been established at the academy, Fussell probably received constructive criticism from senior artists who attended these classes, such as the Alsatian-born Christian Schussele (1824–1879). Fussell exhibited thirty-eight paintings at the academy between 1863 and 1905. Titles such as In a Quandary (c. 1865, location unknown), Preparing for High School (c. 1865, location unknown), and Learning to Handle the Brush (c. 1866, location unknown) indicate that most of his earliest paintings were genre subjects, although he also exhibited landscapes and portraits.
Fussell took private art lessons from the history and portrait painter Peter Frederick Rothermel (1817–1895), who also served as an instructor at the academy. Family tradition has it that Rothermel’s son had been one of Dr. Fussell’s patients, and the artist offered to give Charles art lessons. The first painting that the young artist exhibited at the academy was The Interior of Rothermel’s Studio (1863, location unknown).6 In the exhibition catalogue that year Fussell listed his address as the Philadelphia Sketch Club, 1 N. Fifteenth Street, of which he was a member.7
In a letter from this time, Fussell mentioned that the engraver Samuel Sartain (1830–1906) had advised him to “take charge of a drawing school at St. Louis at a salary of $1000,” but he did not do so.8 During the Civil War, in 1863, he served on home guard duty in the Philadelphia Grey Reserves. In 1865 Fussell painted a portrait of Abraham Lincoln (location unknown).9 After the war he resumed drawing at the academy, but was discouraged when Rothermel told him that he would “have plenty of time to practice his art—for he need not expect to sell any for 12 years—allowing that much time for things to be righted so that people will be able again to buy pictures.”10 Fussell’s mother observed that “Charlie has been brightening up his pictures and making them what they call higher toned—they looked too low toned down there at the exhibition much more so than they do at home.”11 In 1867 Fussell optimistically reported that Rothermel had praised two paintings that had also “attracted the attention of two of our ‘picture men’ and I have no doubt but that I can dispose of them.”12
It is unfortunate that at this critical juncture family circumstances interrupted Fussell’s promising career. His father developed a severe heart condition, so in 1868 the family moved to Townsend’s Inlet, New Jersey. For the next two years the artist was occupied by farming and had little time to paint. Early in the spring of 1870 Fussell’s family sent him to Union Colony One in Greeley, Colorado, to determine if the area offered a more salubrious climate for his ailing father.13 The utopian community had recently been founded by the political reformer and owner of the New York Tribune, Horace Greeley (1811–1872). Rothermel advised his protégé that he could “make far more money by painting Rocky Mountain scenery and sending the pictures east than by working in Philadelphia.”14 It is a noteworthy coincidence that at this time Robert Swain Gifford (1840–1905), John F. Kensett (1816–1872), and Thomas Worthington Whittredge (1820–1910) were all in Colorado together on a painting trip.15
Fussell followed his teacher’s advice and sketched his new surroundings, but failed to achieve commercial success. In July he informed his brother that he was “very much disappointed in not having been able to dispose of any of my pictures.”16 He persevered, however, and devoted more time to sketching and searching for suitable landscape subjects.17 Fussell soon concluded that Greeley was an unsatisfactory place to live, and returned to Pennsylvania in November. Although the Colorado venture had failed, it awakened Fussell’s interest in landscape subjects. It is ironic that while Fussell was in Colorado, his father entered two of his son’s Cape May seascapes and a fruit still life in a contest at a fair, for which the artist won a premium of fifty cents.18
Fussell’s aunt, the noted Quaker social reformer, scientist, and educator Graceanna Lewis (1821–1912),19 unsuccessfully attempted to obtain an appointment for him to work as an artist on a government-sponsored scientific expedition.20 In 1871 Dr. Fussell bought a medical practice in Media, Delaware County, Pennsylvania, and the family moved once again. Charles Fussell, who never married, spent the next seven years wandering through New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania in search of inspiring scenery. He returned to Philadelphia in 1878 and attended anatomy classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts with Eakins. The following year Fussell was one of nine academy students who contributed illustrations to William C. Brownell’s article “The Art Schools of Philadelphia” in Scribner’s Magazine.21 Fussell donated the painting from which the engraving was made, Academy Students Dissecting a Horse (1879, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts), to the academy that year. The grisaille sketches by Fussell of Hong Kong and Singapore included in this exhibition suggest that he earned a living as a commercial artist who supplied illustrations to popular magazines or books.22 Although Fussell himself never traveled to the Orient, he would surely have heard descriptions of the area from his brother Dr. Linnaeus Fussell (1842–1907),23 who had traveled to China and the Far East from 1867 to 1869 while serving as a surgeon in the Navy aboard the USS Unadilla.
During the summer of 1882 Fussell spent two weeks at the artists’ colony in East Hampton, Long Island, New York. He informed his mother that “this place seems to be swarming with artists. I have not met anyone I have seen before, tho the Morans who used to live in Philadelphia but who now hail from New York are I believe all of them settled here, Tom Moran I believe permanently.”24 Fussell traveled to Ohio the following spring, and letters that he sent to family members document his presence in Wellsville.
Nothing more is known of Fussell’s activities until he settled in Brooklyn in 1889. Over the next eight years he painted numerous views of the borough’s rapidly vanishing landscape in Canarsie, Coney Island, Crow’s Hill (present-day Crown Heights), Flatbush, Fort Hamilton, and Sheepshead Bay, and North Beach and Rockaway in Queens. The Brooklyn landscapes are particularly noteworthy because growing urbanization in the boroughs surrounding New York was transforming what William Cullen Bryant had considered “little more than New York’s vast dormitory”25 into densely populated suburbs. Fussell seems to have been more attracted to Brooklyn’s forests and farmlands than to its well-known landmarks, such as Prospect Park and Greenwood Cemetery.
Five years later, in 1894, Graceanna Lewis reported that her nephew’s career was “problematical.” She mentioned, however, that a prominent New York artist—probably William Holbrook Beard (1824–1900)—had pronounced Fussell’s sketches “as good as the best” and opined that “if only they had Church’s name at the bottom, they would be worth big money.”26 Fussell was surely delighted to have his work favorably compared to that of Frederick Edwin Church (1826–1900), but by this time the late Hudson River school style had become outmoded, replaced by the more fashionable styles of impressionism and tonalism. Nothing else is known about Fussell’s activities in New York.
Disheartened by his lack of success, Fussell returned to Media around 1897, where he resided with his aunt and his unmarried sister Anna Esther Fussell (1847–1937) at their house at 402 Gayley Street. He lived a withdrawn existence there, occupying his time by painting the landscape around Ridley Creek and giving art lessons. He also pursued his favorite hobbies of reading Shakespeare and studying genealogy. Fussell became interested in watercolor at this time and became exceptionally proficient with the medium. Around 1900 he painted a large and complex trompe l’oeil watercolor that suggests the influence of William Michael Harnett (1848–1892) and John Frederick Peto (1854–1907).
At this late stage of his career Fussell achieved a measure of the success and critical acclaim that had so persistently eluded him in the past. He exhibited his work at the Omaha Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition in 1898, the Art Club of Philadelphia between 1898 and 1908, the National Academy of Design in New York from 1902 to 1909, and the Art Institute of Chicago’s annual watercolor exhibitions from 1902 to 1909.27 Eakins regularly visited Fussell in Media, and they often went ice skating together at Broomall’s Lake. Eakins also painted a portrait of his friend (c. 1905, Reading Public Museum) in which the aged artist has a long white beard, wears spectacles, and is surrounded by books and fishing equipment that probably allude to his favorite recreational activities.
In 1906 Graceanna Lewis mentioned that Fussell had executed “a number of lovely paintings, several of them winter views, with the fine network of branches of trees against white clouds and blue sky . . . This year and last he has been invited to send pictures to the Spring Exhibition on his own merit, without reference to the jury of admission, showing that he is coming to be recognized as among the few who are considered as leading artists in Philadelphia. He works slowly, taking infinite pains, and he ought to be appreciated as he is coming to be, but he is an ‘old man’ before he has earned his reputation—over fifty years of age.”28 Fussell was listed in Arthur N. Hosking’s Artists Year Book in 1905 and American Art Annual in 1908.29 According to family records, in 1909 he illustrated a calendar for Anheuser-Busch, Inc., for the Brown & Bigelow Calendar Company. A newspaper article from this time described Fussell as “one of our veteran artists” whose “pictures sell readily.” The writer found his work “particularly interesting by reason of his highly finished technique which contrasts strikingly with the broadly-painted picture[s] on the walls” of the Philadelphia Art Club, and noted that he had “grown gray in the service of art, and with his silvery pate, luxuriant beard, and benign and benevolent expression, he might easily pose for a portrait of St. Nicholas.”30 Fussell died in Media in June 1909, and was buried in Providence Meeting cemetery.
Fussell’s early genre subjects resemble those of his teacher Rothermel. His mature landscapes invariably represent the intimate rather than spectacular aspects of nature. Fussell’s forest interior scenes, generally vertical compositions that single out a picturesque tree and the nuances of light filtering through the foliage above, are very similar to the ones that Asher B. Durand (1796–1866) and Thomas Worthington Whitteredge (1820–1910) painted in the 1850s and 1860s. Fussell had a penchant for dilapidated old buildings and often used them as the focal point of his compositions. He was also fond of the seashore and old boatyards that he encountered on his travels. Although his numerous plein-air oil sketches stand as finished works, they were probably intended as preparatory studies for larger and more detailed exhibition pictures such as Landscape (1897, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts) and The Old Mill (1901, Schwarz Gallery).
Late watercolors such as The Spring (c. 1906, Free Library of Philadelphia) are remarkable for their meticulous detail, and Graceanna Lewis correctly identified their strongest stylistic characteristic as “the fine network of branches of trees against white clouds and blue sky.” Fussell’s work bears an especially strong affinity with that of William Trost Richards (1833–1905), the Philadelphia artist who was a prime exponent of the American Pre-Raphaelite movement. That Fussell practiced a style that had become almost obsolete by the mid-1870s, replaced by the more painterly French Barbizon landscape, and ultimately by impressionism and tonalism, explains his persistent failure to achieve fame. During the early 1900s Fussell’s work appealed to conservative art collectors in Philadelphia who continued to patronize traditional artists such as Russell Smith (1812–1896) and his son Xanthus Smith (1839–1929). It is fitting to end this study of Fussell’s career by quoting his obituary from the Friends’ Intelligencer: “He painted with his soul as well as his brush. Hence his productions are the record of the human artist working in harmony with the Divine. Belonging to no school, his paintings are unique, and by the best of his brother artists are appreciated as those which, in time, will be accorded their full value as above praise.”31
Copyright©2007 The Schwarz Gallery