Millet Island Idaho (1875-1910)
Article excerpts by Arthur A. Hart, retired
Director of the State Historical Society, Boise, Idaho.
The following content is from the exhibit brochure:
Island in the Snake
The Idaho Paintings of Pioneer Artist
April 17-July 1, 1983
The canyon of the Snake River in southern Idaho is an awesome place. Sheer cliffs of basalt plunge hundreds of feet to tumbled ruins of rock below. The moving river that carved this canyon flows silently past, gray and lonesome, a shadow of the torrent that once roared from ancient Lake Bonneville.
To spend a day at the foot of these great walls of stone is a haunting experience. One feels lost in a hidden crack of rock on another planet, in a world without human scale.
That an artist of rare sensitivity and dedication should find himself in this elemental world of rock and water, not for a day, but for 20 years, is indeed fortuitous for us. That nearly a hundred of the sketches and paintings he made should have survived is a cause for celebration.
Millet Island Snake River Idaho
McMeekin at Age 19
Joseph Patrick McMeekin was born in Ireland in 1857. He came to the United States with his parents and younger sister, Sarah, in 1872. Sarah married another young Irish immigrant, Liberty Millet, and when the couple homesteaded on an island in the Snake River near Hagerman in the late 1880’s, Joseph moved there too. He was determined to devote his life to art, and had already decided that Nature would be his only teacher.
During the canyon years in Idaho, and for the rest of his life in California, where he moved in 1910, McMeekin literally lived to paint. He braved snow storms, rain, and summer heat to get his images as directly from nature as he could. Family tradition has it that his singlemindedness often made him forget to eat or to rest. He never married, but remained true to a credo like that of the poet Walter Savage Landor who wrote “Nature I loved, and next to Nature, Art.”
Only a few people in Idaho knew of McMeekin or his art while he lived on what is still called Millet Island. He exhibited paintings of Shoshone and Twin Falls at World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicage in 1893, and sent several pictures to the Idaho Intermountain Fair in Boise in 1902 where he won a first prize and two seconds for “oil colors, original.” The Idaho Statesman called them “extremely handsome pieces.” He did not enter works in the Boise fair again, despite this success, but in 1905 sent a group of oil paintings to Portland’s Lewis and Clark Centennial exposition. For these he was awarded a diploma of honorable mention.
In 1910, McMeekin left Idaho for Napa, California where he lived until his death in 1936. He was elected to membership in the San Francisco Art Association in 1911 and exhibited regularly thereafter in California. Although he painted the scenery of his new surroundings for a quarter century, McMeekin’s strong impressions of the Idaho years remained with him. He repainted a number of the canyon pictures from the small oil sketches made from nature so many years before.
McMeekin Middle Age
Napa California (1910-1936)
Article excerpts by Dr. Joseph A. Baird, Jr.
From the exhibition brochure for the Blue Cross Headquarters, Oakland CA McMeekin exhibit
Early California Artist
Joseph Armstrong Baird, Jr. was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1922. He began his studies in art history at Oberlin College where he received a bachelor’s degree and then attended Harvard University where he first earned a master’s degree and finally a doctorate in art and architectural history in 1951. He taught at the University of Toronto (1949-1953) before coming to Davis in 1953. Beginning as a lecturer in the Art Department, he retired as a full professor of fine arts in 1985. He continued to work as a consultant and art appraiser until his death in 1992.
Joseph Patrick McMeekin was born in Dublin, Ireland on April 6, 1857. He emigrated to the United States, with his parents and youngest sister, in 1872 – settling in Utah. Eight years later, Joseph McMeekin became a U.S. citizen. First introduced to painting by a traveling English artist during his Irish years, the young man continued to work at his craft in this new milieu. While records are few for his artistic endeavors, occasional newspaper clippings indicate that he was held in high local esteem. He is described as exhibiting work at the World’s Columbian Exposition at Chicago in 1893; more relevant is the notice of western scenes at the Boise Idaho Fair of 1896.
Idaho became his home and preferred painting locale for several years; in 1904, McMeekin opened an art gallery at Hagerman in that state. Here he sold paintings and worked as a portrait photographer. By 1910, his steps were directed towards Napa County, California. He remained there to the end of his life. His beloved and supportive younger sister, Sarah, lived in the area; from 1914 to 1931, the artist dwelled modestly in his own small house at Coombsville, Napa County. A life-long bachelor, McMeekin cared only for his artistic endeavors – neglecting health and wealth for painting. The sparsely furnished character of his six room cottage is well recorded in an engagingly candid self portrait. McMeekin, always a proper working-class man “of the old sod,” is seen in pants, shirt and tie neatly worn with the traditional high shoes of the period – stiffly awkward in this bohemianism. His house was filled with his paintings – hung from ceiling to floor; of the usual “props” found in contemporary artist studios there were none.
Napa County Ranch with Sarah Millet (far left), Arliss Millet (Kock) (middle) and Joseph P.McMeekin(Far Right)
Lone Oak Road, Napa CA 1932
McMeekin Painting in his Coombsville Napa County Studio 1931-33
While in California, McMeekin became an artist-member of the San Francisco Art Association (he was admitted on June 1, 1911) and occasionally showed at one of their exhibitions. A painting is noted in the catalogue of the 1916 Post-Exposition Exhibition at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco. Thereafter, his activity was essentially localized to Napa County; in 1917 and 1919 he received First Premium ribbons for works shown. Suffering from recurrent bouts with malnutrition, anemia and advancing age, McMeekin was often nursed back to health by his sister, Sarah. Finally, however, on February 12, 1936, he died and was buried at Napa.
A private person of fiery temper, yet gifted with the irresistible humor of the Irish, McMeekin kept a low profile all of his life.
He rose early, walked extensively – often camping out for several days – and drew or painted. Caring nothing for food or drink, McMeekin devoted most of his adult life to recording the landscape of his various areas of residence. Early, the artist worked principally in thin oil pigments; later, in California, he often turned to gouache or “tempera” as well, since it dried more quickly and offered a freshness of style he desired. McMeekin’s format, as one might deduce from his method of work, was modest. There are few monumentally scaled paintings from both the Idaho and California years; but the average size is not overly large.
Joseph McMeekin is a difficult artist to pigeonhole. Technically, there is considerable variation in his output; some paintings are assured and highly skillful, while others are gauche, or delightfully primitive. Inevitably, when one is dealing with a person so isolated from the mainstream of his time, the end result is on a certain simplicity of approach that emphasizes description in fairly literal terms. Indeed, when he is most literal, in either the more proficient or more primitive manner he could display, McMeekin is at his best. Furthermore, the work done in Idaho has a certain flavor that McMeekin could not recapture in California; it speaks eloquently of the harsh, chill beauty of snowy days and blowing wins. Some of his most telling works are the paintings of horses with heads bent low before a howling storm, standing beside giant haystacks.
In California, the benign character of weather seems to have tempered the power of his earlier documents of rural life. Many of the paintings of his new period are attractive (notably those of the Yosemite, where the grandeur of setting echoed the forbidding plains and fissured valleys of the Snake River in Southern Idaho); but the language verges on daily conversation rather than epic poetry. Among McMeekin’s finest small works are certain of his still life studies. A mother-of-pearl shell, a delicate peacock feather, a group of dandelion blossoms – all are consummately painted; in this, McMeekin is the heir of the distinguished still life tradition of his adopted country and of his fellow artist of an earlier generation, Samuel Marsden Brookes. Sometimes, too, McMeekin can take a slice of pie and some fruit and turn it into a toothsomely “folk” painting that forcibly reminds us of the numerous masters of this genre in the mid-19th Century. As in his landscapes, the artist moves from high facility to felicitous primitivism without apparent effort.
In the Ranch Yard at Lone Oak Ranch with His Sister Sarah
McMeekin in His 70s
It appears that the first years in Utah and Idaho set their seal on Joseph McMeekin. The extraordinary change from Ireland to the tawny chasms and vast skies of the American West made an indelible impression. The grim bleakness of summer and winter in this new territory evoked some northern medieval chord of response in the artist; like a Viking in reverse, he had moved from relative control of nature to her most forbidding power. This awesome scope elicited work that matched the challenge of the elements – whether smoothly professional or wryly rough. The California years were happy ones; long walks and days of living a solitary life in the open suited McMeekin’s rugged character. His readings of philosophy and poetry, his deep interest in music (he played the demanding clarinet with distinction), were sympathetically answered in these tranquil promenades. McMeekin’s work leveled off to an Arcadian sweetness, which still has much public appeal. Ultimately, however, it is the unreconstructed individualism of his more personal statements that will attract the connoisseur.