William Henry Buck
Artist William Henry Buck was among the originators of the “bayou school” of painting in Louisiana.
William Henry Buck emigrated to the United States from Norway about 1865, probably through New York City. Afterwards he lived in Boston, Massachusetts, where he received some instruction in art from Ernest Ciceri, a talented landscapist given to formulaic compositions. Yet, while Ciceri’s works are brilliantly lit, following in the Venetian landscape tradition, Buck’s earliest works are evenly lit. As Buck’s career progressed, his paintings became increasingly dark, atmospheric, and moody. Art was still an avocation when Buck arrived in New Orleans around 1870. He worked as a clerk for a cotton factor for a number of years, a path taken by Grand Manner portraitist William Henry Baker and earlier portraitist Francis Martin Drexel, who had begun as merchants or bankers.
In New Orleans, through the late 1870s and early 1880s, Buck studied with Richard Clague, Jr., a sophisticated landscapist working in the Barbizon tradition who exhibited landscapes as early as 1877. Buck soon emerged as Clague’s closest follower. The elder artist led plein air sketching expeditions with Buck and others, including landscapist Andres Molinary, William Aiken Walker, and Marshall J. Smith Jr., who had also been a merchant. Like Clague, Buck specialized in naturalistic views of lakeshores and bayous, often characterized by moody lighting effects and suggestive atmosphere.
By 1880, Buck had opened a studio at 26 Carondelet Street. Easel-sized landscape had become popular in Louisiana during the decade following the Civil War, and Buck was instrumental in defining the market. Buck also made large, elaborate paper cutouts, such as Christ in Glory (n.d.). Suggestive of a struggle to make ends meet, he also restored paintings. In 1883, The Daily States reported on an exhibition of “several fine canvases representing the Penobscot river [sic], Maine and Canada” by Buck, indicating a desire to expand subject matter in the later part of his career. During the World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition from 1884 to 1885, Buck designed a lithograph depicting Uncle Sam greeting feminine allegorical representations of the various nations.
Commentators in the 1920s through the 1960s considered Buck’s paintings formulaic and inferior to Clague’s. Isaac M. Cline found “carelessness in execution” of some of his landscapes. A “tendency toward sketchiness and repetitiousness may be noticed,” wrote Charles L. Dufour in 1968. Groves dismissed the later landscapes as “enveloped in the brown soup style.” By the 1980s, Buck’s reputation had begun to improve. In 1991, Estill Curtis Pennington acknowledged Buck’s indebtedness to Clague, but noted how he “did develop a unique personal style.” His treatment of moss-covered oak trees, depicted with an obsessive and almost anthropomorphic insistence, was cited in the press as early as 1878. In June 2010, The Hotel at Spanish Fort on Bayou St. John (n.d.) set a record for the artist at Neal Auction Company, selling for more than $200,000. Buck died at the age of 48 in New Orleans, without having realized a glimmer of the acclaim that his work merits today.