Not long ago, the Hillsdale Historians received a request for information about a Hudson River School artist named John Bunyan Bristol. Bristol was a contemporary of Frederic Church and was well respected during his lifetime. His work hangs in the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, the Hudson River Museum, Yale University Art Gallery, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Adirondack Museum.
John Bristol was born in Hillsdale in 1826. His parents, Abner and Lydia, moved to Hillsdale from New Haven, which had been home to some five generations of Bristols, starting with Henry who emigrated from England in the 1600s. The 1850 US census listed Abner’s occupation as “shoemaker” and while nobody can say for sure why the family moved to Hillsdale, one can assume he expected to face less competition in Hillsdale than in the bustling metropolis of New Haven. According to the Hillsdale town website, the family lived in a house on Old Town Road. Abner and Lydia had two other children, Stephen and Jane, also born in Hillsdale.
Bristol took to painting at an early age and is considered to be mostly self-taught, although he spent about a month as a student of Henry Ary in Hudson. Initially he specialized in portraiture but switched to landscapes when he became frustrated trying to please the sitters. According to Questroyal Art LLC, “Bristol’s style followed that of the Hudson River School painters often described as Luminists; his attention to detail and exquisite use of color depicted lighting in a way that was similar to his contemporaries such as Asher B. Durand and John F. Kensett.”
In 1859, Bristol traveled to Florida and painted a series of tropical scenes that significantly boosted his reputation. But his real passion was the wilderness of upstate New York, particularly Whiteface Mountain and Lake Placid, as well as bucolic farm settings in New England, and these are the paintings for which he is best known.
At the age of 38, Bristol moved to the Bronx, presumably looking for a more robust market for his work. Still, every summer he would return to the Adirondack and Green Mountains for inspiration and new settings to paint.
Along the way, he married Caroline Church of Great Barrington, Massachusetts. They had one child, a girl who, in Bristol’s New York Times obituary, was unhelpfully identified as “Miss Bristol.”
Bristol achieved quite a bit of success in his career, and was a member of the National Academy of Design. He was presented with a medal at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876 and in 1900 he won an honorable mention at the Paris Exposition.
Yet, he never abandoned Hillsdale for good. According to a social item in the July 18th, 1890 edition of the Hillsdale Harbinger, “John Bristol of New York is stopping at the Mt. Washington House for a time, and we trust will conclude to remain with us, at least a portion of the summer. Mr. Bristol has attained an enviable reputation as an artist, and the presence of himself and family in our community would be a desirable social acquisition.”
The Harbinger also noted Caroline’s passing in 1900. Seven years later, the paper reported (rather blatantly lifting a complete story from the New York Times) that John had been “stricken with paralysis [a stroke] and in all probability will not be able to wield a brush again.” John was removed to the Home of Incurables in the Bronx where he succumbed on August 31, 1909 at the age of 83. He was buried at Woodlawn Cemetary in the Bronx.
If the name Bristol rings a bell, it may be because John’s uncle Stephen was the father of Flavia Bristol. Flavia grew up to become a prominent Hillsdale citizen. Her obituary described her as “one of the oldest residents of the village and one of its firmest friends, always giving generously to all religious and social benefits.”
In her Last Will and Testament, Flavia bequeathed “the sum of $30,000 [more than $500,000 in today’s dollars] for the purpose of creating, continuing and maintaining a free public library in the Town of Hillsdale.” Today, that building is Hillsdale’s Town Hall. Flavia’s legacy lives on in the Roeliff Jansen Community Library, which serves Hillsdale, Copake and Ancram. A couple of years ago, the library’s serpentine driveway was christened “Flavia Bristol Drive.”
If you stop by the Roe Jan Library, be sure to take a look at the three John Bunyan Bristol landscapes and one portrait that the library owns. Here’s one of the landscapes:
We can’t think of a more fitting way to adorn the successor to the “Library that Flavia Bristol Built” than with paintings by her cousin John.
(Many thanks to the Bristol Family Association for clarifying John and Flavia’s connection!)