One of the Genesee Country’s finest artists grew up just outside the Village of Perry on Suckerbrook Road. If you take a drive out that way, you’ll find a historical marker that designates his birthplace. Although the house and farm buildings are gone, one can easily imagine the farmhouse and outbuildings on the property. Lemuel Maynard Wiles was born on October 21, 1826, to Daniel and Nancy Wiles. Daniel Wiles was born in Palantine, New York, a small town between Utica and Albany near the Mohawk River. The Wiles family had come to Western New York during the push westward after the War of 1812.
The marriage was a second one for both Daniel and Nancy, who were both widowed. Lemuel was born into a blended family with four half-siblings from his father’s first marriage, and Nancy brought three children into the marriage. Lemuel was the only child of their marriage. His small stature and dreaminess as a child immediately marked him as unfit for farm work and deeply concerned his father. Lemuel’s early passion for sketching made his father even more unhappy. He expected all of his sons to follow in his footsteps to become a farmer. Lemuel’s artistic bent also worried his mother when she thought about the hardships of such a career, so she encouraged him to consider teaching. He attended local schools and then the Genesee Wesleyan Seminary in Lima, NY. He taught for a few years in the Perry area, but in 1845, he enrolled in Albany Normal School to earn his teaching credentials. Upon his graduation1847 he began teaching penmanship and drawing at the Albany Academy.
Largely self-taught, his formal art training was received from Jasper Cropsey and William Hart, who were both masters of the Hudson River School style of painting. Around 1849 he became a student of Jasper Cropsey and then took instruction from William Hart. While taking art lessons from Hart at Albany Academy, he met Rachel Ramsey, a teacher, and artist at the school. Rachel was an orphan who had lived at the Albany Asylum as a child. In the 1840s, her artistic abilities had been noticed, and the trustees of the Albany Female Academy provided a full scholarship for her to attend. A romance blossomed between Lemuel and Rachel, and in 1854 the couple married. He then opened the Select School for Boys in Buffalo, but he left the school in 1857, taking a job as a librarian at the Utica Public Library and a teaching job in the Utica Public Schools.
Their only child, Irving Ramsey Wiles, was born in Utica on April 8, 1861. After the birth of their son, the couple realized that a move to New York City was necessary to advance Lemuel’s career as an artist. His ultimate goal was to make a living from his artwork, and at age 38, Lemuel moved toward his goal. During the turbulent Civil War years of 1864-65, the family relocated to the big city. However, Wiles was never content in the city.
He wrote: “Well, the railroad has landed me in this multifarious old grist mill where we are all being ground fine. This wilderness where there is no sleep—where the wicked never cease from troubling—and the weary get little rest.”
Around this time, he established a studio in Washington, D.C. to paint portraits of politicians to be displayed at the U.S. Capitol Building. He garnered significant praise for his work, but Lemuel decided portraits weren’t for him at that time. Instead, he loved painting landscapes, deciding to devote his life’s work to them.
By the early 1870s, his artwork was sold at top art auction houses, and he received praise from critics and peers. His work was now exhibited at the National Academy of Design, Brooklyn Art Association, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Boston Art Club, and the Art Institute of Chicago.
In 1873, Wiles was offered the opportunity to travel West, which he accepted. This was no small undertaking. In December 1873, he set sail from New York, docking in Mexico and Panama. He crossed the Isthmus of Panama to catch the next ship to California. He arrived in California early in 1874 and spent most of the year sketching scenes in Yosemite Valley and the old missions of Southern California. He drew preliminary pencil and color sketches of these subjects, which he later painted as magnificent oil landscapes.
After this career boost, we find the Wiles family back at the home farm in Perry in 1875, where they lived with Lemuel’s elderly mother, Nancy, for a time. While in Perry, he was offered a position as the director of the art school at Ingham University in LeRoy later that year. Despite his goals for a stable and successful art career, he still loved teaching and eagerly accepted the offer.
Mattie and Emily Ingham founded Ingham University as the LeRoy Female Seminary in 1837. It became the Ingham Collegiate Institute in 1852 and then Ingham University in 1857. It was the first college for women in New York State and the first chartered women’s university in the U.S. However, the university closed its doors in 1891 due to financial problems.
Lemuel was very successful during his tenure at Ingham. He wrote that his time at Ingham was the happiest in his life. His position allowed for travel to New York City, where Rachel and Irving lived part-time. Irving showed early promise as an artist and took art lessons there from William Merritt Chase. The family also traveled to Europe in 1883, visiting London, Rome, Paris, and the wilds of Scotland, where Lemuel happily sketched while Irving continued his art education.
The art school flourished, and many pupils at Ingham went on to have successful art careers. But in 1888, everything changed. The trustees of the university became unhappy with the monetary arrangement with Wiles. He had been allowed to keep the profits from the art school, which averaged about $800 per year. The trustees decided to charge Wiles the amount of the profits as rent for his studio, which was the breaking point for Lemuel. Since he didn’t receive a salary from the university, the profits were his only remuneration. With great sadness, he left Ingham in 1888 and focused his efforts on establishing Silver Lake Art School.
The school opened that May and ran through September. Lemuel’s talent and reputation were well established by this time, and the school immediately attracted women art students from all over New York State and beyond. Irving joined his father as an instructor and co-taught with Lemuel until the school closed in 1904. Augusta Palmer, one of Lemuel’s former students, also taught there. The school was situated on the west side of the lake, and in 1890, a new studio building was constructed, and a boarding house was also available for students.
The school held several art exhibitions of its students’ best work throughout the summer, providing another entertainment for summer visitors to the lake. The exhibits enhanced the other events at Silver Lake– the Methodist conferences, Pioneer Picnic, and concerts over the summer months. In those days, the Silver Lake Railroad shuttled hundreds if not thousands of people to the lake each year.
In 1892, Lemuel was invited to establish the art department at the University of Tennessee’s Peabody College in Nashville. The invitation came from a former student, Elizabeth Payne, and her husband, Dr. William Payne, who was president of the college. The warmer winter weather was actually the best selling point in the offer. But things didn’t work out as he had hoped. He had difficulty collecting tuition fees from students, and the directorship never materialized. Instead, he was more of an assistant, so he and Rachel left Nashville in the fall of 1894.
The couple moved back to NYC to an apartment with indoor plumbing, “a great luxury,” Rachel observed in one of her letters. Lemuel and Irving worked together for the next few years in Peconic, NY, spending summers at Silver Lake. Rachel’s health took a bad turn in 1896, and she passed away on December 17 at age 71. For over 40 years, she and Lemuel had enjoyed a happy marriage. Rachel supported her husband through all his failures and successes over the years, and she was well-loved by all who knew her. Lemuel was heartbroken.
He wrote: “I am writing the saddest letters of my life. My heart’s treasure, my blessing, and my pride has taken her flight to another world. It seems as if my guiding star has set, and my heart is homeless.”
After Rachel’s death, he painted some of his most significant works. One of his most important paintings was “Dryburgh Abbey,” the burial place of Sir Walter Scott. He also completed many large landscapes while teaching at the Silver Lake Art School during the summer. For the rest of the year, he lived in NYC with Irving and his wife, May, along with their daughter Gladys.
Deafness became a severe issue for him in 1901, and he even tried an electrical shock treatment, but nothing improved the condition. However, he had a good attitude about it, saying his eyesight was still good, and not hearing helped him work without interruption.
Late in1904, his health began to deteriorate. He passed away at his son’s home in NYC on January 28, 1905, from pneumonia at age 79. He was buried alongside Rachel in Paterson, New Jersey; however, the location is unknown. Irving sold the Silver Lake Art School after his father’s passing, which was destroyed by fire in 1926. Today, nothing remains of the school.
Lemuel Wiles was known as a kind man, well-read, and a true gentleman. He was a friend of William Cullen Bryant and illustrated Bryant’s most famous poem, Thanatopsis. His paintings of the Cucamonga Valley are displayed in the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. His favorite places to paint were along the shores of Silver Lake and capturing the bucolic beauty of the Genesee River Valley.
Today, you’ll find a beautiful exhibit of Lemuel’s work at the Perry Public Library and a collection of his correspondence. His nephew, Dr. Charles Stowell, bequeathed his collection of 18 paintings to the library in 1928, leaving enough money for an art gallery to be built. The gallery was dedicated in 1935, and there are 44 paintings in the collection today.
One of his biographers said, “He (Wiles) believed a good picture must express beauty and minister to the nobler craving of the human spirit. A good picture must be good to live with—a test which proves true with so many of his own pictures.”
Perry Public Library – art and correspondence collection
NYS Heritage Collection
Democrat & Chronicle, May 12, 1888
Buffalo Morning Express, various 1888
Perry Herald, May 1889 and various
Buffalo Courier Express, various 1934-35
Lemuel Maynard Wiles by Geoffrey Fleming