George Henry Yewell was born January 20, 1830 in Havre de Grace, Maryland. When his father, Solomon, died one year later, little George and his mother, Harriet Carver (Yewell), first moved to Cincinnati, as she had family there. It was here George received some instruction from Theodore S. Parvin, who later became a prominent educator in Iowa.
At the age of eleven (1841), George and his mother, Harriet, came west to Iowa City. Her obituary tells us more…
Young George loved exploring the open space around his childhood home of Iowa City. When George was about eighteen (1847-1848), he began journaling, bringing story and art together on one page. Here’s an entry that reflects one of the many happy times with friends:
Early on the morning of October 12, 1847, Will Lowe, of Iowa City, seated on a pile of blankets, pots and kettles, in a light wagon to which his father’s faithful old roan horse was attached, gathered in seven young fellows who had planned a few days previously, a camping expedition. Their names were William W. Lowe, William S. Cooke, Abraham C. Price, Wesley Redhead, Peter Snyder, Anthony Cole, and George Yewell. The spot selected was on the banks of the Iowa River some 10 miles distant in a forest of sugar maples. It was discovered after starting, that we had forgotten two things; a coffee pot and my dog, Don Pedro. Tone [Anthony Cole] started back for both, reappearing in about 20 minutes, mounted on his nag, the coffee pot hung over his arm, and my dog trailing after at the end of a rope. We ransacked a deserted log cabin and found an iron skillet. An axe, which we had also forgotten, was procured of a dutch woman living on the road. On arriving, we put up our tent, got a hasty dinner and started out to shoot something, without success. Will Lowe, full of mischief, kept us awake nearly all night with his fiddle, which he would take down as soon as we were dozing off and dash wildly into “Rosy O’More” or “Dan Tucker.”
The next morning was rainy and the young men stayed under the tent “and kicked their heels,” but the sky cleared and they shot enough game for supper…
. . .after which we built up a roaring fire, lit our pipes and listened to the yarns of the inimitable Tone. The group was a picturesque one; one lying at full length warming his feet, another leaning against the tent pole regarding Tone playing the tambourine on a tin plate, accompanying an air played by myself on the violin and sung by Wesley Redhead. On the opposite side of the fire, seated upon an inverted sugar-trough, Will Lowe and Will Cooke played “old sledge” with a worn and greasy pack of cards.
In 1848, after George and a friend returned from an extended excursion to New Orleans, he wrote in his journal…
Upon reflection, every man ought to be able to earn a living by the labor of his hands and should know one of the handicrafts. I therefore apprenticed myself, on October 30, 1848, to Byron Stilwell, a merchant tailor in Iowa City, who afterwards married my cousin, Elizabeth Snyder.
Yet, despite George’s attempt to become a reputable tailor, Providence led him in another direction…
Notwithstanding my determination to master a handicraft, I never gave up my feeling for the Fine Arts.
In the late summer of 1848, George was in the crowd that assembled outside North Presbyterian Church when Rev. Michael Hummer, who had recently been dismissed by the church, climbed a ladder to the church belfry, attempting to steal the $600 bell he believed to be his. You can read the full story about Hummer’s Bell here – but suffice to say that young George took the craziness of the story – turning it into cartoon panels (below) – which ended up being published in the Iowa City newspaper.
That same year, the local newspapers also published George’s humorous sketch called Removal of the Capitol, a political cartoon addressing the controversy surrounding the possible move of the state capital from Iowa City to Des Moines. In journal writings composed in his latter years, George described his masterpiece…
I think it was during the session of the Iowa Legislature that attempts were made to move the seat of government from Iowa City to Fort Des Moines. At the height of the excitement, I drew a large caricature, representing the Capitol building on wheels, and oxen pulling one way, upon whose shoulders were placed heads of members who voted for removal. On the other end of the building were those members who voted against the bill, represented by oxen whose feeble chain had broken and tumbled them in a heap. Principal leaders of the movement were represented as drivers; bodies of different animals, suited to their different characters, being in place of their own. The likenesses were easily recognized and the caricature created a sensation. It went from town to town over the state and made me widely known.
Sadly, there are no remaining copies of George’s Removal of the Capitol political cartoon, but apparently, it attracted the attention of Burlington native Charles Mason, Chief Justice of the Iowa Supreme Court – who sought George out, sponsoring him in 1851 to 1853 for coursework in art study at the National Academy of Design in New York City.
George headed off, by stagecoach, to New York on October 4, 1851. Of the journey, he wrote…
There was no railroad out of Chicago farther than Aurora. We went there in stage coaches, traveling day and night, taking our meals often at rude, log-built taverns, where, in early morning, we would awaken sleeping inmates and gather, ourselves, the chips and bark from the woodpile, with which to boil our coffee, whilst the females were dressing the children.
Five days after leaving Iowa City, George arrived in New York, where a friend, Charles A. Dana of the Tribune, gave a note of introduction to Thomas Hicks, a famed artist who helped him, without pay, qualify for the National Academy of Design. George describes his first evening at the Academy:
My first evening was a severe trial to my nerves. Many of the 30 students had been there several winters and it was the custom to look at each others drawings, with the utmost good feelings. I placed a bust of Vitellino on a pedestal and seated myself in a corner where no one could get behind me. I still have this drawing which shows painful labor and timidity, and recalls my feelings whilst drawing it.
After an initial two-year period of study in New York, George returned to Iowa City to visit family and friends – and earn himself some money! While here, he set up a studio in his home and painted portraits – “principally babies and young children” – as he recorded in his journal. In one journal entry, George recalls painting a promotional sign for a local jeweler, showing a child holding a large, antique watch.
Iowa City vs. Muscatine. In 1853, George drew yet another political cartoon that stirred the good people of Iowa. This time it was all about the political struggle surrounding which community in eastern Iowa would be the first destination for the Mississippi & Missouri (M&M) Railroad.
It was during this season in Iowa City (1853-1856), when George was given one of his most memorable assignments. In his journal, George writes…
My first commission was to make a series of vignette drawings of buildings, residences and street views of the town, to grace the margin of a new map of Iowa City. After they were published, I made a good thing by coloring and varnishing them at $2 each.
These amazing twelve sketches by George H. Yewell turned out to be the earliest pictures of Iowa City that we have today. Click here to view all twelve sketches.
Above are two sketches of Indian Lookout, located south of Iowa City – more beautiful fruit from George’s 1853-1856 season in Johnson County.
It was here, at Indian Lookout, where George took a young lady named Mary Elizabeth (Mollie) Coast for an Independence Day picnic in 1855. Mary’s father, Craft Coast, moved his family to Iowa City from Ohio in 1854 and apparently, George & Mollie became constant companions. According to George’s journal, “eight years later (1863), she became my partner for life.” Click here to read more about the Coast family and their impact on Iowa City.
There are two other drawings that remain from George’s 1853-1856 season in Iowa City – both are important historically as they give us a view of Iowa City from the north, along the Iowa River.
By January 1856, George returned to New York, re-enrolling at the National Academy of Design and starting a small studio in the city as well. That July, George ventured to Paris, once again supported by his Iowa connections, Judge Mason and friends. There, he studied with Thomas Couture, counting among his acquaintances fellow students Henry A. Loop and Thomas Satterwhite Noble. While in Europe, the great success of George’s copy of a painting by the contemporary artist Rosa Bonheur earned him the respect of his fellow artists.
In the 1870s, George and Mary Elizabeth (Mollie), and her younger brother – Oscar Ragan Coast – also a budding artist – traveled throughout Europe, exhibiting George’s work in both Paris and Rome. In 1878, George returned to New York, where he worked in the popular Tenth Street Studio Building and spent his summers at Lake George, New York. His departure from Europe may have been precipitated by Mollie’s behavior, which had shocked the American community there. The couple divorced the following year (1879) with Mrs. Yewell – who died one year later (1880) – marrying the British artist Edwin Ellis, with whom she had been romantically involved for years.
Back in New York, George married for a second time – Louise Const Yewell – and was elected to the high honor of “Master” of the National Academy of Design (1880). Before his death in 1923, he became a Patron of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a member of the Century Club, and served as secretary of the Artists’ Fund Society of the City of New York.
Throughout his career, George maintained his strong connections with Iowa City, sent paintings here for exhibition, and returned in his later years to paint portraits of local celebrities – including Governor Robert Lucas (below-upper) Governor Samuel Kirkwood (center-left), Judge Charles Mason (center-middle), T. S. Parvin (center-right), Governors Lowe and Chambers, General Grenville M. Dodge, and Judges Wright and Dillon.
Nine of these portraits now belong to the State Historical Society of Iowa in Des Moines, while the University of Iowa holds the largest and most representative collection of paintings from all periods of George’s illustrious career.
George Henry Yewell died at Lake George, New York on September 26, 1923 – at the age of ninety-three – and is buried in the Bolton Rural Cemetery in Warren County, New York.
Quoting Mildred W. Pelzer, another amazing Iowa City artist of yet another generation: “A visit to George H. Yewell’s artwork will cling in the memory like haunting strains of organ music heard at the hour of sunset.”
Thanks, George, for your loving appreciation for your childhood home of Iowa City and putting those feelings into your artwork!
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.