Through my research of the Lippitt family’s art collection for my summer internship, I learned the Lippitt family acquired works by New England artists from local exhibitions, auctions, as well as commissioned original portraits of family members. Today the museum owns several family portraits including one of Mary Anne Balch Lippitt (1827-1889), which originally hung in her daughter Jeannie’s bedchamber, by Rhode Island watercolorist Sydney Richmond Burleigh. In addition to watercolors, Burleigh worked in various mediums and also illustrated books and designed furniture. I was interested in researching Sydney Richmond Burleigh’s life because of our shared interest in illustration. His artistic career reminded me that careers aren’t predictable. Opportunities and interests change for everyone. In a sense, Burleigh’s life is motivational in the ways he embraced each new interest he had.
Born July 7, 1853, in Little Compton, Rhode Island, Sydney Burleigh was primarily known for his watercolor paintings. In 1872, at the age of 19, Burleigh started his artistic career as a draftsman at Brown & Sharp, sketching tools made by the company. Burleigh began taking watercolor lessons from Sarah Wilkinson, a talented watercolorist who had taken art lessons from prominent Rhode Island artists. Sydney and Sarah married in 1875 and traveled to Europe to continue their art studies. The couple returned to Providence and Sydney’s artistic success increased. Burleigh was a founding member of the Providence Art Club founded in 1880. In 1886, Burleigh designed a new studio space which he named “Fleur de Lys,” which continues today as an active studio space for the Providence Art Club.
Burleigh painted in a realistic manner in keeping with the academic styles taught by his European teachers. His early pieces were transparent watercolors on white or gray paper, which allowed him to experiment with color and tonality. Later Burleigh worked with strong opaque watercolors resembling the bold strength of ink and oils. His colorful c.1880s portrait of Mary Ann Lippitt is representative of his later style. He depicts her in a navy dress with a white floral underskirt with yellow roses. She has lace at her neck and on her sleeves and holds an open fan, a fashionable lady’s accessory. Sydney Richmond Burleigh’s signature is visible at the top of the painting.
The Lippitt family also owned a watercolor by Burleigh of an autumn landscape which currently hangs in the museum’s Reception room. The landscape is an excellent example of Burleigh’s early work, as he was mostly known for his delicate landscape paintings. In the 19th century, artists like Burleigh were interested in cultivating an American identity in art. American landscape painting showcased the artist’s respect for the land. In contrast, American artists defined portraiture as materialistic as it represented social values of status and economic growth. However, portraiture was essential to the relationship of American artists to the American public. In this tradition, the Lippitt family collected works by New England artists as a way to demonstrate their involvement in America’s artistic culture and to support local artists like Sydney Burleigh.
Bert Gallery. “Inventory Spotlight: S. R. Burleigh,” Last Accessed July 12, 2018. http://www.bertgallery.com/blog/2007/12/bert-gallery-inventory-spotlight-sr-burleigh/
Lisle, Janet, “Sydney Burleigh's World,” in The Life and Works of Sydney Richmond Burleigh, 1853- 1931: Wilbor House Museum. Little Compton Historical Society, 2006.
Providence Art Club. “The Fleur de Lys Building,” Last Accessed July 12, 2018. https://providenceartclub.org/about/our-buildings/the-fleur-de-lys-building/?highlight=Sydney%20Richmond%20Burleigh
Slocum, Grace L. “Two Centuries of Art in Rhode Island, 1728-1928,” Providence, RI; 1945.
Slocum, Grace L. “Who’s Who in Rhode Island Art: A Supplement to Two Centuries of Art in Rhode Island, 1728-1928,” Providence, RI; 1945.