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Amos W. Sangster

(1833-1904)

Amos W. Sangster was a Canadian-born, Buffalo, N.Y.-based 19th century landscape painter, printmaker, educator, and arts advocate. In his own time, he was widely known as “the painter of the Niagara Frontier,” and his contemporary, artist George Innes, once referred to him as “the American Turner.”

Sangster was born in Kingston, Ontario on February 5, 1833, the second of twelve children in a family of artists. (His uncle Charles was a noted Canadian poet, his older brother James a sculptor, and his sister Urania a novelist.) The family first moved to Buffalo in 1834, relocated for a time to Newark, Ohio, then returned to Buffalo for good in 1844, at first working in tin, copper, and sheet iron. Around 1850, father Hugh Sangster opened a lantern shop at 41 Seneca Street, where Amos and James also worked. In his spare time, Amos carved wood and painted; he briefly studied to become a Methodist minister, then turned his attention full-time to art.

Sangster famously took no more than two formal lessons in his entire life; getting nothing out of them, he resolved to teach himself how to paint. [1] Beginning in the 1850s he supported himself for many years by working as a specialist in wood engraving for the Courier Company, a major American lithographic company. In his off hours, he began spending more and more time outdoors sketching and painting watercolors of well-known landmarks in Erie and Niagara counties.

Biographer William Digby Cecil, Sr., notes that “Sangster was a particular type of 19th Century Man. Perhaps one could refer to him as a ‘Renaissance’ man. He experienced the industrial age while working in his father’s shop, found it wanting, and looked to the freedom nourished by exposure to things of nature and to individual expression of his feelings and thoughts through art mediums. In freedom, Sangster wanted to do ‘his thing.’” [2]

In 1879, Sangster began working on a collection of original drawings and watercolors on which he would base his monumental series of 153 etchings entitled Niagara River and Falls from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario. Following the entire 36-mile course of the river from one lake to the other, he first sketched his scenes on location and later completed his etchings in his studio.

The project was part of an overall cultural shift in thinking about the aesthetic potential of etching. Before 1850, prints of the Falls were common, but the introduction of photography rendered them obsolete. Twenty years later, though, the etchings of James McNeill Whistler and the French Barbizon school convinced Sangster and other American printmakers that the medium still had aesthetic value, and they made full use of its delicacy and precision—along with the conventions of 19th century Pictorialism—when rendering landscapes. Etching allowed Sangster and other artists to rearrange elements of the actual scene in ways that pre-Photoshop photography could not equal; they also tended to include, as critic Richard Huntington notes, “an additional image (officially called a ‘remarque’) in a lower corner. This tiny second view not only made the print more saleable (more for your money), but it provided a more intimate touch with the larger scene. For example, a buoy might remind the viewer of man’s presence in a scene of raging water. In another case the viewer might be treated to a closeup view of tiny eddies of water moving around rocks, or perhaps a charming cluster of bushes and reeds.” [3]

Some of the images reflect the increasing presence of human intervention in the area; as 20th/21st century photographer John Pfahl notes, “He wasn’t afraid to show industry. He included a smokestack set within an idyllic landscape. The 19th century had a very ambivalent attitude about industrialization. They were proud of it, and only later did they realize the problems that came with it.” [4]

The accompanying text by James Warner Ward (1816-97), librarian at the Grosvenor Library in Buffalo, discusses the early exploration of the Niagara, contemporaneous commercial activity on the river, and the beauty of the Falls. A poem by Sangster’s uncle Charles is also included. Fifty prints are isolated on single sheets as chine-collé plates, while the remaining 103 are smaller vignettes illustrating Ward’s text.

The collection appeared as a signed and numbered limited edition of 10 portfolio packages arranged in 2 volumes and printed directly from the copper plates by J. H. Daniels in Boston, Mass., a process which began in 1886 and did not end until 1889. The entire project took a decade from start to finish. (The complicated process also required the artist to reproduce his signature 10,000 times.) Dedicated to Sangster’s friend, Grover Cleveland, the unprecedented undertaking was one of the greatest publishing feats of its era and served as an important historic record of the region in the late 1800s.

Sangster’s later work was influenced by American Impressionism and featured a brighter palette than he was originally known for. [5] He also played a key role in the formation of two major cultural institutions in the region: along with Lars Sellstedt and several prominent Buffalo businessmen, he helped found the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy (which would later become the Albright-Knox Art Gallery), and in 1891 he became a charter member of the Buffalo Society of Artists, serving as its first vice president.

Sangster died from influenza in his home studio at 448 7th Street in Buffalo on April 23, 1904. He was buried in the family plot in Lot H of Forest Lawn Cemetery.

A feature article on Sangster by Kate Burr in the Buffalo Times of Nov 27, 1927 begins “Although he died 23 years ago yet he lives in almost every home in Buffalo where good pictures are appreciated” and ends “There is no doubt that Sangster belongs more than any other artist to Buffalo, who claims him for her own.” [6]

For more information on Amos W. Sangster, including a detailed chronology of his life and work, visit http://www.meibohmfinearts.com/artists.aspx?ID=746. Additional materials can be found at http://www.askart.com/askart/s/amos_sangster/amos_sangster.aspx.

[1] See, for example, Walter S. Merwin, “Amos W. Sangster: Buffalo Recording Artist,” unpublished paper presented at a meeting of the Literary Clinic of Buffalo, 03/09/1959.

[2] William Digby Cecil, Sr., “Life and Work of Amos W. Sangster: A Research Report,” unpublished report for the Amos W. Sangster Niagara River and Falls Centennial Committee, The Buscaglia-Castellani Art Gallery, Niagara University, N.Y., 10/10/1985.

[3] Richard Huntington, “Niagara’s Beauty, Past and Present,” The Buffalo News, 04/27/2013)

[4] John Pfahl, quoted in Huntington. (See [3] above.)

[5] Thomas D. Mahoney, “Our Legacy of Art in WNY,” brochure accompanying exhibition at the Charles Burchfield Center,09/14-10/24/1971.

[6] Kate Burr, quoted in Cecil. (See [2] above.)