Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

While many artists have painted the majestic Susquehanna River, none were as devoted to studying, rhapsodizing about its beauty and, ultimately, painting it in its many moods as was Pennsylvania native Lloyd Mifflin (1846–1921). In many ways, Mifflin typified the romantic, if often improbable, late nineteenth-century image of the artist as an attractive, highly sensitive, elitist dandy who consciously withdrew from what he perceived as an increasingly crass and commercial world to a place where he could cultivate his elevated sensibilities. An enigmatic individual, Mifflin was the scion of a wealthy and privileged family who vigorously believed in the perquisites and responsibilities of his upper-class background. In his unpublished journal, “Crude Thoughts Book,” the artist-aesthete wrote, “It is certainly pleasant to be thought by everyone to be a gentleman; but the vulgar cannot tell a gentleman when they meet him if he wears not the outward badge; so the cheapest way to get along with people . . . is to wear the badge of an gentleman, i.e. dress well fine boots always polished; silk hat always bright; clean shirt and collar always so.” Extant photographs suggest that Mifflin rigorously adhered to his own sartorial advice.

His deference to his social status and a certain provincialism ultimately cost him proper recognition as a painter, although he was renowned in the more genteel world of poetry as “America’s Greatest Sonneteer.”

As befitted a gentleman of his position in society, Mifflin was proud to be a descendent of old stock. The first American Mifflin, John, settled in New Jersey and in 1679, two years before King Charles II granted William Penn his colony, crossed the Delaware River into what would become Pennsylvania. He often boasted that John Mifflin was “the first Englishman to settle in Pennsylvania.” Ancestor Thomas Mifflin (1744–1800), had been an officer during the American Revolution and Pennsylvania’s first governor under the Constitution of 1790. He was also one of the few Americans of the eighteenth century to have been painted by the two artistic giants of his era, Benjamin West (1738–1820) and John Singleton Copley (1738–1815). Both portraits are iconic and are in major Pennsylvania collections: the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Lloyd’s mother, Elizabeth Ann Bethel Heise Mifflin (1812–1855), was the daughter of Solomon Heise, a prosperous businessman and land speculator born in Frankfort, Germany, and a mother of English descent, Patience Bethel of Columbia, Lancaster County, whose grandfather, John Blunston, sailed to America with William Penn in 1681.

Elizabeth Ann married John Houston Mifflin (1807–1888). The Heises were a wealthy family who were, no doubt, looking to the prestige that a union with the Mifflins would bring. When Elizabeth Ann Mifflin died, much of the German family heritage could be erased. Although Lloyd was surrounded by Pennsylvania German culture, preserved by the farmers who lived on or near his country estate, he could maintain an illusionary difference: he was gentry, they were peasants. While the Mifflins had means, it was the Heise money that ultimately provided for Lloyd’s and his father’s elegant lifestyles. Mifflin bragged about his illustrious English forebears but apparently rarely mentioned his prosperous German maternal grandfather.

J. Houston Mifflin was the greatest influence on Lloyd’s life and, in some ways, his life served as a dress rehearsal for his son’s more illustrious career. The elder Mifflin was primarily a portraitist and a painter of miniatures, who also created some very fine landscapes. He studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) and with Pennsylvania’s great portraitist, Thomas Sully (1783–1872). A poet as well as a painter, as his son would be, Mifflin’s Lyrics was published in 1835. Along with George Peter Alexander Healy (1813–1894) and several other young artists, J. Houston Mifflin traveled to Europe in 1836 and 1837. Marrying several years after his return, he was an itinerant painter who had spent several years in Savannah, Georgia, where his brother James had moved. His wife’s frail health and early death forced him to give up his career. The Mifflins lived comfortably in a Federal style townhouse in Columbia, built by the Bethel family, and summered at their country estate, Norwood, near Columbia, high on a hilltop overlooking the Susquehanna River where Mifflin built a house in 1850, one which was subsequently enlarged in 1902 by Lloyd. Both residences still stand and are well maintained.

J. Houston and Elizabeth Ann Mifflin had six children and, although one son, Bethel, died young, theirs was a lively household with four brothers and one sister, Mary. Lloyd, the eldest surviving son, fulfilled many of his father’s aspirations, becoming a gentleman, a painter, and a poet. He painted several affectionate portraits of his father, including one showing J. Houston posing contemplatively in a woodsy landscape.

In the Mifflin household, art was paramount and literature important. Regular family readings from Shakespeare, Tennyson, and many other literary, and especially poetic, worthies, were part of daily life. Thanks to a substantial allowance, J. Houston had brought back dozens of paintings from his grand tour of Europe, including works by John Hoppner, Thomas Lawrence, Salvator Rosa, Richard Wilson, and Tiziano Vecelli, better known as Titian. Beside them hung Mifflin’s copies of works by Rembrandt Harmenszon van Rijn and Peter Paul Rubens, his own original paintings, and those by Healy and other friends. He also brought back a copy of the Venus de Milo, which he prominently installed in a niche in the Columbia house. Although the collection was eventually dispersed, at least one painting, a seventeenth-century panel depicting St. Jerome, is in a private collection in Lancaster County.

Much of Lloyd’s education was conducted by private tutors, among them his father, who was his first art teacher. Following in his father’s footsteps, the young artist studied art in Philadelphia at PAFA. Not only was PAFA, established in 1805, a fine institution, but Lloyd, who was closely allied to the Mifflins, the Houstons, and related elite families of Philadelphia, was welcomed into genteel society and regularly attended social events in the city throughout much of his life. His American art education culminated in 1870 with his tutelage by Thomas Moran (1837–1926), with whom he had apparently studied privately in Philadelphia since at least 1866. Moran also taught Mifflin engraving, and the two became lifelong friends, sharing a love of landscape.

Stylistically, Mifflin’s career paralleled Moran’s more celebrated métier, beginning with the literal renditions of the Hudson River tradition and evolving to reflect the more advanced artistic modes of the Barbizon school (a French movement toward realism) and impressionism. While Moran would become famous for his paintings of the American West, Mifflin devoted himself to his beloved Susquehanna River, which flowed near his home in Columbia. Mifflin, however, did execute several paintings of Western scenes, including a large canvas entitled Grand Canyon of Arizona (1913) now in the collections of The State Museum of Pennsylvania. There is no evidence that Mifflin traveled to the West, and he most likely based these paintings on Moran’s work.

In August and September 1871, by steamer and train, Mifflin traveled the length of the Susquehanna River from its source, Otsego Lake (the “Glimmerglass” of popular American writer James Fenimore Cooper’s writings) at Cooperstown, New York, to the Chesapeake Bay. He made his liveliest sketches in exotically named Pennsylvania communities such as Athens, Wyalusing, Towanda, Nanticoke, Catawissa, and Shickshinny. The sketchbook he kept is now in The State Museum of Pennsylvania, in Harrisburg, while his journal of the trip is in a private collection. It contains a few observations about the river and the towns along it, and a record of his expenses (“between $4 and $141⁄2 per day”), but it is most noteworthy for long discourses on the problems of being a gentleman in America, the importance of dressing well, and how to command proper respect from hotel servants.

Like his father, Lloyd Mifflin wrote poetry, publishing his first volume, Aldornere, A Pennsylvania Idyll, in Philadelphia in 1872. This little-known book is illustrated with ten exquisite engravings of Susquehanna landscapes he made after his sketches.

Making a living in art is no easy task — a problem Lloyd never encountered. “In Reading [Berks County] he did one time,” wrote an earlier biographer, “go about from house to house ringing doorbells and offering his artistic wares — to no avail. But he enjoyed the experience and laughed off the rebuffs.” In November 1868, Mifflin wrote to a friend that it was difficult to make a living by painting in Philadelphia, “But I mean to come this winter and try it, starve or not.” For the most part, however, he never tried to sell his paintings through dealers, nor did he work vigorously to display them in the important institutional exhibitions. While letters suggest that he showed works in New York, there are no records to prove that he did so. From Europe, in October 1872, he sent photographs of two of his pictures to J. E. Caldwell and Company, a venerable carriage trade jewelry store on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia, requesting that it exhibit them in their windows, a common practice of the day. Thomas Cole (1801-1848) first attracted attention when his paintings were exhibited in the window of New York City jewelry store. Such stores provided opportunities because there were few commercial galleries where artists could show their work. Mifflin exhibited twice at PAFA in 1888 and 1889.

Mifflin’s father urged him to travel to Europe to study, and early in 1872 the budding artist apparently left for Boston to consult some of the elder Mifflin’s friends who were familiar with European venues. He met the aesthetician, art critic, and writer James Jackson Jarves (1818–1888), with whom, in 1872, he sailed to Liverpool and later traveled in Italy. Jarves, in turn, introduced him to the American expatriate artist Henry R. Newman (1843–1917), living in Florence.

Mifflin’s writings while in Europe reflect xenophobia (an uncontrollable fear of foreigners), and he was especially antagonistic toward the French and their art. “I have glanced today at the gallery of French Modern Landscapists,” he wrote in 1872, “and find them poor, and compared to Turner, all mere children. . . . [They demonstrate] no beauty of color, no color at all only dark gray greens and black grays. I am convinced that the French school is not for me, nor would I study under any master there, under any terms, except one man. He is [Felix François Georges Philibert] Ziem [1821– 1911]. He is a colorist, and a master; they are poor fluid fellows who see in nature nothing but gray green. . . . Courbet is my choice of the French greenists, no poetry in him though.”

Inexplicably included in the exhibition were two paintings by a German artist, Oswald Achenbach (1827–1905), which Mifflin proclaimed “the best painted land[scapes] in the collection.” While Achenbach was not the equal of Turner, “he is a master whom I would walk a hundred miles to study under . . . [He] is the best of the practical teachers and . . . in the mechanical rudiments he must be superb.”

For some reason, Mifflin was unable to arrange to study with Achenbach when he traveled to Düsseldorf in May or June 1872. However, he was accepted as a student by Herman Herzog (1832– 1932). At first, he did “rather rudimentary work” in Herzog’s studio, but he expected to “go direct to nature with a box and paint in a week — and then will try to paint something called a picture — color and composition I wish chiefly to study. . . . It is dull work now but it will be better when I compose not copy. While Herzog paints wonderfully fast . . . there is no one man in Paris, London, Antwerp or Dusseldorf who is the equal to T. Moran in power of drawing landscape forms.” Herzog was “very kind” to him, but Mifflin was not sympathetic to most of the local artists and his fellow students, who “wear velvet coats, and slouch hats, smoke and drink beer—I wear a stovepipe, neither drink nor smoke, and they think it is impossible to paint without them.”

Perhaps the most interesting of Mifflin’s paintings known to have been executed in Düsseldorf was Endymion, begun about 1872 and reworked in 1890. In it Mifflin used himself as the model for the beautiful young shepherd boy with whom the moon goddess Selene fell in love. When he reworked it, Lloyd recorded how he rigged up mirrors so that he could better paint his nude back.

Shortly after he completed his studies with Herzog, his teacher emigrated to America where he enjoyed a successful, if peripatetic, career, which took him throughout the United States, where he is especially remembered for his paintings of the American West and Florida. There is, however, no record of him and Mifflin meeting in America.

Mifflin’s formal studies in Düsseldorf appear to have been brief, lasting only until October or November. He traveled up the Rhine sketching and recording his impressions of the Mouse Tower at Bingen in his Baedeker guidebook. As Moran suggested to him by letter, he traveled to Switzerland, along with Newman, to study and sketch mountainous scenery, but he found intimate subjects more to his liking than the grandeur of the landscape. It was in Italy, though, in June 1873, that he felt a joyous sense of conversion. “I have lived some glorious moments in the south,” Mifflin wrote. “I have raved about by the hour in a sort of fervid calm, an impulsive tranquility, pencil in hand, when I seemed all spirit, and a medium only, between my vision of the nature, and its recording on the paper.”

Italy changed Mifflin’s color sense. The strong coloration of the Hudson River School had marked his early work, but the radiance of the Italian countryside provided new insights on the use of color. “Violent contrasts of color are not beautiful,” he wrote. “The colors of the rainbow are not deep nor strong — but it is their luminosity — their light, which makes them so lovely — they glow. Their gradation is exquisite — and they are blended and merged into each other so that you cannot tell the edges.” Historian Paul A. W. Wallace observed, “In later years he went back to the stronger colors of his youth, but he never lost his mastery of tonality and luminosity.”

Upon his return to the United States in 1873, Mifflin did not settle in New York City, the artistic center, as Moran had, but returned to Columbia where he lived comfortably and painted assiduously. His View of the Susquehanna Looking Toward Turkey Hill, one of the first American scenes painted after his return, demonstrates his newly acquired visions and skills.

Mifflin lived in a style befitting a gentleman of means. He drove a coach-and-four, visited friends and relatives (“mixing with the very best sort of society”), and took up photography, creating thousands of glass-plate negatives and lantern slides. One large collection of his glass plates, the emulsion removed, was used to glaze a greenhouse. Many plates remain in private hands, including one lot rescued from a refuse dump in Columbia. Others are in the collection of the Pennsylvania State Archives.

Mifflin continued to take photographs until he suffered a heart attack in 1892. Convinced that the chemical fumes were harmful to his health, he gave up nearly all photography, although he continued painting sporadically until a stroke in 1916 paralyzed his left side and left him bedridden until his death five years later, in 1921.

“Photography is not an art, but a process of science to which art may add grace and beauty. . . . Further, it is a useful servant of the artist,” wrote his friend Jarves in Art Thoughts: The Experiences and Observations of an American Amateur in Europe (1870). This passage apparently reflected Mifflin’s view of photography since he underlined these words in his copy of the book. However, Mifflin never thought of himself as a photographer; although he could frame a scene well, he was seldom concerned about exposure. He was also a sloppy technician when developing and fixing his plates, which accounts for the poor state of preservation of most of his negatives. For him, photographs were studies or aides-mémoire (“memory aids”) for his paintings. Occasionally the photographs were exact prototypes for the paintings, similar to the better-known photographs taken by American impressionist Theodore Robinson (1852–1896) for his paintings.

Mifflin continued to live at his birthplace in Columbia and at Norwood with his father until the latter’s death in 1888, when he inherited both properties, which would continue to be his residences for the remainder of his life. From this point forward into the early twentieth century Lloyd and his younger brother, physician Houston Mifflin, increased their fortunes by actively developing the western portion of the booming industrial town of Columbia on land they had inherited. Lloyd also donated the land on which Columbia High School was built and well into the twentieth century a commemoration was held on his birthday at the cemetery in Columbia where he is buried.

Beginning in the late 1880s, Lloyd’s output of poetry outpaced his painting and photography. The Hills, privately printed in 1896, was illustrated with engravings by Thomas Moran, and photographs of drawings by Moran illustrated At the Gates of Song,published the following year. The author collected favorable reviews of At the Gates of Song and printed them in pamphlet form. Romantically titled volumes followed, and his poetry earned him honorary doctorates from Franklin and Marshall College, Lancaster, in 1903, and the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, in 1908. His poetry was celebrated in the only biography of him written by a contemporary, America’s Greatest Sonneteer by Elias Hershey Sneath (1857–1935), published in Columbia in 1928. Sneath, who had been born in Mountainville, Lehigh County, and educated at Lebanon Valley College, Annville, and Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, was a professor of the history of philosophy at Yale for many years.

One friend, the Philadelphia born and German trained artist, Frank Lebrun Kirkpatrick (1853–1917) executed a painting entitled Embers which, in many ways, summarizes Lloyd Mifflin’s life. The mature artist is seated in a chair wearing academic regalia. The reverse of the canvas contains revealing information: “The Colors of Franklin & Marshall ARE SHOWN in Hood and Gown. PORTRAIT of LLOYD MIFFLIN TAKEN in THE OLD HOMESTEAD — HIS BIRTHPLACE Cor 2d and WALNUTst. — N.W. cor ~ in COLUMBIA PA. A Literal RENDERING of
EVERY detail of the front ROOM WHERE MANY POEMS WERE COMPOSED —” The eclectic Edwardian interior features family antiques, notably an upholstered Chippendale settee. Above the mantle hangs one of Lloyd’s portraits of his father. To the left hangs a splendid example of European paintings his father collected. Behind the seated artist and to his right is the copy of the Venus de Milo brought back many years before by J. Houston Mifflin.

Mifflin never married and, according to rumor and legend, the public stance of his genteel upper-class family concealed a darker side. Brother James Deveaux Mifflin (1852–1913) was the wild one, who impregnated a local young woman. In proper Victorian fashion, sister Mary (1857–1881) took the girl away to have the child. James later left Columbia and eventually settled in Massachusetts where he married, had children, and ostensibly disappeared from the Mifflin family picture. Another sibling, Charles West Mifflin, married and became a father.

Mary Mifflin was publicly implicated in a scandal when a former suitor fell — or, as some believed, was pushed — from a bridge. A fictionalized account of the incident appears in Front Porch (1933), a novel by Reginald Wright Kauffman (1877–1959), a widely read popular novelist born in Columbia. After Mary, herself, committed suicide, close relatives and servants claimed it was because she was pregnant by Lloyd.

Whatever the truth of this astounding allegation, Lloyd Mifflin’s public story was that he never married because he was disappointed in love. The woman he loved, Barbara H. Peart, of Columbia, supposedly accepted the hand of another — Lloyd’s cousin George Brown Mifflin — just hours before Mifflin was to propose. Bitterly disappointed, he would never love again. There are also strong hints of homosexual preferences, including a large collection of glass plate photographs he took of male nudes. Unlike the well known nude photographic studies—both male and female — made by Thomas Eakins and often used as a basis for his paintings, Mifflin, except for his self-portrayal in Endymion, is seldom known to have painted nude figures; they are indistinct or ancillary to the paintings in which they appear.

Joseph Libhart, an artist and later a painting restorer in nearby Marietta, remembered visiting Norwood in the late 1940s to see Loretta R. Grace M. and Elizabeth Z. Minich, sisters who had inherited the property. Grace, one of the trio, was busily scraping the emulsion off a glass plate with an old-fashioned single-edged safety razor blade. When she saw Libhart approach, she quickly took off her apron and flung it over the sizeable pile of yet un-desecrated plates beside her and explained, “We need glass to re-glaze part of the greenhouse.” Being young, mischievous, and insatiably curious, Libhart reached under the apron and, despite Minich’s protests, extracted a plate. When he saw the image, Grace told him, “Joe, we could never let anyone see these.” Libhart proceeded to look at the collection of nudes. There are accounts of visits to Mifflin by male artists, always solitary, and often for long periods of time both at Norwood and at the house in Columbia.

Beginning about 1900, the Minich sisters began visiting Norwood and eventually at least one lived there. Nevin Stauffer, a sporting goods store owner — known as “Uncle Nev” to generations of Columbians and the longtime self-appointed vice president (and only officer) of the Lloyd Mifflin Memorial Association — asked “Miss Loretta” what she saw in the “old red head.” Her answer, he recalled, was unambiguous: she moved her thumb back and forth over her flexing upturned fingers — the nearly universal sign for money.

In 1926, five years after Lloyd’s death, his brother, Houston Mifflin (1850–1936), and the Minich sisters put up about 125 of Lloyd’s paintings for sale in Lancaster at prices ranging from $5 to $250, but only half sold. It was, apparently, about this time that Houston marked many of Lloyd’s unsigned paintings “Lloyd Mifflin — Attest Houston Mifflin.” Upon Houston’s death, the Minichs inherited Norwood. They gave paintings as awards for perfect attendance and academic achievement to their grade-school classes, as prizes for ladies’ club teas, and to friends and admirers. They mounted several well-attended exhibitions of Mifflin’s work at Norwood in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Libhart remembers stacks of paintings and the sisters inviting him to take anything he wanted. The Minichs also cut canvases and gave friends the part or parts of a larger work they liked best.

The Minich sisters sold Norwood in 1954. After retaining many major works and giving manuscripts and antiques to Franklin and Marshall College, they sold the contents of the house at auction. At the urging of the Libhart family, in 1962 they gave the William Penn Memorial Museum (now The State Museum of Pennsylvania) in Harrisburg more than two thousand paintings, drawings, and sketches by Mifflin. Through the generosity of Eleanor Houston Smith (1910–1987), of Philadelphia and Freeport, Maine, a Mifflin descendant, philanthropist, and a member of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission appointed by Governors George M. Leader and David L. Lawrence, a number of Lloyd Mifflin paintings in the collection were framed and restored. A temporary exhibition of works was mounted shortly after the opening of the present-day museum building in the mid-1960s. However, at least 60 percent of the Mifflin collection safeguarded by the museum has never been exhibited. The last major show of paintings by Mifflin was held at the Heritage Center Museum of Lancaster County in center-city Lancaster in the 1980s.

Paintings by Lloyd Mifflin continue to appear on the market, often offered by major dealers and galleries in Philadelphia and New York to collectors and museums that avidly seek his work for their collections. A number of small paintings were originally owned by descendants of Mifflin household servants and local residents who treasured their awards and prizes presented to them many years earlier by the Minich sisters.

 

For Further Reading

Brubaker, Jack. Down the Susquehanna to the Chesapeake. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002.

O’Neil, John P., ed. American Paradise: The World of the Hudson River School. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1988.

Richman, Irwin. Pennsylvania’s Painters. University Park: Pennsylvania Historical Association, 1983.

Seibert, Peter S. The Susquehanna: Visions of Solitude; An Exhibition and Catalogue of the Arts and Artists of the Susquehanna River School. Lancaster, Pa.: Heritage Center Museum of Lancaster County, 1995.

Sneath, Elias Hershey. America’s Greatest Sonneteer. Columbia, Pa.: Clover Press, 1928.

Stein, Roger B. Susquehanna: Images of the Settled Landscape. Binghamton, N.Y.: Roberson Center for the Arts and Sciences, 1981.

Stranahan, Susan Q. Susquehanna, River of Dreams. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.

Wallace, Paul A. W. Lloyd Mifflin, Painter and Poet of the Susquehanna. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1965.

 

The author recognizes the work of two of his former graduate students at the Pennsylvania State University at Harrisburg, whose work helped make this article possible: Ruth Arnold, former member of the staff of The State Museum of Pennsylvania, whose 1979 masters production is entitled “Lloyd Mifflin, Painter of the Susquehanna,” and Maureen P. Reed, whose 1985 masters production is “Nineteenth Century Depictions of the Susquehanna River: Man’s Harmony with Nature.”

 

Irwin Richman, a resident of Bainbridge, Lancaster County, is professor emeritus of American Studies and history at the Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg, where he taught courses on the arts and popular culture. He is now a research associate at the Landis Valley Museum, administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, in Lancaster. The author received a B.A. from George Washington University and his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. He has written articles for magazines and journals, including Pennsylvania Heritage, as well as a number of books, including Yesterday’s Farm Tools (2010), Holidays and Other Weird Events (2009), Seed Art: The Package Made Me Buy It (2008), Pennsylvania German Farms, Gardens, and Seeds: Landis Valley in Four Centuries (2007), The Pennsylvania Dutch Country (2004), Pennsylvania German Arts: More Than Hearts, Parrots, and Tulips (2001), Pennsylvania’s Painters (1983), and Pennsylvania’s Architecture (1968). He lectures widely and conducts study tours.