Development has erased many scenes from Long Island's rural past, but thanks to a celebrated 19th-century "historian in paint," idyllic landscapes that existed all over the Island were documented for posterity before they disappeared.
In a career spanning six decades, Charles Henry Miller wandered the length and breadth of Long Island to record with paint, watercolor, chalk, pencil and charcoal multiple sketches and etched images of a bucolic Long Island starting in the 1870s. Some of his works are on display in an exhibit at the Phillips House museum in Rockville Centre until Nov. 10.
"At a time when urbanization was creeping and then rushing eastward from New York City, Charles Henry Miller set about capturing the quiet ponds, farm houses, haystacks and moss-covered mills . . . just before they were about to be displaced by telephone poles, highways, new construction and other signs of modern, suburban life," according to a new book published last year about Miller, co-authored by his great-granddaughter, Ruth Ann Bramson.
"He set out in a conscious and deliberate way to capture those scenes before they disappeared," she said recently.
Miller was born in Manhattan in 1842, one of eight children of Jacob Miller, a well-known builder and real estate developer, and his wife, Jane Taylor. He was raised in a world of wealth and privilege -- his wide circle of acquaintances included President Abraham Lincoln, and some of his forbears fought in the Battle of Long Island.
To please his father, Miller became a physician, but a stint as ship's doctor aboard a commercial craft laying down the Atlantic cable was the only time he used his medical degree, said Bramson, who splits her time between Boston and the Miller family home in East Marion. "He was devoted to his art," she said.
Painting was Miller's calling, and he left New York to pursue it in Europe, where he was classically trained. When his father died he returned in 1870 to the United States and to his first love, painting almost daily.
In the 200-page hardcover "Charles Henry Miller, N.A., Painter of Long Island," (Hudson Hills Press, $40) that Bramson co-authored with Geoffrey K. Fleming, a Long Island art historian and director of the Southold Historical Society, the authors note that "Long Island was not thought of as a place that had great appeal for artists." Miller, however, begged to differ, and he advocated for the Island as "a rich territory for artists."
He would tell his associates in the New York art world that it wasn't necessary to go to the Alps, the Rhine or the Danube to find good nature studies, because they existed here.
Not surprisingly, Miller was troubled when Long Island began losing those vistas. "The great white oaks . . . I sketched at Stewarts Point just north of Jamaica . . . have been cut down and the roads made through the pond itself . . . Destroying them seems to me another evidence of the vandalism of alleged civilization," Miller said at the time.
Alley Pond, in Bayside, Queens -- which was then part of Long Island and a favorite sketching site for Miller -- today sits under the intersection of the Grand Central and Cross Island parkways, the book notes. And although he was a staunch defender of the rural nature of Long Island, Miller eventually sold land to real estate developers.
He entered many exhibitions and won medals and prizes for his work depicting the region. He was a founder and member of several arts-related organizations, and served on various boards. Miller also advocated for good schools and established a public library. When he was 59, he married a widow with three children but had none of his own.
Hundreds of his works are in his descendants' possession, and some are in private collections and museums, including the Long Island Museum in Stony Brook and the Heckscher Museum of Art in Huntington. The selection at the Phillips House is on loan for the exhibit.
In addition to some Miller etchings that were donated to the museum from an estate, the Phillips House show includes works depicting a field being plowed at sunset, bright orange and gold haystacks, clam boats and their crews on Little Neck Bay; cows grazing near a country lane, and a "graveyard" of ships at Port Washington.
"The simpler aspects of rural life always had their place in Miller's works," said Rory Murphy, a Phillips House trustee who helped curate the show. "He chose to describe in paint the most menial tasks. You're getting a glimpse of a Long Island that doesn't exist anymore. It's important for people to understand their past and how it has changed, some of it not for good. If they look at these paintings and see that natural beauty that existed, they may want to save what is here."
Miller had kidney disease and died on Jan. 21, 1922, two months shy of his 80th birthday. A pamphlet for his memorial service in 1923 stated: "Great was Charles Henry Miller, great as an artist, great as a philosopher, great as a man, great as an American."
In conjunction with the exhibition at the Phillips House in Rockville Centre, located at 28 Hempstead Ave., Bramson will present a talk and slide show on Miller at the Rockville Centre Public Library, 221 North Village Ave., on Oct. 19, beginning at 2 p.m.
The Phillips House is open Saturdays and Sundays from 1 to 4 p.m., and by appointment. For more information call 516-764-7459.