Monday, April 16, 2012

Random Inspiration: Ernest Lee Major

Ernest Lee Major
Miss F., c. 1910
oil on canvas
40 X 30 in.

Though a native of Washington, D.C., Ernest Lee Major (1864-1950) is best remembered as a member of the Boston School of Painting.  His earliest professional training was under E.C. Messer at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in D.C., but by his late teens, he had traveled to New York City to study with William Merritt Chase at the Art Students League.  In December of 1884, Major was the first artist to win the Julius Hallgarten/Harper Brothers Art Scholarship, an award which provided the young American with the funds to study art for two years in Europe.¹  He travelled to France on the scholarship, and like many of his American peers, enrolled in the Académie Julian in Paris where he studied under Gustave Boulanger  and Jules Joseph Lefebvre.  Major remained in France after his scholarship funds were exhausted, attempting to establish his career while sending paintings to competitions in both Europe and the United States.  Eventually, in 1888, he returned to America and settled in Boston, where he took a position teaching at the Cowles School of Art, filling a vacancy left by Dennis Miller Bunker.  By 1896, Major had become an instructor at the Massachusetts Normal Art School, where he taught drawing and painting for the next forty-six years.²  

As a teacher, Major was beloved by his students, even though he was described as a gruff man with a biting wit³, and his devotion to the Masters was considered a bit archaic for the 20th century art program.  "He never did anything for anyone else," said a former pupil after Major's death, "and yet he was never alone.  Mr.  Major must have offered us something we desperately needed because one or two people were always in his studio to visit him and bring him gifts, and he had pupils until the very end."⁴  According to R.H. Ives Gammell, Major "took art and his teaching of art very earnestly and gave his best efforts unstintingly to his pupils."⁵  The painting of Miss F. (pictured above), was a gift to Boston's Museum of Fine Arts from Major's students.

As an artist, however, his career was not so memorable.  Despite having some successes, including a silver medal at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, and the Bok Prize from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1917, praises for his work were limited to words like "competent,"⁶ and comments such as his paintings "offended no one."⁷ 

Samuel Burtis Baker
Portrait of Ernest Lee Major, 1910
oil on canvas
48⅛ X 37¼ in.

Gammell described Major as a familiar figure in Boston's Latin Quarter, "swathed in his coat
and invariably accompanied by an oversized dog."⁸  Dogs became somewhat of a personal
trademark for Major.  He took them with him everywhere he went including his classes (some
were even included in the class rolls) and to exhibitions where the rules against animals were
relaxed to prevent him from leaving.⁹

¹ "An Art Scholarship," The New York Times, January 6, 1885, retrieved April 16, 2012 from
² Hirshler, Erica, The Bostonians:  Painters of an Elegant Age, 1870-1930, (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1986), p. 219.
³ Yoder, Brian, Ernest Lee Major (1864-1950), retrieved April 16, 2012 from
⁴ ibid.
⁵ Ives Gammell, R.H., The Boston Painters 1900-1930, (Parnassus Imprints, Inc., Orleans), p. 138.
⁶ ibid.
⁷ Love, Richard H., and Michael Preston Worley, Ph.D., Biography of Ernest Lee Major, retrieved April 16, 2012 from
⁸ Gammell, p. 135.
⁹ Yoder.

1 comment:

Jai Kamat said...

It's truly a shame that artists like this fade into obscurity. Thanks so much for bringing their careers back into focus!