William Mcilvaine 1813-1867


We don’t know much more than the outline of the life of William McIlvaine (1813-1867), but his rich yet delicate watercolors, especially those he painted of the California Gold Rush and his return trip through Mexico and Central America, speak eloquently for him and for the turbulent times he lived in. McIlvaine was born in Philadelphia in 1813. He received a Master of Arts degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1832, studied and traveled in Europe and returned to Philadelphia where he worked with his father for a time before taking up painting full-time. Soon after gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in 1849, McIlvaine decided to light out for California, and arrived in San Francisco on June 1 after what he called “a pleasant voyage of sixty days from Callao, [Peru].” He toured the gold camps for five months. By the number and quality of the watercolors he produced, he must have plied the brush far more than he did the shovel. He returned by way of Acapulco, Panama, Mexico City and Veracruz, recording the towns, villages, cities and landscapes as he traveled. McIlvaine wrote and illustrated a slender volume of his journey, Sketches of Scenery and Personal Adventure in California and Mexico, which was published in 1850, and he exhibited works at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts from  1851 to 1855. In 1856, he moved from Philadelphia to New York. His watercolors of canals, railroads, and town life in the Northeast continue to offer a great deal of insight into American history in the mid 19th century. After the Civil War broke out, he joined the 5th New York Infantry, the Zouaves named for their colorful, North African style uniforms and served with them in the bloody Peninsula Campaign until 1863. While in the service, McIlvaine found time to do some fine watercolors of Union Army camp life, several of which survive. McIlvaine died in 1867. He never married. We might only know the outline of McIlvaine’s life indeed, there are tantalizingly unknowable whys behind every choice he made but what we know is suggestive of a restless, curious, artistic mind and an journalistic approach to art that seeks to record the beauty in the moment.