Elihu Vedder was born on February 26, 1836 in New York City. His parents, Dr. Elihu Vedder Sr. and Elizabeth Vedder, who were cousins, treated him to a varied childhood. Elihu Sr., a dentist by profession, decided to move the family to Cuba when Elihu was very young. Growing up on Cuba had a profound impact on Vedder and probably made him comfortable with living outside the U.S.
His later childhood years were spent in the U.S., split between a boarding school and his maternal grandfather Alexander's house in Schenectady. Elihu's artistic ambitions became apparent during this time and were supported by his mother. His father was more sceptical and would have preferred that his son learn a more practical trade like Elihu's brother, Alexander.
Vedder trained in New York City with Tompkins H. Matteson, then in Paris with Franšois-╔douard Picot. Finally, he completed his studies in Italy - where he was strongly influenced not only by Italian Renaissance work but also by the modern Macchiaioli painters and the living Italian landscape. He first visited Italy from 1858 until 1860, becoming deeply emotionally attached to fellow painter Giovanni Costa. Their idyllic trips through the Italian countryside were cut short because Vedder's father cut off his financial allowance.
Vedder returned to the USA, penniless, during the American Civil War, and made a small living by undertaking commercial illustrations. He was involved in the bohemian 'Pfaff's' coffee house group, and painted some of his most memorable paintings notable for their visionary nature, romantic imagery and often Oriental influences. Paintings of this time include 'The Roc's Egg', 'The Fisherman and the Genii' and one of his most famous works, 'Lair of the Sea Serpent.' In the USA he sought out and became friends with Walt Whitman, Herman Melville and William Morris Hunt. Vedder became a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1865.
At the end of the Civil War, he left America to live in Italy. He married Caroline Rosekrans on July 13, 1869 in Glen Falls, New York. Elihu Vedder and his wife had four children, only two of whom survived. His daughter Anita Herriman Vedder played a vital role in handling the business of her father, who was notorious for his general aloofness towards details. Elihu's son Enoch Rosekrans Vedder was a promising architect who married jewelry designer Angela Reston. Enoch died while visiting his parents in Italy on April 2, 1916. Elihu had a home in Rome and - after the financial success of his 1884 Rubaiyat work - on the Isle of Capri, then a haven for male aesthetes.
Vedder visited England many times, and was influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites, and was a friend of Simeon Solomon. He was also influenced by the work of English and Irish mystics such as William Blake and William Butler Yeats. In 1890 Vedder helped establish the In Arte Libertas group in Italy.
Tiffany commissioned him to design glassware, mosaics and statuettes for the company. He decorated the hallway of the Reading Room of the Washington Library of Congress, and his mural paintings can still be seen there.
Vedder occasionally returned to the United States, but lived only in Italy from 1906 until his death on January 29, 1923. In 1910 he published an autobiography titled The Digressions of V. Like Whistler or Sargent he is in many ways more a European artist than an American one. He is buried in the Protestant Cemetery, Rome. There are no known living descendants of Elihu Vedder as both surviving children died without issue.
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