Our Iowa Heritage: George H. Yewell – Iowa City’s Pioneer Artist.

George Henry Yewell – world-renowned painter and etcher – Iowa boy at heart (1830 – 1923).

George H. Yewell was born January 20, 1830 in Havre de Grace, Maryland. When his father, Solomon, died one year later, little George and his mother, Harriet Carver (Yewell), first moved to Cincinnati, as she had family there. It was here George received some instruction from Theodore S. Parvin, who later became a prominent educator in Iowa. At the age of eleven (1841), George and his mother came west to Iowa City. Her obituary tells us more…

A Young Man and His Journal.

Young George loved exploring the open space around his childhood home of Iowa City. When George was about eighteen (1847-1848), he began journaling, bringing story and art together on one page. Here’s an entry that reflects one of the many happy times with friends:

Early on the morning of October 12, 1847, Will Lowe, of Iowa City, seated on a pile of blankets, pots and kettles, in a light wagon to which his father’s faithful old roan horse was attached, gathered in seven young fellows who had planned a few days previously, a camping expedition. Their names were William W. Lowe, William S. Cooke, Abraham C. Price, Wesley Redhead, Peter Snyder, Anthony Cole, and George Yewell. The spot selected was on the banks of the Iowa River some 10 miles distant in a forest of sugar maples. It was discovered after starting, that we had forgotten two things; a coffee pot and my dog, Don Pedro. Tone [Anthony Cole] started back for both, reappearing in about 20 minutes, mounted on his nag, the coffee pot hung over his arm, and my dog trailing after at the end of a rope. We ransacked a deserted log cabin and found an iron skillet. An axe, which we had also forgotten, was procured of a dutch woman living on the road. On arriving, we put up our tent, got a hasty dinner and started out to shoot something, without success. Will Lowe, full of mischief, kept us awake nearly all night with his fiddle, which he would take down as soon as we were dozing off and dash wildly into “Rosy O’More” or “Dan Tucker.”

The next morning was rainy and the young men stayed under the tent “and kicked their heels,” but the sky cleared and they shot enough game for supper…

. . .after which we built up a roaring fire, lit our pipes and listened to the yarns of the inimitable Tone. The group was a picturesque one; one lying at full length warming his feet, another leaning against the tent pole regarding Tone playing the tambourine on a tin plate, accompanying an air played by myself on the violin and sung by Wesley Redhead. On the opposite side of the fire, seated upon an inverted sugar-trough, Will Lowe and Will Cooke played “old sledge” with a worn and greasy pack of cards.

George’s Political Art Goes Viral.

In 1848, after George and a friend returned from an extended excursion to New Orleans, he wrote in his journal…

Upon reflection, every man ought to be able to earn a living by the labor of his hands and should know one of the handicrafts. I therefore apprenticed myself, on October 30, 1848, to Byron Stilwell, a merchant tailor in Iowa City, who afterwards married my cousin, Elizabeth Snyder.

Yet, despite George’s attempt to become a reputable tailor, Providence led him in another direction…

Notwithstanding my determination to master a handicraft, I never gave up my feeling for the Fine Arts.

George’s breakthrough in the arts came with a humorous sketch he called Removal of the Capitol, a political cartoon addressing the controversy surrounding the possible move of the state capital from Iowa City to Des Moines. In journal writings composed in his latter years, George described the incident…

I think it was during the session of the Iowa Legislature that attempts were made to move the seat of government from Iowa City to Fort Des Moines. At the height of the excitement, I drew a large caricature, representing the Capitol building on wheels, and oxen pulling one way, upon whose shoulders were placed heads of members who voted for removal. On the other end of the building were those members who voted against the bill, represented by oxen whose feeble chain had broken and tumbled them in a heap. Principal leaders of the movement were represented as drivers; bodies of different animals, suited to their different characters, being in place of their own. The likenesses were easily recognized and the caricature created a sensation. It went from town to town over the state and made me widely known.

This caricature (below) attracted the attention of Burlington native Charles Mason, Chief Justice of the Iowa Supreme Court, who sought George out and aided him with money, by which he was able to begin a course of art study in New York in 1851, entering the schools of the National Academy of Design.

Iowa City vs. Muscatine. In 1853, George drew yet another political cartoon that stirred the good people of Iowa. This time it was all about the political struggle surrounding which community in eastern Iowa would be the first destination for the Mississippi & Missouri (M&M) Railroad.

Read more about the power of political cartooning in Iowa here.

Iowa City in the Late-1840’s.

In 1848, George picked up on the local controversy surrounding Rev. Hummer and the missing church bell that hung in the belfry of First Presbyterian Church in Iowa City. Click here to read the full story about Hummer’s Bell.

In 1849, several of Yewell’s friends left for the new gold fields of California. In his journal, George mentions Sam Hayward, Davy Sessions and Peter Snyder. On July 17, he wrote…

I read today, an account of the death of Thomas B. Waring, of cholera, en route to California. His comrades buried him at the foot of a large oak tree by the roadside. He was a noble fellow and a student at the Snethen Seminary in Iowa City at the same time with me. He was a printer and had charge of publishing the Iowa Colporteur, a small journal devoted to interests of the seminary.

At Our City Landing – an oil painting by artist Mildred Pelzer depicting a steamboat arrival in Iowa City in the 1840’s. Click here to read more about steamboats and Iowa City.

Interestingly, George records in his journal four arrivals of the steamboat Herald in 1849: on March 24, April 11, April 22, and May 10. On April 22, he and several others rode down to Philip Clark’s farm, hailed the Herald and got a ride up to the landing at the foot of Capitol Square. There was “a pleasure party on board from Hannibal.”

The 1849 Fourth of July picnic on the banks of the Iowa River was a gala affair with “a great dinner of roasted turkeys, chickens and pigs, with hams and all kinds of meat, cakes, etc.” There was music and oratory; “Dr. Ballard delivered a ‘Kaintuck’ oration.” Then there were rowing parties on the river, music and lovemaking under the shade of the trees. On other summer afternoons, there were outings to pick blackberries, and wild plums –” eastward toward Coles’.” Once, on their way home from a melon patch, George and Wesley Redhead met a poor woman who was lamenting the loss of her bucket in a well, “which, by the aid of a ladder, we extricated.”

1851- An Iowa Artist Heads Off to New York.

As we mentioned earlier, on the advice of Judge Charles Mason, an early patron who had been attracted by his caricatures in 1848, George headed off to New York on October 4, 1851. Of the journey, he wrote…

Stage Ready – an oil painting by artist Mildred Pelzer depicts a stagecoach preparing to leave Iowa City for points east. Click here to read more about the stagecoach era in Iowa City.

There was no railroad out of Chicago farther than Aurora. We went there in stage coaches, traveling day and night, taking our meals often at rude, log-built taverns, where, in early morning, we would awaken sleeping inmates and gather, ourselves, the chips and bark from the woodpile, with which to boil our coffee, whilst the females were dressing the children.

Five days after leaving Iowa City, George arrived in New York, where a friend, Charles A. Dana of the Tribune, gave a note of introduction to Thomas Hicks, a famed artist who helped him, without pay, qualify for the National Academy of Design. George describes his first evening at the Academy:

My first evening was a severe trial to my nerves. Many of the 30 students had been there several winters and it was the custom to look at each others drawings, with the utmost good feelings. I placed a bust of Vitellino on a pedestal and seated myself in a corner where no one could get behind me. I still have this drawing which shows painful labor and timidity, and recalls my feelings whilst drawing it.

It was Thomas Hicks who gave George a firm foundation in drawing and prepared him for study in Paris in 1856 at the famous atelier of Thomas Couture, where Hicks himself had been a student.

1854-1855 – Two Fruitful Years in Iowa City.

1854-1855 George Yewell returned to Iowa City, making some much needed funds by painting children’s portraits here in the city.

After an initial three-year period of study in New York, George returned to Iowa City to visit his family and friends. He set up a studio in his home and painted portraits, “principally babies and young children.” He painted a sign for a jeweler, showing a child holding a large, antique watch. In his journal, George states…

My first commission was to make a series of vignette drawings of buildings, residences and street views of the town, to grace the margin of a new map of Iowa City. After they were published, I made a good thing by coloring and varnishing them at $2 each.

These sketches turned out to be the earliest pictures of Iowa City that we have today. About this same time, photographer Issac Wetherby came to town, picking up with a camera where George left off with his paintbrushes. Thankfully, between these two creative men, we have a handful of early Iowa City classics that give us an accurate view of our fair city in the mid-1850’s. Allow me, now, to share George’s 1854-1855 Iowa City sketches with you…

1854 – George Henry Yewell’s Twelve Iowa City Classics.

In 1854, a map of Iowa City was compiled and drawn by J. H. Millar. It featured twelve amazing sketches created by George H. Yewell.
Click here for more early maps of Iowa City.
J.H. Millar of the firm Bryan & Millar, Panora, Guthrie Co., Iowa (mapmaker) / G.H. Yewell (illustrator) / Cook, Sargent & Downey (publishers) / W. Schuchman, 3rd St. Pittsburgh (lithographer), IOWA CITY AND ITS ENVIRONS. Iowa City: Cook, Sargent & Downey, 1854. Click here to read about H.D. Downey & the CS&D Bankers – publisher of this beautiful map.

1855 – Iowa City Etchings & Other Assorted Activities.

These sketches (above) of Indian Lookout, located south of Iowa City, remain from George’s 1854-1855 season in Iowa.

While still in Iowa City, George also met Mary Elizabeth (Mollie) Coast, whose father, Craft Coast, had moved to Iowa City from Michigan that spring. The two young people were constant companions and according to George’s journal, “eight years later (1863), she became my partner for life.”

1855 – Two More Iowa City Classics.

There are two other drawings that remain from George’s 1854-1855 season in Iowa City. One pictures Iowa City as viewed from the north, and the other depicts Walter Terrell’s grist mill.

“A Distant View of Iowa City” (from the north) as sketched by George H. Yewell (1855). In the bottom left corner notice Walter Terrell’s mill.
“Walter Terrell’s Mill near Iowa City” by George H. Yewell (1855).

1856 – Back to New York City – On To Europe – Winding Down in New York (1923).

By January 1856, George returned to New York, re-enrolling at the National Academy of Design and starting a small studio in the city as well. That July, George ventured to Paris, once again supported by his Iowa connections, Judge Mason and friends. There, he studied with Thomas Couture, counting among his acquaintances fellow students Henry A. Loop and Thomas Satterwhite Noble. While in Europre, the great success of George’s copy of a painting by the contemporary artist Rosa Bonheur earned him the respect of his fellow artists.

In the 1870s, George, now married to Mollie (1863), traveled throughout Europe, exhibiting his work in both Paris and Rome. In 1878, George returned to New York, where he worked in the popular Tenth Street Studio Building and spent his summers at Lake George, New York. His departure from Europe may have been precipitated by Mollie’s behavior, which had shocked the American community there. The couple divorced the following year (1879) with Mrs. Yewell marrying the British artist Edwin Ellis, with whom she had been romantically involved for years.

Back in New York, George was elected to the high honor of “Master” of the National Academy of Design (1880), became a Patron of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a member of the Century Club, and served as secretary of the Artists’ Fund Society of the City of New York. Throughout his career George maintained his connections with Iowa City, sent paintings there for exhibition, and returned in his later years to paint portraits of local celebrities, including Governor Robert Lucas (upper) Governor Samuel Kirkwood (center-left), Judge Charles Mason (center-middle), T. S. Parvin (center-right), Governors Lowe and Chambers, General Grenville M. Dodge, and Judges Wright and Dillon.

Nine of these portraits now belong to the State Historical Society of Iowa in Des Moines, while the University of Iowa holds the largest and most representative collection of paintings from all periods of George’s illustrious career.

George died at Lake George in 1923 at the age of ninety-three and is buried in the Bolton Rural Cemetery in Warren County, New York.

Thanks, George, for your loving appreciation for your childhood home of Iowa City and putting those feelings into your artwork!

To quote Mildred W. Pelzer, another amazing Iowa City artist of yet another generation

A visit to (George H. Yewell’s artwork) will cling in the memory like haunting strains of organ music heard at the hour of sunset.


Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

George H. Yewell, Wikipedia

The Journals of George Henry Yewell, Oneita Fisher, Books at Iowa 5 (November 1966), pp 34-38

George H. Yewell, Mildred W. Pelzer, The Palimpsest – Volume 11 Number 11 – Article 3, November 1930, p 498

George H. Yewell, History of Iowa From the Earliest Times to the Beginning of the Twentieth Century, wikisource.org

Iowa City and its Environs – 1854, J.H. Millar, G.H. Yewell artwork, Digital Library – University of Iowa

Iowa City sketches, George H. Yewell, Digital Library – University of Iowa

State Capitol sketch, George H. Yewell, Digital Library – University of Iowa

Clinton Street sketch, George H. Yewell, Digital Library – University of Iowa

Mechanics Academy sketch, George H. Yewell, Digital Library – University of Iowa

Terrell’s Mill sketch, George H. Yewell, Digital Library – University of Iowa

Robert Edward Lucas, Samuel Jordan Kirkwood, Theodore S. Parvin, & Charles Mason, George H. Yewell, State Historical Society of Iowa

Muscatine Opposition Political Cartoon, George H. Yewell, State Historical Society of Iowa

An Encyclopedia of Iowa City Information, Irving Weber, Article 231, Series 17, Digitial Library – University of Iowa, pp 172-173

Indian Look-Out. Below Iowa City, David Goodwin, The Palimpsest, Volume 54-Number 1-Article 4, January 1973, pp 21-22, 30

George Henry Yewell, Mark Murray Fine Paintings

Harriet Carver Doty, Find-A-Grave

George Henry Yewell, Find-a-Grave

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