Art and Inspiration on Long Island

Art and Inspiration on Long Island

With its expansive coastline, urban and rural appeal, and centuries-old villages and towns, Long Island has long served as retreat, muse, and inspiration for artists working in both paint and prose. Learn about some of the region’s local artists and artisans in the stories below.

Broad, Boxy, and Rare

Long Island’s Early “Pilgrim Furniture”

This slant-lid desk box, which dates from the mid-1600s, is among the earliest pieces of furniture in the BHS collection. A piece of “pilgrim furniture,” it is typical of the kinds of furnishings that the first generation of English settlers in North America desired for their homes. Modeled after popular contemporary English furniture, early pieces like the desk box are typically broad and boxy, sturdily constructed, and decorated with elaborate carvings. 

When a Wells family descendant donated the box to the Long Island Historical Society (now Brooklyn Historical Society) in 1887, they asserted that the box had been “brought from England by the first William Wells” of Southold, Long Island. Some immigrants did cross the Atlantic with their furnishings, including Southold’s Barnabas Horton, whose English-made red oak chest is also in the BHS collection. However, microanalysis of the wood used to make the Wells family desk box confirms it is of American manufacture. The box is made of post oak, which at the time was only available in New England.

Chest, 1620–40


Brooklyn Historical Society

The simple abstract carving decorating the desk box suggests a potential connection to Connecticut. A New Haven–made chest owned by Thomas Osborne of East Hampton, Long Island, in the 1600s shares a very similar carving style to that of the box. Furthermore, Wells traveled to Connecticut often as Southold’s deputy representative to the General Court of the New Haven Colony, to which the Long Island settlement pledged allegiance, making it possible that he commissioned his desk box from an area craftsman. The desk box’s stylistic connection to New England is just one example of the larger social and cultural ties that bound the towns of Long Island’s East End to their neighbors just across the Long Island Sound.

Chest, 1640–60

Probably made in New Haven, Connecticut 

Home Sweet Home Museum, East Hampton, Long Island

Image courtesy the Winterthur Library, Decorative Arts Photographic Collection

Abraham G.D. Tuthill

A Rural Long Island Portrait Painter

A small-town Long Island artist with big ambitions, Abraham Guilielmus Dominey Tuthill had a career typical among early America’s working artists. Born at Oyster Ponds on the North Fork of Suffolk County in 1777, at the start of his career in his early twenties, Tuthill did not have access to formal training. However, his ability to produce competent and sensitive portraits endeared him to Suffolk County’s affluent families. His early portraits, including Buell’s and one of Joanna Conklin Gardiner (17451809), ultimately brought Tuthill to the attention of Colonel Sylvester Dering of Shelter Island, who sponsored Tuthill’s professional artistic training.

Joanna Conklin Gardiner by Abraham G.D. Tuthill

Joanna Conklin Gardiner, 1799
Abraham G.D. Tuthill
Collection of the Oysterponds Historical Society

American artists looked to Europe to hone their artistic abilities at the turn of the 1800s. Tuthill traveled from New York City to London, where he spent the next eight years studying and improving his painting skills. By 1811, he had returned to the United States and established a studio on Chatham Street in New York City, where he encountered American art critic William Dunlap. Known as America’s first art historian, Dunlap later wrote that although Tuthill “told me that he had been to London to study the art…his works bore little indication of that school.”

A.G.D. Tuthill Advertisement
The New York Columbian, May 4, 1811

Despite his sarcastic criticisms, Dunlap attested that Tuthill later achieved relative success as an itinerant artist. While America’s early art world was centered in its growing urban cities, people living in rural areas still wanted portraits to hang in their homes as proof of their respectability. By traveling to more rural areas such as upstate New York, Michigan, Vermont, and Ohio—where artists were scarce and demand for portraits was high—Tuthill made a steady living well into the 1830s. He died in 1843 in Montpelier, Vermont. 

Examples of Tuthill’s work are scattered throughout museum collections in the Northeast and Midwest, a testament to a determined artist’s career kickstarted by the early commissions and support of Long Island families like the Buells.

Melancthon Taylor Woolsey, circa 1820

Melancthon Taylor Woolsey, circa 1820
Abraham G.D. Tuthill
New-York Historical Society

Why Are There So Few Great Female Artists?

Discovering Sarah Purchase Henderson, Bloodgood Cutter’s portraitist

This portrait arrived at the Long Island Historical Society without much recorded information. It likely joined the LIHS collection after Cutter died in 1906, when the contents of his Little Neck, Queens, estate sold at auction. The identity of the portraitist, “S. Henderson,” documented on the lower right corner of the canvas, has long been a mystery. We now know that the portrait’s painter was related to Bloodgood Cutter, and a woman.

Federal census for Bloodgood Cutter, 1900

United States Census Bureau

National Archives and Records Administration

Cutter had no children of his own, but he did have many nephews and nieces, including Sarah Purchase Henderson. In 1900, Sarah was staying with her uncle and appeared in the federal census with “oil paint artist” listed as her profession. Following this trail revealed Henderson to be the painter of this portrait, as evidenced by a Brooklyn Daily Eagle article from 1888 announcing that she had “presented Bloodgood Cutter, the farmer poet, with an oil portrait of himself.”

“Down on Long Island”

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, November 25, 1888

Brooklyn Public Library

Like many female artists in the 1700s and 1800s, Henderson likely struggled to find a place for herself within the male-dominated profession. Although women artists did join professional organizations like the National Academy of Design and Brooklyn Art League and exhibited their works, all too often they were dismissed as “accomplished” amateurs.

“Mrs. Sarah Henderson, Resident of the City for 33 Years, is Dead” 

Minneapolis Star Tribune, October 18, 1914

Despite this, women artists like Henderson pursued their passions, seeking training and opportunity domestically and abroad. Today, the lives and talents of female artists are being rediscovered. Like Sarah Henderson’s portrait of her uncle, other paintings at BHS previously unattributed are being rediscovered as the work of local female artists, including Brooklynite Eleanor C. Bannister (1858-1939) and portraitist Susan Mary (S.M.) Norton (1855-1922).

Joshua Marsden Van Cott, Jr., 1891

Susan Mary Norton


Brooklyn Historical Society

When Henderson painted this portrait of her Uncle Bloodgood in 1888, he was seventy-one years old, far older than he appears in her idealized representation of him. Evidence shows that Henderson likely based her painting on a photograph of her uncle taken in the 1860s, immortalizing him in his prime. The portrait then reflects Bloodgood Cutter’s ideas about his legacy, which he recorded in a poem, “On Seeing His Own Likeness.” 

My friends, this likeness of my mortal form,
Preserve as a keep-sake when I am gone;
That is, when death lays low my weary head,
And consigns me to mansions of the dead. 

Then my lines, though they may be rude in kind,
Will represent the inner man, or mind
And by using my simple pen—
Indite those for myself, and fellow-men.

“Carving” Out a Career

New York’s Wooden Folk Art and Charles J. Dodge

Among nineteenth-century carved wooden show figures—commonly described in the past as “cigar store Indians”—BHS’s example “sits” apart from the rest. Traditional examples typically follow a standard format: a caricatured and nondescript “Indian” man, standing, simply carved, and elaborately painted. Stripped of the paint that once adorned it, BHS’s seated show figure is nevertheless spectacular, the product of a highly-skilled woodworker.

Shop Figure, late 19th or early 20th century


The Eleanor and Mabel Van Alstyne American Folk Art Collection

National Museum of American History

BHS’s show figure has long been identified as the work of New York City ship carver Charles J. Dodge (1806–1886). A second generation wood sculptor, Dodge trained in the shop of his father, Jeremiah, and actively pursued the trade from the 1820s through the late 1850s. 

Other known wood sculptures attributed to Dodge attest to his skill. Two wooden portrait busts—one of Dodge’s father Jeremiah; the other identified as Dodge’s wife—are expertly carved, with facial features sensitively rendered, and realistic fabric and hair. Along with BHS’s show figure, these artworks are of greater quality than most show figures of the period.

Portrait Bust of Jeremiah Dodge, circa 1835

Attributed to Charles J. Dodge 


New York Historical Society

Portrait Bust of Mrs. Charles Dodge, circa 1830-40

Attributed to Charles J. Dodge 


Brooklyn Museum of Art

While it is certainly possible that Dodge is the artist of the show figure, new research encourages scrutinizing that long-held attribution. Certain details, including the style of the chair upon which the Native American figure is seated, indicate the show figure might have been carved after Dodge retired from the carving trade. The rustic, tree bark appearance of the chair is typical of the Adirondack furniture craze, not popular in the United States until about 1880. Additionally, New York City directory records indicate that Dodge transitioned from a career as a wood artist in the mid-1850s. In the final decades of his life, he listed his occupation as a commissioner for the New York City Tax Department.

“Sea-beauty! Stretch’d and basking!”

Long Island as Refuge and Artist’s Inspiration

In his characteristic quirky style, Bloodgood Cutter frequently meditated on his birthplace in his poetry:

Long Island is a famous place,
The grand resort of our city race;
They leave hot streets and dwellings there,
To come on it to breathe pure air. 

In many countries I have been,
And many grant resorts I’ve seen;
But take Long Island all around, Shores by the Sea and on the Sound,
With the privileges of the same,
Of many kinds that I can name


Not a household name today, Bloodgood Cutter was nevertheless part of a wave of artists—painters, writers, and poets—who were inspired by Long Island. As life in great urban centers like New York City and Brooklyn grew increasingly chaotic, polluted, and loud, these artists sought refuge in rural Long Island to the east, where the picturesque beauty of America survived and offered a haven for some.

Brooklyn in 1851, circa 1851

Francis H. Heinrich


Brooklyn Historical Society

In the 1800s and 1900s, artists including Winslow Homer, Frederick Church, Thomas Moran, and Jackson Pollock worked on and drew inspiration from Long Island. As author Elizabeth Champney wrote, they were attracted to towns like East Hampton because they provided “rural hooks for the landscape painter delightfully English in sentiment, [with] beach and sea panoramas, stormy cloud-battles or shimmering calm for the marine painter.”

North Shore of Shelter Island, 1878

George B. Brainerd

Early Brooklyn and Long Island photograph collection (V1972.1.079)

Brooklyn Historical Society

Some of America’s greatest wordsmiths lived on Long Island, including: F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896–1940), who owned a house in Great Neck, Nassau County, in the 1920s that inspired his literary masterpiece, The Great Gatsby; John Steinbeck (1902–1968), who owned a home in Sag Harbor and wrote several books while living on Long Island, including his last novel, The Winter of Our Discontent, which takes a line from Shakespeare as its title; newspaper editor and acclaimed poet William Cullen Bryant (1794–1878), who purchased extensive property in the village of Roslyn Harbor in 1843 and settled there in a grand country house he called Cedarmere, which is still standing today and is on the register of National Historic Places Register.

William Cullen Bryant, circa 1841

Cornelius Ver Bryck


Brooklyn Historical Society

View of Cedarmere, 1878

Elias Lewis Jr. 

Early Brooklyn and Long Island photograph collection (V1972.1.562)

Brooklyn Historical Society 

Even in this company, Walt Whitman (1818–1892) is still considered one of Long Island’s (and America’s) greatest poets. Born in Suffolk County, Whitman moved to Brooklyn when he was just four years old. He returned to the East End throughout his life. Known for his brief two-year stint in the 1840s as an editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, a decade earlier he had founded Huntington’s first newspaper, The Long Islander. In his writing Whitman referred to Long Island as “Paumanok,” the American Indian term for the island meaning “land of tribute.”

Walt Whitman, 1856

Frontispiece of Leaves of Grass, second edition

PS 3201.1856 

Brooklyn Historical Society

“The interesting and distinguishing beauty of Long Island”

Preservation of the Picturesque Retreat

In the late 1800s, urban pleasure-seekers began discovering eastern Long Island. Many learned of the region’s beauties through publications like Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, whose 1878 article “Around the Peconics” took readers on a rambling journey across the island, from Coney Island in the west all the way to Montauk Point. The author marveled at its beaches and bays, animal and plant life, and eastern Long Island’s remote upper and lower “forks” just east of Peconic Bay in Suffolk County.

Shore at Rocky Point, L.I. near East Marion, 1878

George B. Brainerd


Brooklyn Historical Society

The writer of the article also introduced his readers to the island’s villages, “clean and bright with new paint and prosperity.” He was fascinated by the region’s historic houses and their massive chimneys, writing that the “interest and distinguishing beauty of Long Island…lie in its antiquity and the traces of the memorable past which have survived.”

Interior of the Payne House, East Hampton, 1870

John Mackie Falconer


Brooklyn Historical Society

That eastern Long Island was “as pretty a picture of rural comfort as the tired city man can well imagine” attracted the interest of urban dwellers and land developers hoping to build getaways for New Yorkers and Brooklynites living in increasingly crowded cities. 

This interest from urbanites in Long Island resulted at times in the destruction of treasured local historic structures. For example, the demolition around 1878 of the Old Horton House made national news. Described as “the oldest house in America,” the house dated back to the 1660s, when it was built by Barnabas Horton (1600–80), one of the original settlers of Southold, Long Island. This steady loss of local history spurred many to action.

Old Horton House, Southold, 1878

George B. Brainerd


Brooklyn Historical Society

“The Oldest House in America to Be Torn Down” 

New York Times, October 22, 1878

When the Long Island Historical Society opened in 1863, it was the first institution of its kind on the island. Many of LIHS’s earliest members lived in Queens and Suffolk counties. Witnessing the disappearance of local history, these early preservationists donated artifacts like William Wells’ desk box and Barnabas Horton’s carved chest to the society, ensuring their long-term survival. 


Many of these early members of LIHS went on to become supporters of the American Preservation Movement, dedicated to preserving the country’s historic sites and structures. Today, the efforts of regional and national landmark preservation commissions, historical societies, museums, and private citizens ensure that Long Island’s “distinguishing beauty,” its local history and heritage, does not disappear.

Interior of the Long Island Historical Society, circa 1960

Long Island Historical Society photographs (V1974.031.49)

Brooklyn Historical Society