St. Louis Mercantile Library Special Collections

Welcoming June
It’s June and coming on old midsummer. The first few days of the month were known by the early settlers as “blackberry winter” when those brambly bushes bloom for later berries, and this year at home that short lived moment  of cool mornings and breezy afternoons is in evidence. The fresh air and dappled sunlight of early June days caught the attention of Frederick Oakes Sylvester whose great painting “Live Man, Live Strong, Another June is Here” resides at the Mercantile. (What an optimistic title for these times, a promise for the future, perhaps?)
Frederick Oakes Sylvester, Live Man, Live Strong, Another June is Here, 1910, Oil on canvas
St. Louis Mercantile Library Art Museum 
One of the greatest artists ever to put paint to canvas in St. Louis, Sylvester (1869-1915)  created a narrative in poetic landscape and never was more truly at home than painting his masterful impressions along the Mississippi. Born of old Massachusetts stock and educated in Fall River, Sylvester would have certainly been steeped in the literature and philosophy of the New England poets and above all in the thought of Emerson. His paintings of the Eads Bridge-hundreds of them—and of the river bluffs above St. Louis are imbued with a transcendental vocabulary. Like a modern Blake, Sylvester was a painter-poet, and produced a kind of guide to his river paintings in verse, punctuated by original watercolors and photographs of his work, The Great River (St. Louis, 1911) a great narrative of a great American waterway and a man who loved it more than anyone else who perhaps ever lived. 
Sylvester produced a tremendous body of work in his roles of painter, teacher, and poet, but The Great River was truly his bibliographic masterpiece. The book contains sixty-three of Sylvester’s poems and twenty-four tipped-in platinum photographs of his paintings, some of which share their title with the poem they accompany, as does the Mercantile’s oil shown here. Sylvester controlled every aspect of the book’s production, selecting the ink, font, paper, and binding materials. Each poem begins with an ornate illustrated letter designed by Sylvester and printed from a woodblock carved by a former student, Mildred Bailey Carpenter (1894 - 1985). The first one hundred books were a deluxe edition that featured a tooled leather binding designed by the artist and a ten by six centimeter original watercolor landscape tipped in facing the title page. Over the years the Mercantile has acquired five copies of the deluxe edition, which represents every aspect of Sylvester’s beliefs, inspiration, and aesthetic coalesced into one exquisite volume created in the Arts & Crafts tradition where paper, binding, font, illustrations, and content combine to express this painter-poet’s artistic ideal.   

nota bene: More images of Frederick Oakes Sylvester's works will be available in the upcoming, early 2021 exhibition and publication, A Nation, A City and its First Library: Americana as a Way of Life at the St. Louis Mercantile Library for 175 Years
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