Joseph H. Hidley
Joseph H. Hidley

The late Lin Van Buren wrote and submitted this biography and gratefully acknowledged the generous contributions of others, below named. Joseph Hidley painted scenes of Rensselaer County, NY in the 1860s, some of which survive today. In the 21st century, interest is reviving in his work, yet still published biographies of him give few details. Information about him is available, however, in the genealogical records of Rensselaer County that we all know and love, some of which are searchable online on this website. Here is what I have been able to find about Joseph H. Hidley, augmented by kind additions from others. Clint VanRoekel of Springfield, Illinois, who is a great-great-grandson of the artist, has provided additional information about Joseph Hidley's children. John Warren wrote a Senior Honors thesis on Joseph Hidley when at university, and he has kindly contributed some further insight into the artist and his works; see below.

JOSEPH HENRY HIDLEY (1830-1872), folk artist and landscape painter, though successful, never reaped much financial reward from his paintings during his short life. He could not have known that his paintings would be offered for sale on the Internet some 140 years later for US$3,800 or that over 160 of his paintings would hang in the Smithsonian Institution. For those of us who are interested in the Rensselaer County our ancestors knew, Joseph Hidley leaves us a pictorial record of the world in which he - and our ancestors - lived their daily lives.

Joseph Henry Hidley was born 23 March 1830 in Greenbush, the part that later became North Greenbush, Rensselaer County, NY. He was baptised 11 July 1830 at Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church in the village of West Sand Lake, in the town of Sand Lake, Rensselaer County. Joseph's family had close ties to this church through several generations.

His parents were George M. Hidley (1806-1834) and Hannah Susannah Simmons, who had been married on 24 March 1827 at the bride's father's home, as recorded in the marriage register of Zion Lutheran. Joseph's elder brother, James Henry Hidley, had died in infancy. Joseph had two younger sisters, Elizabeth Ann Hidley, born 27 March 1832, and Gitty Ann Hidley, born 11 September 1833; they, too, were baptised at Zion Lutheran. It is said that George M. Hidley died when Joseph was only four years old. George's parents were Michael Hidley (1772-1858) and Gertrude Cipperly (1731-1834). Joseph lost his grandmother within a year of losing his father, but he would have remembered his grandfather Michael Hidley, as well as Michael's last wife, Lydia. Joseph would have known his many Hidley cousins who all lived near each other in North Greenbush.

In about 1854, Joseph Hidley married an innkeeper's daughter, Caroline M. Danforth (1837-1870) of Poestenkill, Rensselaer County, NY, and settled in Poestenkill permanently. Caroline was a daughter of Lyman Danforth (1786-1863) and his wife Emeline (1803-1886), who had both been born in Massachusetts. Newlyweds Joseph and Caroline Hidley lived with her parents in the 1855 NY State Census (if you want to see their entry, click on this link, use your browser's "Find on this page" function, and search for "Heidley"). They had six children, of whom only three survived beyond early childhood. The six children are these:

The 1865 NY State Census states that this marriage was the first both for Joseph and for Caroline and that Caroline at this time was the mother of five children, of whom only Pamelia, Joseph Jr and the unnamed Emeline were present in their household in 1865. Mary and Carrie would have been the missing two children; Delpha was not born yet in 1865 and would have been their sixth child.

As a young husband and father, Joseph Hidley painted scenes of his surroundings, mostly in oil on wood. He painted views of the village of Poestenkill, showing the main crossroads and features of the village.

Joseph Hidley's view of the village of Poestenkill, executed in 1862; the white building in the lower right foreground is the Eagle Hotel (this was not the hotel that Joseph's father-in-law ran)

The same painting, with widely different coloring

"View of Poestenkill", ca 1865

Well known to Joseph was the adjacent town of Sand Lake, where he undoubtedly attended church as a boy. In another part of the town was Glass Lake, a man-made lake formed in the early 19th century which by Joseph's time was a pleasurable location for a fashionable promenade.

Joseph Hidley's view of Glass Lake, facing south southeast; the road you see is what today is known as Miller Hill Road, or NY State Routes 43 and 66

Hidley may have painted a stretch of the Hudson River known as the "Gates of the Hudson", with its dramatic sky at twilight.

Gates of the Hudson, attributed to Joseph Hidley, ca 1870

A very different type of work attributed to Joseph Hidley is Noah's Ark, with its Old Testament theme and its charming treatment.

Noah's Ark by Joseph Hidley
(Abby Aldwich Rockefeller Folk Art Center, Williamsburg, Virginia)

Joseph Hidley was at the height of his productivity in terms of artistic painting in 1870; his entry in the 1870 US Census gives his occupation as"home painter". He owned $600 worth of real estate in 1870. Shortly after that census was taken, Joseph's wife, Caroline, died, aged just 33 years. Joseph himself died of consumption less than two years later, on 28 September 1872, at the age of 42 years. Both are buried in Hillside Cemetery in Poestenkill, along with their little daughter Mary.

- By Lin Van Buren, 28 March 2005, Purley, Surrey,England

* Clint VanRoekel writes of the artist's daughter (Clint's great-grandmother) Emeline Hidley, "She married Edmund Hunt and had two daughters; the elder of the two died after a year. My grandmother is Emily Danforth Hunt, who married Carl H. Schermerhorn and had two daughters. There are 11 great-great-grandchildren of Joseph and Caroline Hidley living today. Seven of them are the great-grandchildren of Emeline (including myself), and there are four great-grandchildren of Joseph Lyman Hidley."

John Warren writes, "The first two views you show are actually one and the same (the color is just much different). The painting was made from what was then known as Hoag's Hill (that's Snake Hill Road in the foreground), by Hidley (then age 32) on 10 May 1862. It's considered a "bird's eye view" style, the traditional mode of painting landscapes, in which the artist drew what he actually saw from a hill or other vista point. This style gave way by the 1860s to the "perspective townscape." The third one is in fact a view of Poestenkill, painted after a similar winter scene done in about 1864-1865. The one you are showing was made into a lithograph - the Albany Institute of History and Art has an original copy. The same view was shown in an issue of National Geographic in the 1950s. It's a view down Main Street toward the Eastern Mountains / Barbersville / Berlin from the west. Most of the buildings are in fact unchanged between the two differing views, although if you notice, the upper right-hand corner of the later view shows that a few new houses have been built where there was once a large barn and tannery. The tannery and barn are in the 1862 view from Snake Hill Road; the tannery has the ramp at the rear.

The difference in style comes from the slightly elevated perspective, with greater detail in the foreground. These views required a much greater knowledge of the community and so demanded a closer study.

Subscribers to these lithographs were very interested in their own homes being portrayed accurately and in a positive light. A print containing elements of the "underside" of a community - the trash and dung heaps and abandoned or damaged buildings - would certainly have diminished its commercial value. Probably for this reason, Hidley left these details of Poestenkill out of the print that went to the lithographer. By and large, though, details of the town were recorded accurately - I carefully compared them with the existing buildings, censuses every five years, and a number of maps made at the same time (1860 to 1875).

Hidley decorated several area homes with grained woodwork and with panel pictures of flowers, genre, religious, and allegorical subjects. These were often painted directly onto wood panels, over doors and under (sometimes over) windows. He worked at this variety of odd jobs out of a workshop near his home, next to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Poestenkill - it can be seen in his paintings of Poestenkill. His occupation was listed as "painter" on the 1865 NY State Census and as "house painter" on the 1870 US Federal Census. The 1870-1871 Rensselaer County business directory lists Hidley as "taxidermist and painter."

On 22 February 1854, Joseph Hidley and his wife bought a house near Poestenkill's Lutheran Church from the Taylors. In 1854, the house next to the church, on what was originally the Peck farm, was owned by Ives Lynd, the brother of Mary Lynd, who had married Joel Peck. In 1861, it was owned by J. (Jesse?) Ives. The Hidleys apparently moved into the house between 1861 and 1865. Joseph became a member of the church next door in 1859, and later, he earned $25 a year as sextant. From the shed behind this house, Joseph worked as a carpenter, taxidermist and general artist/craftsman, making everything from floral arrangements and decorative boxes with dried flowers to paintings.

Most of Hidley's works are believed to have been executed between 1850 and 1870. The large number of paintings suggests that he was a successful businessman and well known in that regard. The Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American Art in Washington, DC has an inventory of 165 known Joseph Hidley paintings: 160 in oil and two watercolors. The vast majority of these are landscapes, European and American, but also some portraits, townscapes and other genre scenes. Between 1860 and his death in 1872, Hidley frequently left home, and presumably his family, to travel and paint. He journeyed throughout western Massachusetts, southern Vermont, the White Mountains of New Hampshire and the coast of Maine, all the while painting what he saw.

The family lived in the house until Joseph died of consumption at age 42, just two years after his wife had been similarly taken. They had six children, only three of whom survived infancy. The children were separated; one daughter went to a foster home in East Schodack [Note from Lin: This daughter was Emaline, who is listed on the 1880 US Census in the household of Isael and Emaline Wesley in Schodack], and the other daughter and the one son were sent to live with relatives in Chicago.

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