History of the Art Scene in Rochester

By the turn of the 20th Century, the Rochester already had a long history as a center for arts and culture in Western New York. Starting as early as the mid-1700s, the tradition of American landscape painting had developed in New York State. Artists from the heavily-populated New York City wished to develop a uniquely American style, getting away from European influence. Many of these painters wished to capture the “untamed wilderness” that was thought to exist in areas where European settlers hadn’t created communities. Of course, most of these areas were already inhabited by indigenous people with a greater respect for the integrity of the land than these European settlers, but as the attitude of Manifest Destiny developed, these people were disregarded and people began to move west. Though this trend started in the Hudson Valley, Western New York soon caught the favor of American landscape painters.[18]

The Upper Falls of the Genesee River in Central Rochester.
The Erie Canal Aqueduct across the Genesee River. 

There were a few different factors that established Rochester as a center for the arts as the small mill town started to develop into a city. The first was that the Genesee countryside was the perfect natural attraction for artists. Between the river itself, the three waterfalls in central Rochester, and the nearby Great Lakes, there were many beautiful scenes in nature that landscape painters wanted to capture. As Rochester’s industry grew and the nickname “Flour City” was born due to many successful flour mills from the area, the affluent business community meant that there was a good amount of money in the city. These wealthy businesspeople were eager to demonstrate their support for the arts through donations, and in addition, their connections were enough to draw people to the area specifically for art. 

With the introduction of the Erie Canal beginning in 1825, a new layer was added to the preexisting foundation for the artistic community. Though the canal did drastically increase the industrialization of the area, marring the untouched countryside that had become the livelihood of many landscape painters, it ultimately did much more good to the artistic community of Rochester. It made the journey to Western New York much easier, turning what had once been a long and grueling journey into an easy and beautiful boat ride, and it also created a new subject for art. The Erie Canal running through the Genesee countryside, especially the impressive aqueduct over the Genesee River in central Rochester, offered a new subject for painting: man’s impact on nature.[19]

As any growing city should, Rochester became home to a few different cultural centers that served many purposes. Starting in the late 1820s, Reynolds Arcade was a center for business that served a purpose similar to a shopping mall today. There was ample opportunity for art to be on view in the arcade, giving local artists an opportunity to sell their paintings, but unfortunately, people tended to view this art more than they bought it. Corinthian Hall was also located in central Rochester and was more of an intellectual center, serving as a venue for many prominent speakers to give talks. It served as the home for the Rochester Athenaeum, an organization dedicated to provide education on arts and literature. Though Corinthian Hall burned down in 1898, the Athenaeum lived on, and later merged with the Mechanics Institute. When these institutions merged, they formed a trade school that would go on to provide art training for many young Rochester artists, including Carl Peters.[20]

In the late-19th century, the Powers Building entered the Rochester art scene as yet another contender to be the home for the arts in Rochester. There was a gallery space in this building that held many exhibits, and became known as one of the first public places to view art in Rochester. Also around this time, a group of artists with studio space on the top floor of the Reynolds Arcade had banded together and became known as the Rochester Art Club. This group would end up having considerable influence on the broader art community in Rochester. 

Though these three buildings were substantial cultural centers in Rochester, there was no singular building or museum devoted to the fine arts throughout the entire 19th century. The Rochester Art Club had diligently devoted itself to establish a permanent gallery for many years. These attempts had never succeeded, though there had been many temporary exhibitions that were a great success. Finally, at the beginning of the 20th century, word came out that a fine arts gallery was to be established. Emily Sibley Watson, a wealthy Rochester patron of the arts, wished to donate money in memory of her son after he died of cholera.The president of the Rochester Art Club, George L. Herdle, along with Rush Rhees (President of the University of Rochester) were able to convince Mrs. Watson to donate this money to the University of Rochester for a fine arts museum to be established.[21]