Object of the Week: The Two Friends by Oliver Ingraham Lay

Oliver Ingraham Lay (1845-1890) was born in New York City to parents George Cowles Lay and Julia Anna Hartness Lay. George Lay was a lawyer, and he and his wife raised their family in Manhattan with summers spent visiting Old Lyme, Connecticut, where Lay’s ancestors settled in the seventeenth century. Lay completed his earliest sketches while summering in Old Lyme on his grandfather’s farm. Lay’s official art education began at age sixteen in 1861, when he started studying with Thomas Hicks (the cousin of Edward Hicks, famous for his numerous Peaceable Kingdom paintings). Thomas Hicks was a respected portraitist, trained at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the National Academy of Design. Under Hicks’ direction, Lay received a classical art education, painting portraits of Greek and Roman figures and studies of drapery. Lay concluded his official studies with Hicks in May 1863, but continued to consult Hicks’ opinion on his work for the next several years. After leaving Hicks’ studio, Lay attended the Cooper Institute (today Cooper Union) and the National Academy of Design. Despite his young age, Lay quickly became a skilled portrait painter. In October 1863, at only eighteen years old, he received his first paid portrait commission: James Parton, a lawyer who lived in the same building as Lay, paid him $10 for the portrait. Many commissions followed, including one from the National Academy of Design, which paid Lay to paint a portrait of Winslow Homer in 1865. Throughout the 1860s, Lay also painted portraits and studies of his siblings, mother, and extended family, as well as landscape studies inspired by his grandfather’s farm in Connecticut. In 1870, Lay married Hester Marian Wait, and the couple eventually had two sons, Wilfred and Charles. Throughout the next two decades, Lay’s career continued to grow. He spent most of the year painting in Manhattan, receiving commissions from prominent New Yorkers as well as actors and fellow artists, and in the summer months his family retired to the Connecticut countryside, staying at the Lay ancestral home in Old Lyme or his wife’s family home on the banks of the Housatonic River in Stratford. Lay’s prices steadily increased, and by the 1880s, he typically sold individual portraits for $250 each and double portraits for as much as $500. In the late 1880s, Lay’s health began to decline. He died at age forty-five on June 28, 1890 of tuberculosis. Lay produced hundreds of paintings over the course of his short life, all carefully documented in a record he kept of his work from 1861 to 1889. Painted in 1877, The Two Friends is number 271 in his record. The painting depicts Lay’s two sisters who he often used as models: Mary Louise, nicknamed Wesie by the family, and Grace. The painting is a genre scene—a scene of everyday life—popular with collectors during the Gilded Age. Lay painted two well-appointed women, one (Grace) reading a book to the other (Wesie), who gazes out of the painting while she listens. Lay lavished as much attention on their surroundings as he did to the women themselves; everything from the decorative wallpaper to the case full of books to the patterned rug at their feet is painted with detail and precision. Lay sold The Two Friends to Mr. John H. Sherwood for $500 in 1878, just before the painting was exhibited at the National Academy. The Two Friends is currently on view in Renegades and Reformers: American Art Pottery.

-Steffi Chappell, Assistant Curator

Sources:Oliver Ingraham Lay, “Record of His Works,” 1861-1889, photocopy in Everson Museum of Art filesCarolyn Wakeman, “Exhibition Note: Fidelia Bridges’ Forgotten Summers,” Florence Griswold Museum, https://florencegriswoldmuseum.org/exhibition-note-fidelia-bridges-forgotten-summers/

Oliver Ingraham Lay, The Two Friends, 1877, oil on canvas, 39¾ x 44⅝ inches, Everson Museum of Art; Museum purchase with funds from the Everson Museum of Art Members’ Council, Mrs. Childe Hassam, and Mr. and Mrs. Gustav Klimann, 75.30