Charles Dickens once observed: "It is well for a man to respect his vocation whatever it is, and to think himself bound to uphold it, and claim for it the respect it deserves." No more apt statement could describe the life and work of the American marine artist, Milton J. Burns, who in his youth discovered a passion for the sea and its depiction in painting. Although he encountered continuous financial hardships throughout his life he never wavered from his innate calling, living the life of a sailor and painter.
Mount Gilead, Ohio is perhaps an unlikely birthplace for a marine artist, who was to become one of the best known illustrators of the America's Cup international yacht race. Moreover, Milton Burns was born into a family of politicians. His father, Ross Burns, was lieutenant governor of Ohio, while his mother, Mary Claflin Burns, was sister to Victoria Claflin Woodhull, later the first woman to run for the United States presidency. However, at the age of sixteen, Burns developed a serious eye ailment and was encouraged by his doctor to go to sea, the belief being that the sea air would cure his affliction. His vocation was thus, determined.
In July 1869, Burns boarded the Canadian whaling steamer, Panther, as she departed for St. John's, Newfoundland, bound for the Arctic. On board was the renowned painter of the Arctic, William Bradford, and the scientist-explorer Dr. Isaac I. Hayes, both of whom encouraged the young boy to pursue a painting career. Upon the ship's return to New York, Burns enrolled in the free art courses offered by the National Academy of Design and also became the pupil of John George Brown. Brown stressed the importance of the observation of nature to his students, a suggestion that had a profound impact on the work of Burns and his approach to subject matter.
By 1871 Milton Burns was a prominent figure among the New York art world and with several of his friends founded the Salmagundi Sketch Club. Among the original founder-members were Will H. Low, Frederick Church, Jonathan Scott Hartley, and George W. Maynard. The group met weekly at Hartley's sculpture studio to critique drawings of a subject matter they had chosen the previous week.
It was during this time that the artist became acquainted with Winslow Homer, most probably because both had studios at the University Building at Washington Square and were illustrators for such magazines as Harper's Weekly. The two became firm friends and frequently traveled on sketching trips together. Their approach to drawing and the subject are very similar and it was most probably this factor that helped to cement the friendship. Indeed, many of Burns's drawings have been mistaken for those of Homer's. During the 1870s and 1880s, Burns, like Homer, favored the Maine coast. Many of the drawings here presented are from this highly productive period and depict some of the artist's favorite sketching grounds - Grand Manan, Mount Desert Island and Monhegan Island.
The early 1870s proved to be a difficult time for Burns and other illustrators. The "Crash of 1873" resulted in few illustration jobs becoming available and Burns traveled to France to take art courses at one of the academies of Paris. Returning to New York, he joined the Art Students' League, which had seceded from the National Academy in 1875 after a dispute.
His arrival was well-timed for Burns and other illustrators were now reaping the benefits from the success of William Cullen Bryant's issue of his two-volume Picturesque America, published between 1872 and 1874 and illustrated by Harry Fenn and other prominent artists. The financial success of this paved the way for the unprecedented growth in circulation of illustrated newspapers and magazines: Harper's Weekly, Leslie's Illustrated, Harper's Monthly, Scribner's, and The Century.
Moreover, by 1876, America was recovering from its economic depression and when many artists, including Milton Burns, returned from Europe they found themselves amidst one of the most important transitional periods in American painting. This was America's centennial year. Artists, engravers, printers and publishers from around the world flocked to Philadelphia for the International Exhibition, ready to exchange ideas.
In the intervening years Burns began to work in earnest for the illustrated magazines. Much of his illustration work portrays the perils of the sea and as the leading Burns scholar, Peter Hastings Falk, has noted: "It was the Ocean, in all her moods, that proved to be the greatest impetus in his life." Despite his financial problems, Burns's reputation as a marine illustrator kept him sailing for publishers from Newfoundland's Grand Banks to Great Britain's Dogger Banks; from Hudson Bay down to the Caribbean and South America; and to the arctic tundras from Alaska to Norway.
In 1932, while in France, Burns fell ill and returned to his boat on the Hudson River. He died the following winter on 27 December 1933.