Robert W. Weir (1803 - 1889 )

Robert Walter Weir, primarily a historic and portrait painter, stormed onto the American Art scene in the early 1800s. He thought of himself as a self-taught painter early in his career, but a few lessons as a young man from friends John Wesley Jarvis and Robert Cox take credit away from this theory.(1) Born in New Rochelle, New York on June 18, 1803, Weir was the son of a failed businessman. Early on, Weir lacked the basic comforts of life and found refuge in painting when he was nineteen years old.(1) While in New York, he studied anatomy at NYU’s medical school and studied art independently. He lived in Hoboken, New Jersey later in life and died there in 1889.

During the early 1820s Weir began to paint professionally but still had no strong background in artistic training. When a few of his works were noticed by the public, businessmen in New York and Philadelphia financed his educational trip to Italy. There he lived in Florence and Rome, rooming with Horatio Greenough, an American sculptor, and studying with painter Pietro Benvenuti.(1) He relied mostly upon the works of old masters such as Michelangelo, Raphael, and Titian. When Greenough became ill their trip was cut short and Weir escorted him home. Upon returning to New York, Weir became a leading artist who illustrated a number of important gift books. He married Louisa Ferguson in 1829, but she died 16 years later in 1845.(1)

In 1831 Weir was elected a member of the National Academy of Design in New York. Just three years later he became the head instructor of drawing at West Point Academy, New York, located some twenty miles north of New Jersey. Weir held this arguably prestigious title for the next 42 years. According to one source, he was better known for his teaching than his artwork. Among his most prestigious students were the Civil War Generals Grant and Lee and the painter Whistler (Desmond-Fish Library).

Weir had six sons, two of whom succeeded him in the arts. They were John Ferguson and Julian Alden Weir. Gulian Verplanck and William Bayard Weir both served in the civil war for the Union army, Henry C. was in the volunteer army as a colonel, and Robert Jr. served in the navy.(1) As for Robert Weir, Sr., he retired in 1876 from West Point and moved to Castle Point, Hoboken, New Jersey, while still maintaining a studio in New York City. On May 1, 1889, he died at his home in Hoboken.(3)

(Ryan Healey, Spring 2006)

(1) Ahrens, Kent, “The Portraits by Robert W. Weir,” American Art Journal, vol.6, no.1 (May 1974), pp. 5-7, 11, 12.

(2) Famous Americans website (see link below).

(3) Smithsonian American Art Museum Website (see link below).

A Fort on the Hudson River

A Fort on the Hudson River, 1860. Photograph courtesy Shannon's Fine Art Auctioneers, Milford, Connecticut (see link below).

The painting above, A Fort on the Hudson River, was painted in 1860, during Weir’s tenure as head instructor of drawing at West Point Academy. Although better known today for historical and genre subjects, Weir also painted many landscapes in the Hudson River School style like this one.

One of the paintings by Robert Weir that is most closely tied to New Jersey is the painting of The Landing of Henry Hudson. Weir painted and engraved several versions of this event in different mediums in 1838, 1842, and 1857; the actual event took place in April of 1609, over two centuries earlier. The works now hang in the David David Gallery in Philadelphia.

An employee of the Dutch East India Company, Henry Hudson was sent to explore the new world and look for a north-west passage to India.(1) Hudson was originally an Englishman and a good friend of Capt. John Smith. Being sent twice on voyages for England, he looked elsewhere for moral and financial support to continue his explorations. After moving to Holland, he was sent again in 1609 as commander of the Half-Moon, a small vessel. Ice in the northern seas blocked his travels, forcing him to re-route along the coast of North America. Hudson entered Penobscot Bay and discovered Cape Cod, Massachusetts. He then made his way down to the Chesapeake and Delaware Bays and came back up to discover Sandy Hook Bay. This led Hudson to a passage that took him through present day New Jersey and New York, now called the Hudson River.(1)

Weir’s best-known work is the Embarkation of the Pilgrims, which hangs in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. He was commissioned by the U.S. Government to paint this piece in 1836.(2) In addition to the many landscapes he painted while at West Point, Weir produced numerous portraits of historical figures of his time. He was a realist painter who concentrated mostly on faces and worked primarily in oil on canvas. Weir used portrait conventions to tell stories of his subjects: their apparel, paraphernalia, surroundings, and demeanor would hint at their story.


(1) Hudson River Maritime Museum Website (see link below)

(2) Pilgrim Hall Museum Website (see link below)

Additional sources:

Smithsonian Institution Museum of American Art:

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