William McKendree Snyder

Fans marvel at talent of
'Madison's favorite artist'

By Ruth Wright
Staff Writer

MADISON, Ind. (March 2004) – The artwork of William McKendree Snyder holds a special place in the heart of Madison, Ind., resident Dottie Massie. Her mother, Opal Hines, a fan of Snyder, at one time owned six of the artist’s paintings. Massie now owns one of them, a still life featuring a table laden with fruits and meat. She and husband, Jerry Massie, have purchased two others.

Madison 3-04 cover

RoundAbout Madison
March 2004 cover.

All are now on display at the Jefferson County Historical Society Museum, part of a Snyder art exhibit that opened Jan. 26 and runs through March 31. The Massies, along with other area residents and organizations, loaned to the museum their paintings for the exhibit, the first of its kind in Madison in nearly two decades.
A prolific artist whose works have been said to number in the hundreds, Snyder lived and worked in Madison for most of his life and is often called “Madison’s favorite artist.” He was born Dec. 20, 1848, in Liberty, Ind., the fourth child of William and Elizabeth Snyder. His family moved to Madison when he was 5 years old.
Much is known about Snyder’s life, thanks to the late Emmett S. Wood. Before his death in 1999, the Madison native self-published in 1995 a biography of Snyder from many interesting facts and documents relating to the artist’s life that he had compiled through the years.
Wood, a well-known florist, operated for more than 30 years a flower shop on Main Street. Something of an art connoisseur, Wood painted for pleasure, cleaned paintings and repaired ornate frames, according to his son, Don Wood. Also a collector of art, Wood at one time owned about 18 Snyder paintings. “Toward the end of his life he started selling (them) off,” said Don Wood, who still owns two.
Don Wood said his father knew Snyder personally when he was very young and Snyder was elderly, but it wasn’t until some years later that he became intrigued with his work. His interest was probably sparked by two Snyder paintings, both landscapes, that belonged to his parents. Don Wood said he does not know how his grandparents came to possess the paintings.
He speculated, however, that his grandparents probably knew Snyder and that he may have painted at their 80-acre Ryker’s Ridge property, where they grew produce in several massive greenhouses.
In Snyder’s biography, Wood details the artist’s life and family history. According to Wood, Snyder’s father was a minister who gave his son his first art lessons. When he was 12, Snyder served as a drummer boy during the Civil War and was eventually captured and held in the South’s infamous Andersonville Prison. Wood had procured from Snyder’s great-granddaughter a copy of his honorable discharge signed by President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of War Stanton.

Dottie, Jerry Massie

Photo by Ruth Wright

Dottie and Jerry Massie with their Snyder painting, part of the museum exhibit.

From 1872-75 Snyder studied in the east under such artists as Albert Bierstadt, George Innes and William Morris Hunt. In 1875 he married Alena Rodocker, a vocalist. The couple had one child, Alena Pearl, also an artist. One of her paintings is currently displayed at the museum as part of the Snyder exhibit.
During “panic of the 70s” Snyder was forced to move his family to Madison, where they lived with his father at 127 East St., according to Wood.
Early in his career, Snyder painted portraits. He later painted nudes. Some of his works were as large as 9x20 feet. One such painting, a 6x9 foot rendering of Edward Nicklaus, is now owned by the JCHS. It once hung in the Knights of Pythias lodge at 314 Jefferson St. in Madison.
During what Wood called his “literary period,” Snyder painted several Shakespearean Ophelias and Juliets. Laura O’Neil, the daughter of Dottie Massie, owns one of Snyder’s large Juliets, which she is currently having restored by an Indianapolis company.
Snyder also painted hunting dogs, usually setters. He is said to have often painted at a farm on Thompson Road near Canaan where hunting dogs were bred and trained.
Later in his career, outdoor compositions became his main interest and the southeastern Indiana countryside served as his inspiration. “You could say Snyder is know for beech trees,” said JCHS director Joe Carr. Wooded scenes featuring beech trees were common subjects. Also typical of Snyder paintings are notable area landmarks, including Clifty Falls, Hanging Rock Hill, the railroad cut and the Ohio River.

Don Wood

Photo by Ruth Wright

Don Wood outside his studio in Madison.

Many of Snyder’s painting appear dark, but that is mostly due to age and the accumulation of dust, dirt, smoke and other pollutants. Wood, who cleaned and restored paintings, wrote: “I have heard many say that they ‘don’t like Mr. Snyder’s paintings because they are so dark.’ I reply, ‘Mr. Snyder didn’t paint them that way.’ He painted them as true to nature as it was possible for him to do.”
Snyder did not always sign his work, and when he did it was not always in the same style, color or location. Red, orange, black and green signatures have been found on paintings. Also unusual is a signature found on a few works painted in the form of a letter addressed to Snyder. This kind of signature appears in the still life owned by the Massies.
Snyder’s work is typically popular in the Indianapolis-Louisville-Cincinnati area. “Within that triangle, he’s appreciated,” said Carr. However, the artist is nationally known and his paintings can sometimes be found in unusual places. Ron Grimes has one Snyder painting in the exhibit that he said came from an auction in Cleveland, Ohio. Grimes’ brother, an art dealer, purchased it for $400, said Grimes. Snyder’s paintings have also been known to show up on Ebay, according to Carr.
Locally, prices are higher for Snyder’s work. Prices for more substantial pieces often sell for thousands of dollars. The Massies, for example, paid at auction $17,000 for their still life painting.

Snyder-Forest Scene

Photo by Ruth Wright

Painting titled "Forest Scene," by William Snyder's daughter, Pearl Snyder Wade.

Woods research about Snyder reveals an interesting and sometimes eccentric individual. “We’d probably call him a character today,” said Don Woods. One often told story that reveals a bit of Snyder’s character concerns a large painting of a woman clothed in a transparent gown lounging on a bed or couch, with a man peering at her from behind a screen. The painting, according to Woods, was rendered for payment of a bar tab that Snyder had run at a Madison tavern. The tavern owner balked when Snyder, claiming that the painting was worth more than his debt, asked to be paid the difference.
“Finally, Mr. Snyder took the matter to court, appraisers were brought down from Cincinnati, and the saloon keeper had to pay the difference of Mr. Snyder’s bill,” Woods wrote.
Snyder died in Madison on Sept. 30, 1930, leaving an estate worth $10,000, according to Wood. His grave is located in the east section of Springdale Cemetery.
On June 30, 1998, Don Woods launched a website dedicated to Snyder using the information collected by his father, Emmett. It includes examples of Snyder’s paintings. For information visit: www.geocities.com/Paris/Arc/4918/snyder1.html.
Those interested in viewing in person more than 20 of Snyder’s paintings can visit the exhibit at the Jefferson County Historical Society Museum, located at 615 W. First St. in Madison. On display are several unique Snyder works, including less common watercolors and a painted three-panel screen on loan from Catherine Sieglitz of Florida.

Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Admission is $2 per person and complimentary to members of the society.
The museum will open from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. March 21 for a special free showing of the Snyder exhibit. Wood’s biography of Snyder can be purchased at the museum for $5. For more information on the museum exhibit, call (812) 265-2335.

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