Best known for lush landscapes that convey the sultry serenity of Louisiana bayous, Joseph Rusling Meeker, a New Jersey native, received a superior art education. In 1845, he enrolled at the National Academy of Design where he studied portraiture with Charles Loring Elliott and was deeply influenced by the work of academy director and renowned luminist landscape artist Asher Brown Durand. Following his studies, Meeker lived first in Buffalo, New York and then, from 1852 to 1859, was active in Louisville, Kentucky, teaching at a local academy and exhibiting his landscape work. From Louisville, he moved on to St. Louis, the Midwestern cultural capital where Thomas Satterwhite Noble, Charles (Carl) Ferdinand Wimar and other artists had founded the Western Academy of Art. Meeker’s work was shown in the Western Academy’s first exhibition in 1860.
During the Civil War, Meeker served as a paymaster aboard a United States Navy gunboat deployed in the Louisiana swamp country, and it was from this vantage point that he discovered his signature subject. Despite the ever present heat and danger that characterized his Southern tour of duty, Meeker was enchanted by the bayou terrain, filling countless sketchbooks that later served as the basis of finished studio compositions. In reflecting on his career, Meeker wrote that the “sketches and studies I made during the four years I spent in the South are sufficient to last me for forty years instead of fifteen, and I shall see to it that their freshness and beauty does not fade away.”
At war’s end, Meeker returned to St. Louis and began creating his trademark atmospheric landscape paintings. Throughout the years 1865 to 1878, Meeker is thought to have made intermittent sketching expeditions to the lower Mississippi. It was also during this time that he began to write articles on his compositional techniques and painterly inspirations, in The Western, a St. Louis journal. Meeker was well known as a leader in the local art community, having assisted in the foundation of the St. Louis Art Society in 1872 and the St. Louis Sketch Club in 1877.
In Bayou Teche, color is laid out in close harmonics as the bright gold light of the sun upon the white-cast tree trunk fades when it reaches back towards the far horizon. The landscape evokes the classic arrangement of the planar field into three zones—foreground, mid-ground and rear ground. The absence of humanity in the scene reflects the grave mood of isolation and loss which haunted much of American landscape art in the aftermath of the Civil War, including the works of Carl Christian Brenner and Andrew W. Melrose. Though he never lived in Louisiana, Meeker was responsible for creating a mythic state landscape and, in doing so, fulfilled his expressed goal that “every artist ought to paint what he himself loves, not what others have loved.”
Meeker’s work can be found in many notable museum collections, including the Brooklyn Museum, Historic New Orleans Collection, Louisiana State Museum, St. Louis Art Museum, Montgomery Museum of Art, Morris Museum of Art and Ogden Museum of Southern Art.