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Elihu Vedder was born in February 1836, in New York City. His father, Dr. Elihu Vedder, and his mother, Elizabeth Vedder, were cousins. When he was a child, young Elihu’s father went to Cuba to try his luck. This deeply impacted the young artist’s childhood because Vedder was now constantly moving between a boarding school and his maternal grandfather’s house.
First, Elihu Vedder trained under Thompkins H. Matteson in New York City and then, under French painter François-Edouard Picot, in Paris. The artist would conclude his studies in Italy, where he was profoundly influenced by artworks of the Italian Renaissance, as well as by the then-contemporary Macchaioli painters. Vedder first visited Italy between 1858 and 1860, when he became especially attached to fellow painter Giovanni Costa. He and Costa took bucolic trips throughout the Italian countryside. They were cut off, however, due to Vedder’s father suspending his financial allowance.
The painter then became associated with a group of artists that were habitues of the bohemian Pfaff’s beer cellar, especially known for its artistic and literary clientele. Such a place and group are worth mentioning, as they were the center of New York City’s revolutionary culture during the 1850s and 60s. Among the distinguished members of said group are the poet and author Walt Whitman; poet, painter, and actress Adah Isaacs Menken; and actor Edwin Booth, among others. Vedder became primarily close to the artist William Morris Hunt and authors Herman Melville and Walt Whitman.
During this period, Vedder executed several memorable paintings, such as The Roc’s Egg, The Fisherman and the Genie, and Lair of the Sea Serpent, which became one of his most famous artworks. Such pictures are notable for their romantic imagery with visionary nature, often carrying Oriental influences.
Vedder traveled several times to England, where he was influenced by Pre-Raphaelite paintings, as well as by his friend Simeon Solomon, who was a Pre-Raphaelite painter himself. He was also influenced by Irish and English mystics such as William Butler Yeats and William Blake.
At some point, American Jewelry Tiffany & Co. commissioned Vedder to execute mosaics, statuettes, and glassware for the company. He also decorated a hallway of the Washington Library of Congress, located at the Reading Room. The mural can still be seen to this day.