The discovery of the landscape paintings of Frederick J. Sykes three decades ago not only adds a new name to the annals of American art, but also brings to light a charming group of works that transcends the oftentimes commonplace vision and pedestrian technique of his contemporaries to reveal a surreal, a magical, interpretation of the world. Through the subtleties of his palette and a modest abstraction of form, Sykes created an exciting group of works that are memorable for their simplicity of structure and their honesty and directness of vision.
The artistic life of Frederick Sykes parallels the second generation of Hudson River School artists, and his seascapes, broad landscapes, and intimate woodland interiors reflect the influence of their work as well as the prevailing taste of American art collectors during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Yet Sykes's work gains a unique distinction as it evolves from a strongly academic sensibility to an imaginative, stylized interpretation of nature that assures for its maker a very special niche in the complex fabric of American art of the past.
Sykes was born near London, the eldest of the seven sons of Frederick and Helen Furnell Sykes. His paternal grandfather was a prominent railroad executive, and his mother's father was associated with the satirical magazine Punch. An aunt, Carolyne Furnell Haynes, was a portrait miniaturist whose work had been exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, in 1843. Due to marital discord, Sykes's mother emigrated to the United States with her six oldest sons, and by 1876 had established a fashionable boarding house in Brooklyn.
Although very little is known about Sykes and his work as an artist, his surviving pictures, approximately 100 in number, stand as mute testimony to a painter of considerable talent and dedication to the artistic traditions of his time. The paintings reveal, through inscriptions, subjects, and dates, Sykes's whereabouts during the latter part of the 19th century. Views from the 1880s were usually executed near his home, in Brooklyn, on Staten Island, and along the nearby Atlantic shore and in England, where he made a brief visit in 1884. In the 1890s Sykes painted along both sides of the Hudson River, in Dutchess County, New York, in the Catskills, and near the Delaware River at Dingman's Ferry, Pennsylvania. He also traveled to Niagara Falls, and around the turn-of-the-century he visited Mexico in the company of his brother Charles Albert Sykes, who was on a photographic expedition.
By 1907 Sykes had moved to Dutchess County, southeast of Poughkeepsie, and in the following year he acquired 20 acres adjacent to land owned by the Clove Valley Rod and Gun Club, where his brother Charles was a prominent member. Only three years younger than Frederick, Charles had parlayed an early association with the Amalgamated Dental Company of London into a prosperous business importing dental supplies to New York City, where he employed his older brother. Charles joined Frederick in Union Vale during the Fall of 1907, and returned there a year later with his wife, Jane Hill Sykes, and their two daughters, Edith Jane and Dorothy ("Dolly"), the latter of whom preserved the exceptional paintings executed by her uncle Frederick during the last quarter of the 19th century. In 1911 Charles Sykes built a large house on the considerable acreage he had acquired on West Clove Mountain Road, within walking distance of Frederick's home, and his family settled permanently in Union Vale.
Since Frederick Sykes appears never to have exhibited any of his paintings or left us any more than the scantest biographical information, details of his artistic life remain obscure. Any formal art training or associations he may have had in England, or with contemporary artists in Brooklyn, New York City, or Dutchess County, are undocumented. A study of the works that he left behind, however, reveals more than a cursory knowledge of the art of landscape painting of his time, and from it one can deduce that he was a keen observer of, if not an active participant in, the art life around him.
Sykes's mature style developed within the vital artistic milieu of Brooklyn, presumably stimulated by exhibitions held at the Brooklyn Art Association, just several blocks from his mother's boarding house. There Sykes may have been exposed to the academic traditions of the Hudson River School, including the quiet and luminous coastal views of fellow Brooklynite Francis Augustus Silva (1835–1886), whose style Sykes seems to have echoed in his own expansive, light-filled compositions. He may also have seen there the work of Jasper Francis Cropsey (1823–1900), whose traditional, literal, Hudson River landscapes are mirrored in Sykes's autumnal views of the early 1890s. Perhaps most significantly, however, Sykes must have become familiar with the intensely detailed woodland landscapes of William Trost Richards (1833–1905), also a frequent exhibitor at the Brooklyn Art Association, whose painstaking records of nature, inspired by the writings of John Ruskin and the English Pre-Raphaelites, are likely to have provided the model for Sykes's own highly focused and hard-edged woodland interiors of the 1890s. Yet despite these academic roots, Sykes's work exhibits a gradual shift in aesthetic. His concern for truthful, naturalistic rendering slowly gave way to a more stylized interpretation of nature, perhaps in response to the various artistic trends of the moment.
Sykes's stylistic evolution culminates in an extraordinary series of works painted in Mexico. In these paintings, he has eliminated the naturalism of his earlier work in favor of an overall design and a flattened patterning of forms. In Sykes's later paintings his trees seem to come alive. The effect, at once primitive and surreal, is further heightened by Sykes's use of rich, jewel-like colors which lend a magical element to these works. No longer emphasizing the faithful depiction of nature, Sykes's later views become fantastic landscapes of iridescent colors, tapestry-like patterns, and animated forms.
Treading the fine line between the Academic and the Primitive, Sykes seems more than passingly related to his almost exact contemporary, Levi Wells Prentice (1851–1935), another Brooklyn based artist who divided his time between Brooklyn and the Adirondacks and his subject matter between landscape painting and still life. Like Prentice, Sykes never became a main stream artist, but he possessed a rare vision that endowed his work with a character that will not easily be forgotten. Now, after nearly a century of confinement to the parlors and attics of his family, Sykes's work takes a well-earned place among that of his contemporaries.