George Elbert Burr

George Elbert Burr (1859 – 1939) was an American printmaker and painter best known for his etchings and drypoints of the desert and mountain regions of the American West.

George Elbert Burr worked as an illustrator for several New York magazines: Harper’s, Cosmopolitan, and Frank Leslie’s Weekly Newspaper. His work for Leslie’s allowed him to travel coast to coast in America, indulging his passion for landscapes. Burr set out on a European journey in 1896, and traveled for almost five years. Bay at Nevin, Wales [SAAM, 1983.83.188] was painted during this time. After his travels, Burr moved to Colorado and later Arizona, and made prints depicting the monumental deserts and mountains of the American Southwest.

Burr was born in 1859 in Munroe Falls, Ohio. He studied at the Art Institute of Chicago for one winter, his only formal artistic training. Nevertheless, he enjoyed early success as a commercial artist, providing illustrations for Harper’s, Scribner’s Magazine, Frank Leslie’s Weekly, and The Cosmopolitan. In 1892, he began a four-year project illustrating a catalog of Heber R. Bishop’s collection of jade antiquities for the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. This project, which involved producing etchings of over a thousand artifacts, paid well enough for Burr to embark on an extended tour of Europe with his wife upon its completion. Over the next five years, as they traveled in Italy, Germany, and the British Isles, Burr amassed sketches and watercolors that would provide the source material for his copperplate etchings of European scenes.

Ten years after his birth in Monroe Falls, Ohio, George Elbert Burr moved with his parents to Cameron, Missouri, where his father opened a hardware store. Burr was interested in art from an early age and his first etchings were created with the use of zinc scraps found in the spark pan under the kitchen stove. He then printed the plates on a press located in the tin shop of his father’s store.

In December of 1878, Burr left for Illinois to attend the Art Institute of Chicago (then called the Chicago Academy of Design). By April of the following year, Burr had moved back to Cameron. The few months of study in Chicago constituted the only formal training the artist was to have.

Back in Missouri, Burr heeded his family’s wishes by working in his father’s store. However, he did not abandon his art, often using his father’s railway pass to travel around the countryside on sketching trips. In 1894, Burr married Elizabeth Rogers and the following year he became an instructor for a local drawing class.

By 1888, the artist was employed as an illustrator for Scribner’s, Harper’s, and The Observer. During that time, his illustrations were also published in Volume II of John Muir’s Picturesque California. In December of the same year, Burr relocated to New York City for several months to work on assignment for The Observer. Over the next several years, Burr worked and traveled extensively as an illustrator contributing to additional periodicals including The Cosmopolitan and Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.

In 1892, Burr began a four-year project to illustrate a catalog for the Metropolitan Museum of Art of Heber R. Bishop’s jade collection. After completing approximately 1,000 etchings of the collection, Burr used the money he earned on the project to fund a trip abroad. The artist and his wife spent the years between 1896 and 1901 sketching and traveling on a tour of Europe that spanned from Sicily to North Wales. After their return from Europe, the Burr’s settled in New Jersey where Burr sustained a living through the sale of his etchings and watercolors. During the next few years, Burr’s watercolors were displayed in galleries and exhibitions along the east coast and as far west as Kansas City, Missouri.

In 1906 the couple moved to Denver, Colorado, in an effort to improve George’s poor health. While in Colorado, Burr completed Mountain Moods, a series of 16 etchings.

His years in Denver were highly productive despite his poor health. He gained membership to art organizations including the New York Society of Etchers and the Brooklyn Society of Etchers (later renamed Society of American Etchers). Burr’s winters were spent traveling through the deserts of Southern California, Arizona, and New Mexico. In 1921, Burr obtained copyrights on the last of 35 etchings included in his well-known Desert Set.

Burr’s failing health prompted a move to a more moderate climate and the couple settled in Phoenix, Arizona, in 1924. In Phoenix, Burr served as president of the Phoenix Fine Arts Association and participated in the city’s first major art exhibition. Burr remained in Phoenix until his death in 1939.

Throughout his lifetime Burr worked in a variety of mediums creating approximately fifty oil paintings, over a thousand watercolors, two-thousand pen-and-ink drawings and over twenty-five thousand etchings all pulled from his own presses.

Exhibitions: Boston Art Club, 1902, 1906; Art Institute of Chicago, 1910, 1913; National Museum of American Art, 1986 (retrospective); Mitchell Brown Gallery, Tucson, Arizona, 1990 (retrospective).

A few years after his return to the United States, an attack of the flu prompted Burr to move to Denver for the benefit of his health. It was there, during summers spent in a cabin studio in a steep wooded canyon with panoramic views of the Rocky Mountains, that Burr began to concentrate on the work that made him famous. In 1910, he built a brick house and studio at 1325 Logan Street in Denver. The building was purchased in 1924 by the Denver Woman’s Press Club, which continues to own and operate it as a clubhouse. In 1924 the artist settled in Phoenix, Arizona, where he would remain for the rest of his life. This change of scenery gave him the opportunity to round out his oevure of Western landscapes with expansive views of the Sonoran and Mojave deserts.

Today George Elbert Burr is widely considered to be one of the finest of the early 20th-century American etchers. His prints are in a number of prominent collections including the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the British Museum, the French National Print Collection, Luxembourg Gallery, Victoria and Albert Museum, the New York Public Library and the Congressional Library in Washington, D.C.

Tiffany Farrell “Experience the Best of Wales!,” 1001 Days and Nights of American Art Web site, entry for August 3, 2002 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian American Art Museum, 2002).

Works held: Art Institute of Chicago; Boston Museum of Fine Arts; Brooklyn Museum; Carnegie Institute; City Museum, St. Louis; Cleveland Museum of Art; Colorado State University; Denver Art Museum; Detroit Institute; Fine Arts Gallery, San Diego, California; Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts; Library of Congress; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Metropolitan Museum of Art; New York Public Library; Newark Museum; Phoenix Fine Arts Association; Prints of the Year, 1931; Public Library, Santa Barbara; Toledo Museum of Art; Berlin; Luxembourg, Paris; Bibliothéque Nationale, Paris; Victoria and Albert Museum, British Museum, London.

Further Reading: American Etchers, Vol. 7, George Elbert Burr with a foreward by Arthur Millier, the Crafton Collection, New York, 1930.; George Elbert Burr 1859-1939: Catalogue Raisonne and Guide to the Etched Works with Biographical and Critical Notes, Louise Combes Seeber, Northland Press, Flagstaff, Arizona,1971.; The Illustrated Biographical Encyclopedia of Artists of the American West, Peggy and Harold Samuels, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York, 1976.; Who Was Who in American Art 1564-1975: 400 Years of Artists in America, Vol. 1. Peter Hastings Falk, Georgia Kuchen and Veronica Roessler, eds., Sound View Press, Madison, Connecticut, 1999. 3 Vols.