Called the “Artist of the Yosemite” because of his devotion to that seemingly inexhaustible subject, Thomas Hill was born in Birmingham, England on September 11, 1829. After immigrating to the United States in 1844, Hill settled with his family in Taunton, Massachusetts. He studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts under the tutelage of Peter F. Rothermel.
Hill painted in Massachusetts throughout the 1850’s, often in the White Mountains of New Hampshire with a group of artists that included Asher B. Durand, George Inness, Benjamin Champney, Albert Bierstadt, Virgil Williams and his brother Edward Hill. For health reasons he was forced to seek a milder climate and, with wife and children, made the overland trek to California in 1861.
After settling in San Francisco, Hill advertised himself as a portrait painter. In 1862 Hill made his first trip to Yosemite accompanied by the artists William Keith and Virgil Williams. In 1866 Hill exhibited his Yosemite scenes at the National Academy, and later that year, traveled to Paris where he was a pupil of Paul Meyerheim and exhibited at the Universal Expo. Returning to the United States, Hill stayed in Boston from 1868 to 1970, but returned to San Francisco in 1871.
He hit his artistic stride in California during the 1870s, beginning with his first grandiose painting, The Yosemite Valley, which was published as a chromolithograph by Prang. With Frederic Whymper, Hill was a founding member of the San Francisco Art Association, and in 1873, he became a member of the Bohemian Club, a men’s organization dedicated to cultural enhancement.
Hill built a studio in Yosemite in 1883, which would become his main residence for rest of his life (his wife maintained the family home in Oakland). During the winter months Hill resided in San Francisco where he maintained a studio in the Flood Building. When Virgil Williams died in 1886, Hill became interim director of the School of Design until a new director could be found.
During the 1870s and 1880s, Hill’s work was in demand and brought very high prices; however, during the later part of his life his work did not command the interest that it once had due to changing art styles. Like Bierstadt, his panoramic landscapes were considered old-fashioned and for half a century or more his work was in eclipse. Today his work has regained its proper stature and he is considered a giant in American art. His work can currently be viewed in the collections of the de Young museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Oakland Museum of California and the White House, among many other collections.
Although he painted over 5,000 paintings of Yosemite, Hill suffered the first of a series of debilitating strokes in 1896 that greatly curtailed his artistic output. During the last three years of his life he needed constant care and was unable to paint. His death on June 30, 1908 in Raymond, California is believed to have been a suicide. Thomas Hill is buried in Oakland’s Mountain View Cemetery