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The Life of a “Great Painter” and Illinois native

Member of the Brown County (Indiana) Art Association.

Great Portraits and Landscapes


His Story as in the News of Shelbyville, Illinois





Robert Marshall Root

From the Shelbyville Democrat, Aug 26, 1937

A Time Line of Robert Root’s Life

Article By Beulah Gordon

Born in 1863

Robert Marshall Root was born in 1863, the third and youngest son of John and Eunice Root.  His birth occasioned no excitement.  Shelbyville citizens were so engrossed in bitterly denouncing or hotly defending Abe Lincoln and the Republican Party, they scarcely took time to glance at the cromos on their walls.  Had an angel appeared in their midst and prophesied to them that the child would some day become a great artist, it is quite probable their first question would have been concerning his politics.

The artist grew up in the midst of the hodge-podge of his time: poverty, wealth, culture, and ignorance.  In an era of expansion, mud, saloons, and political rallies, he sought and found the beautiful.  He drew pictures, and dreamed dreams, and he became an artist because that was the only destiny he had been born to.  He left the raw, colorful country town and the crude prairies that were still making history and went to St. Louis and later Paris, France.  Here he found beauty, sophistication, culture and kindred spirits.  He also found high honor, praise and encouragement; but when his schooling was completed he came home and stayed there.  Shelbyville in its time has been large enough to hold a number of great men.


Early Youth

When Robert Root was a little boy he didn’t know he wanted to be an artist.  He didn’t even know what an artist was.  He had neither had pencils or paper to draw with, but he used to scratch pictures on the fly leave of books with red lead that he had gotten from packing around gaskets.  When he was seven years old his parents moved to the country and here he lived until he was eleven.  During that time he remembers seeing the smoke darkened sky caused by the Chicago fire, drawing “Trees full of jay birds,” and going to watch the old mill owned by Hardin Barrett.

“The only literature we had to read in those days,” Mr. Root once said, “was the Saturday Night Magazine, and the New York Ledger.  These came once a week and had serial stories in them by Mrs. Southworth and other English writers.  There were all sorts of tales that told about “The Sunlight Gently Tipping Her Hair” and “Her Alabaster Neck Floating Gently into the Room.”  I read those stories and got ideas about life.”

So when he was eleven years old Robert Root moved back to town with things as he knew them dimly confused with the “crystal tears” and “tasteful elegance” of things as then popular novels pictured them out.  But deep within him was the consciousness that drawing trees full of jay birds was one of the most satisfying things he had ever done.  Then when he was about twelve years old, he discovered art and with that discovery his career began.  The event took place when the boy one day saw a man making pencil drawings of a prominent house in Shelbyville.  He watched the artist for a time, and then got himself a board, some pencils and paper and started to draw with him.  The artist, if he may be so called, was L. A. Birk, and all who, and all who possess a copy of the 1880 edition of the History of Shelby and Moultrie counties may view therein his pictures of farm homes and city dwellings stiff with precision and rigid as Victorian conventions.

Attended Main Street School

Now that he had found an outlet, Robert Root soon became quite adept at drawing pictures of this sort.  Birk was so impressed with his work he wished to take the boy with him.  Robert stayed, however, and made quite a little spending money by drawing pictures of the various houses in town and selling them for a dollar each.  He attended Main Street School until he was fourteen.  Then his father died and he was forced to quit.

He went to work in the Akenhead Building for Arthur Launey and George Sitler, photographers.  Here he did retouching, learned photography, and was initiated in to the new lost art of making crayon portraits.  Later he went to Springfield with Sitler and stayed a year and a half, from there he went to Decatur, and after remaining a year and a half in that city, returned home.


Goes To New York

All this time he had been drawing on the side.  One day Horace Taylor, a famous cartoonist on a Chicago paper, who had studied at the U. of I. with Lorado Taft, came to Shelbyville on an assignment and saw young Root’s work.  He was quite impressed by its quality and advised the young artist to work days to pay his way through and go to New York to night school.  Root was only eighteen years old at that time, he didn’t have much money, and New York was a long way off, but he took Taylor’s advice and went.

When he reached his destination he proceeded in getting a job doing retouching work up and down the Bowery, after that he entered the Cooper Union Art School, held in the old Cooper Union Hall, where Lincoln made his famous Cooper Union speech in 1860 (?).  Here he was set at drawing ornamental designs and told that in two or three years he could start drawing from life.  That wasn’t what he wanted and after six weeks of it he came home.  Here he entered the photographer’s gallery again and started saving his money.  He wanted to study art and he wanted to draw from life.


Enters Washington University

When he felt he had saved enough money to warrant another venture to fulfill these ambitions, he left for St. Louis, and entered the Fine Arts School of Washington University.  It was here he formed a lifelong friendship with a fellow student, E. H. Wuerpel, present head of the art school.

After entering the school, Root was placed in a class drawing from casts and told, as he had been in New York, that it would be two or three years before he could start drawing from life.  But after working two or three weeks his genius was recognized and he was promoted to the advanced life classes.  His rise after that was swift.  With the help of teachers he secured enough scholarships to carry him through and after three years he graduated with all the honors possible for the University to bestow.  He received the Layman Crow medal, the highest honor a student of the Art School could attain, and six diplomas.  During his years in St. Louis art was not the only thing he distinguished himself in, for as a sort of side line to his art he also carried off the ‘Student Life” prize given by the Globe-Democrat for the best article published in that periodical.


Studies In Paris, France

After his graduation he came back to Shelbyville and stayed for a short time, then departed for Paris, France where he remained for two years.  There he rented a studio in company with Paul Conoyer, his old friend Wuerpel and others and attended the renowned Academy Julien.

Among the young artists of that day the boy from Shelbyville stood high.  The first year one of his paintings, “Girl with Roses,” was in the famous Paris Salon.  After attaining this feat, so remarkable for a student, he further distinguished himself when the famous art connoisseur, Rodman Wanamaker, commissioned him to copy several masterpieces for him.  These and other honors gave young Root a high standing among his classmates.  It was a far cry from the old days in the photographer’s gallery at Shelbyville.


Returns to Shelbyville

After two years in the city that Mr. Root described as ‘bright and gay and beautiful’ he returned home.  Previous to his departure a representative of Tiffany’s in New York had asked him to come and work for that concern to design stained glass windows.  But after he returned to New York the artist was seized with an illness and after recovering from it he wanted to come home to Shelbyville.  Besides a year spent working in St. Louis and trips taken to various parts of the country, he has lived here ever since.  In the same building he once worked as a photographer’s helper, he maintained the studio of a celebrity.

Robert Root's famous pictures hardly need commenting on.



Lincoln-Douglas Debate as depicted by Robert Root, 1918, now in the Governor's office,
The Capitol Building, Springfield, Illinois

Lincoln-Thornton Debate, painted 1918, now in the Shelby County Courthouse, Shelbyville, Illinois

Everyone knows about his painting of the Lincoln-Douglas debate held at Charleston, that now has a place of honor in the state capitol. This picture was painted to celebrate the Illinois Centennial in 1918, and was shown at the State Fair of that year. There it created such a sensation that the State Legislature bought it for the sum of $1500, and honored the artist by presenting him with a special Centennial medal. The picture was given a prominent place in the state house, and later Governor Emmerson caused it to be specially lighted so it might be more easily seen.
           Mr. Root's other famous Lincoln painting, the Lincoln-Thornton debate, hangs in the local high school. Ten years of work were spent on the picture. Both historical pictures were painted with infinite care as to accuracy and detail. All the faces are of men who actually attended the debates, and were painted from old tintypes, ambroytypes, and daguerreotypes.   The settings are drawn as accurately as is humanly possible. For the Lincoln-Douglas debate the artist visited fair grounds in Charleston where it was held, and for the Lincoln-Thornton debate, he got actual measurements of the old court house. One instance illustrating the fidelity of detail in this picture is the glimpse shown through the court house window of the old Thornton Bank that stood where the Catholic Church is now.
         Critics have declared that the artist's portraits of Lincoln as shown in these pictures are the best that have ever been painted. Needless to say, in order to create these works of art Mr. Root was obliged to do much historical research and careful reading. More than that, behind the artist's training and artist's fingers of Robert Root, was a fine intellect. Back of his skill and technique lay thought. It was the power of his sensitive, cultured mind that gave body to his creations.
         Mr. Root ranked his pictures of Samuel S. Moulton, Judge Anthony Thornton, Dr. Livingston C. Lord of Charleston Teachers' College and Barrett O'Hara, former lieutenant governor whose picture hangs in the state house at Springfield - are among his best portraits.





Portrait of Livingston Lord, First President of Eastern


 Illinois University, displayed in Old Main



Shelbyville on the Kaskaskia, 1918


During the years many portraits and landscapes have come from his brush, numbers of which have won honors at various exhibits including those at Chicago, Boston, New York, St. Louis and Louisiana.
        To name only a few of his many excellent pictures, there are: the portrait of Chief Justice Farmer; the murals of the Attorney General's office at Springfield; the portrait of Judge Johns at Decatur; the miniature of Agnes Mertens, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. A. J. Hamlin; the portrait of George B. Wendling, Jr., hung in the offices of the Standard Life Insurance Co at St. Louis; the portrait of five prominent Decatur men including O. B. Gorin and A. E. Staley that hang in the beautiful Masonic Temple there; and the portrait of Norman Foster.
        The list grown slightly tedious, and there are many people not interested in portraits who knew Robert Root for his landscapes that catch and hold much of the charm of the middle west, a section that distant critics are fond of calling dull and uninteresting. Aside from his portraits, Mr. Root ranked high as an interpreter of the beauty of the corn country - the familiar, homey beauty we too often fail to appreciate. A visit to the artist's studio could not help but bring a keener awareness of the loveliness that we so often pass by, not through.

Shelbyville Democrat, Aug 26, 1937
Shelby Genius Dies Late Saturday In Lonely Room
Article by Beulah Gordon

Robert Root is dead! He died suddenly as he wished to go, for he had a horror of hospitals. He was ill and very tired. Perhaps it was best he should leave, but his friends stand silent with a stick stab in the heart. Robert Root is dead - something magnificent has passed.

Mr. Root was found dead in his room in the Neal Hotel about 11 am Sunday. He was slumped in the corner on a suitcase as if death had come suddenly just as he started to open the closet door. Death was due to cerebral hemorrhage. He had been ill for about three weeks.

He went to the hotel but his physician's order, about 2:30 pm Saturday, accompanied by Hubert Kunkel. Lying down in the reception room he took a nap and came into the hotel office about 6 pm saying he felt better. After chatting for a time with the proprietor, Hobart Lidster, he went to his room.

Find Body Sunday Morning

His body was found next morning by hotel attendants, and his physician and Coroner Charles G. Miner were immediately called. No inquest was held. It was thought he died sometime Saturday night.
One by one he had watched his contemporaries pass, or falter, or slacken, but he had kept doggedly painting excellent pictures until the end. He was 74 years old. In his studio at the time of his death were portraits of the late Judge Sentel, Sullivan and O. B. Gorin, Decatur, besides many other uncompleted pictures.
        L. F. Akenhead who occupied an adjoining studio and who was a friend of long standing, voiced the thoughts of all who mourn him when he said, "We are going to miss him like everything. He was a great man."
Not only great in talent, but great in spirit, Robert Root gave to Shelbyville intangible riches that can not be reckoned. Now he is dead - may God who makes all beauty rest his soul.
        He drew pictures, and dreamed dreams, and he became an artist because that was the only destiny he had been born to. He left the raw, colorful country town and the crude prairies that were still making history and went to St. Louis and later Paris, France. Here he found beauty, sophistication, culture and kindred spirits. He also found high honor, praise and encouragement; but when his schooling was completed he came home and stayed there. Shelbyville in its time has been large enough to hold a number of great men.



        In paying tribute to Robert M. Root, E. M. Harwood said:
"I have known Robert Marshall Root since he was a left handed boy with a pencil' and he knew how to use it.  He was always sketching everything everywhere.  We all called him Marshall around Moulton, where he was reared and made pictures of something:
"A man or a mouse -"
"A landscape or a house,"
it mattered not what, it was good. 
        My sister Clara has a life-size painting of herself holding a guitar, which she prizes very much.
"I knew his health was poorer each year, but was not prepared to hear of his death."     

"Another good friend gone."



Robert Root Death Brings

Accolades from Illinois Governor Henry Horner

Much written in Shelbyville paper

WESTERN UNION  (telegram transcribed)
Received at 1916 S. Morgan, Shelbyville ILL
Springfield ILL  603P  Aug 23, 1937

To:  John G. Root

The unexpected death of your illustrious brother Robert Root saddens me and I hasten to express my sincere sympathy to you and the other members of his family (stop) for more than fifty years his name has stood high among Illinois and American artists (stop) his death leaves a place in the fit world no soon to be filled except by the fine contributions left in his many paintings and etchings (stop) we hail the work of this master and mourn his going (stop) his memory and his master pieces will linger long with us.
      Signed:   Henry Horner, Governor



        Governor Henry Horner came to Shelbyville from Springfield Tuesday afternoon to attend the funeral of Artist Robert M. Root.  The services were at the John Root home on West Main Street.
The Governor described Mr. Root as "one of Illinois' great artists."  He was a personal friend of Mr. Root and had visited him here at his studio.


        Governor Henry Horner sent a telegram to Postmaster and Mrs. James Shoaff Monday evening, expressing his sympathy for the family of Robert M. Root, and mourning the sudden death of Shelbyville's artist.
Governor Horner had been in Mr. Root's studio several times, and spent some time chatting with Mr. Root over various paintings and etchings.
His telegram:
 'Your telegram containing the sad tidings of Robert Root's death is received.  I have today wired his brother my true feelings as follows - "the unexpected death of your illustrious brother, Robert Root, saddens me and I hasten to express my sincere sympathy to you and the other members of his family.  For more than fifty years his name has stood high among Illinois and American artists.  His death leaves a place in the fit world not soon to be filled except by the fine contributions left in his many famous paintings and etchings.  We hail the work of this master and mourn his going.  His memory and his master pieces will linger long with us." '
   "Henry Horner, Governor"


Shelbyville Democrat, August 26, 1937 (front page - article 2 of 3)
Glowing Tribute Paid Artist Root

        "His modesty was a perfect frame for his genius," said Governor Henry Horner as he left the funeral of Robert Root Tuesday.          "Without one, the other would be incomplete."
        Artist Dolph Woodruff, Kansas, in recalling his friendship with the artist remarked: 
"He was to have come visit me in October.  His death came as a great surprise.  Robert Root was one of the most critical and refined artists I have ever known.  His touch was delicate and he understood art."
Paul Seargent, Charleston artist and close friend, said, deeply touched and a trifle inarticulate: 
"He was a great debunker and a mighty fine man."
        Shelbyville's sentiments were expressed by the man on the street who state:
"Well, they buried Bob Root this afternoon - Shelbyville's lost something.
Dr. F. P. Auld, his physician and close friend, put the felling of many into words when he said,
"We knew he couldn't live long, but still it doesn't seem possible that he has left us."
        Perhaps the greatest tribute was the lack of flowery eulogies spoken.  Sobered and sorrowful, his friends found only simple words of praise for a great and unassuming man.

Shelbyville Democrat, August 26, 1937 (front page - article 3 of 3)

Gov. Henry Horner Joins Mourners Here Tuesday

        State and nation Tuesday joined Shelby County folk in simple funeral tribute to Robert Marshall Root, native artist - genius who forsook world acclaim to live modestly among his homefolks and die suddenly Saturday night in his lonely hotel room here, aged 74 years.
        Governor Henry Horner, representing the people of Artist Root's native Illinois, came to Shelbyville for the memorial services held at 2:30 am at the John Root home, West Main Street.  Contemporary artists were here representing the world of art, while floral tributes from over the nation paid silent testimony to the beloved "giant amongst us."
Funeral arrangements were in charge of Lantz Brothers.
        With bleak faces and a sense of loss not yet fully realized friends heard the Rev. Raymond McCallister speak in sincere and simple words a true tribute to an artist who, though great in skill and genius, was first of all a man.
Man of Great Loyalties
        Preaching from the text, "In the midst of life we are in death," Rev. McCallister said:
"Robert Root was a man of great loyalties.  He never temporized with truth or compromised with principle.  He was a most compassionate man to those who knew him.  A thinker and a sane commentator, he gave his life to the work dear to his heart.  Now God has beckoned Robert Root to His great city and his going has left us with a vacant spot against the sky.
        Music was furnished by the four Gregory sisters who were lifelong friends of the artist:  Mrs. James Shoaff, Mrs. Clair Stone, Miss Lillian Gregory, and Mrs. Herbert Featherston.  Mrs. William Herrick was accompanist.  The songs sung were "Jesus Lover of My Soul" and "Abide With Me."
        Pallbearers Old Friends.  Pallbearers were:  William Taylor, Leo Akenhead, James Shoaff, Dr. F. P. Auld, Hobart Lidster and N. C. Leathers.
        Flower girls were:  Hazel Jackson, Mary Dill, Jennie Bube, Retha Jones, Ione Davis, and Fredricka Wyrick.
After the casket was lowered in the earth at Glenwood, Governor Horner dropped a flower in the open grave, as a fitting final tribute to a man who loved all flowers.
        Following his death flowers came from all parts of the United States.  Blossoms such as he had often painted were banked behind his casket and piled high upon his grave.
        After the casket was lowered in the grave the crowd departed, the Governor's car drove away, and they left Robert Root alone in Glenwood with life, his final masterpiece, completed.


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