John Costigan was a self-taught painter and trained printer distinguished by his impressionistic style and affinity for bucolic scenes. Born on February 29, 1888, in Providence, Rhode Island he was orphaned in adolescence. Costigan was taken in by his aunt and uncle, vaudeville performers Helen and Jeremiah Cohan. He began working as an errand boy and afterward held jobs in local costume jewelry factories. In 1903, Costigan moved to New York City through the assistance of his aunt and uncle, who obtained a position for him with the H.C. Miner Lithographing Company. There he resided in a theatrical boarding house and attended rehearsals for the works of his playwright cousin, George M. Cohan. The Miner Company produced posters for such theatrical works. Though Costigan began as a pressroom helper, through his twenty-eight year employment with the company he learned about printing through apprenticeships, and began applying his artistic talent professionally. Once promoted to sketch artist, Costigan worked designing posters for the Ziegfeld Follies, as well as silent pictures like D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation.
Costigan’s formal art instruction was limited to a few weeks at the Art Student’s League where he studied under William Merritt Chase and George Bridgman. He stayed committed instead to a studio on 14th Street called the Kit Kat Club, where illustrators and newspaper artists spent nights sketching from live models in an informal atmosphere. By the age of thirty, Costigan exhibited at the Corcoran Gallery of Washington D.C., in addition to the MacDowell Club, and Babcock Gallery in New York. The year following his showing at the Babcock Gallery Costigan joined the army as a private and served in World War I. During his 1918-1919 service he experienced action while positioned in France with the 52nd “Pioneer” Infantry Division.
Costigan married sculptor and professional artist’s model Ida Blessin in 1919, and the couple retreated to Orangeburg, New York. A twenty-five mile distance from New York City, Orangeburg was situated by the Hudson River. The same area had served as a destination for Costigan’s weekend sketch trips in previous years. Through the twenties, Costigan gained greater recognition with a number of exhibitions, including showings at the Art Institute of Chicago, Salmagundi Gallery and Corcoran Gallery. An influx of awards for his work in oil and watercolor helped secure his notoriety, beginning in 1920 with an award from the National Academy of Design. In 1928, Costigan was made an Academician to the National Academy of Design, leading him to add the distinction of “N.A.” (National Academy) to his signature.
As Costigan continued to exhibit and receive awards in painting and printing, he also remained reliant on outside work. After the close of the Miner Company, Costigan taught at the Art Students League and in his Orangeburg home, found employment in a defense plant as a machine operator during World War II, and took up commercial work illustrating McCall’s Bluebook magazine for five years. Nevertheless, during the 1940s he exhibited at both the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Carnegie Institute. Costigan’s place in the fine art world was reaffirmed in 1968 with the launch of a retrospective exhibition from the Smithsonian Institute. This exhibit was comprised of works in Costigan’s varied mediums, provided by a range of public and private collections across the country. After premiering at the Paine Art Center and Arboretum in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, the Smithsonian Institute facilitated the national circulation of the works.
Costigan’s body of work across the mediums of oil, watercolor, etching, and lithography provide an extensive exploration of the pastoral, yet also document the realities of the artist’s rural life. Family members served as models for his scenes, with wife Ida a primary model for the solitary women and motherly figures. His five children, too, and later grandchildren, were influential in providing a basis for many compositions. Despite these ties to specifications of time and biographical experience, Costigan’s scenes are also outside of time, in the peaceful and somewhat utopian world of the pastoral. Cositgan gave an inspired, energetic approach to the simple joys of the bucolic, offering reflection and solace in his subjects. The strong sense of movement developed through a varied palette and the handling of light, line, and composition fills the works with vitality. The rustic figures hold an equal weight with their surroundings, with the two bound together by the artist’s bold rendering of light and color. From muted forest scenes to opulent beachside settings, Costigan developed luminescent and highly sensitive scenes of domesticity and repose. The atmospheric qualities of the works develop a sense of gravity across scenes of bathers, mothers with children, and single introspective figures, as well as his non-figural landscape and still-life subjects.
Costigan continued to paint into his eighties, even as his eyesight began to fail. He died from pneumonia at the age of eighty-four on August 5, 1972, in Nyack, New York. Prior to his death he was honored through the Artist’s Fellowship with the Benjamin West Clinedinst Medal in acknowledgement of the achievements of his half-century long career. Costigan’s self-cultivated personal vision produced an impressive body of work, offering imaginative executions of the simple moments from domestic and rural life.
Written by Zenobia Grant Wingate
1888 John Costigan born in Providence, Rhode Island on the 29th of February
1900 Orphaned; began work as errand boy in toolmaker shop
1903 Arrived in New York City; began employment at H.C. Miner
Lithographing Company as a fly boy on poster presses
1906 Temporary enrollment at Art Students League, participates in night classes at the
1913 First marriage, terminated a year and a half later with no children
1915 First public showing at New York’s MacDowell Club
1916 Exhibition at Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
1917 Exhibition at Babcock Gallery, New York.
1918-1919 Entered army as a private. Saw action in France with the 52nd “Pioneer”
1919 Married Ida Blessin in June, couple produces two sons and three daughters. Moves
to Orangeburg, New York
1920 Award from National Academy of Design
1922 National recognition with the purchase prize from the Art Institute of Chicago.
1924 First solo show, November at Frank K. M. Rehn Gallery, New York
1928 Elected as Academician to the National Academy of Design
1934 H.C. Miner Lithography Company closed as result of national depression
1936 Summer teaching position at Art Students League of New York
1942 Worked as machine operator in defense plant
1945-50 Illustrator for McCall’s Bluebook magazine
1968 Retrospective exhibition at age of 80
1972 Dies of pneumonia on August 5th
1920 Third Hallgarten Prize, National Academy of Design, “Gossip”
Isidor Prize, Salmagundi Club
1922 Charles S. Peterson Purchase Prize, The Art Institute of Chicago, “Sheep
at the Brook”
1923 Charles E. Kremer Purchase Prize, International Watercolor Exhibition,
The Art Institute of Chicago, “Sheep at the Gate”
Vezin Prize, Salmagundi Club, New York
1924 William H. Tuthill Purchase Prize, International Watercolor Exhibitions,
The Art Institute of Chicago
Shaw Purchase Prize, Salmagundi Club
1925 Saltus medal, National Academy of Design
The National Arts Club $300 Prize and medal, “Spring”
1926 Bronze Medal, Sesq. International Exposition, Philadelphia, “Woodland
1927 Mr. and Mrs. Frank Logan Medal and Prize, The Art Institute of Chicago,
“A Summer Day”
Clark Prize, National Academy of Design
Second Altman Prize, National Academy of Design, “With the Three Children”
1928 Mrs. Julius Rosenwald Prize, The Art Institute of Chicago
Plimton Prize, Salmagundi Club
Speyer Prize, National Academy of Design, “Springtime”
Grand Central Gallery Exhibition, New York
Lloyd C. Griscom Prize, American Watercolor Society
1929 John MCGowan Purchase Prize, American Watercolor Society
1932 Geo. A. Zabriskie Prize, American Watercolor Society, “Bathers”
1933 Shaw Prize for Etching, Salmagundi Club
Honorable Mention, AMGA exhibition
1935 Watercolor Prize, Palm Beach, Florida Arts Association
Honorable Mention, watercolor, Ogunquit, Maine
1936 National Arts Club Medal, “Going Home”
1940 Mrs. Henry F. Noyes Memorial Prize, AMGA Exhibition
1941 Logan Prize for etching, Society for Sanity in Art, Chicago
Etching Prize, Salmagundi Club
1942 Adolph-Clara Obrig Prize, American Watercolor Society, “After the
1943 Gold Medal, Members Annual Exhibition, The National Arts Club
Joseph Pennell Prize, Library of Congress, Exhibition of Prints
1944 Pennell Purchase Prize, Library of Congress, American Academy of Art,
1945 Dr. Marvin F. Jones Etching Prize, Salmagundi Club
1946 Silver Medal of Honor, American Watercolor Society, “Bathers”
1948 Henry B. Shope Prize, Society of American Graphic Artists
1950 3rd Prize, Salmagundi Exhibition, “Mother and Child”
1951 2nd Prize, Baltimore Watercolor Club
1952 2nd Prize, Baltimore Watercolor Club
1953 Barry Stephens Award, American Watercolor Society, “Group of Bathers”
Frederick K. Detwiller Memorial Prize, Salmagundi Club, “Big Tree”
1954 Gold Medal, The National Arts Club Exhibition (1954)
Jane Peterson Prize, Allied Artists of America, “White Oak, Spring”
1955 Lucille Dingley Prize, Ogunquit Art Center, Maine
2nd Prize, Baltimore Watercolor Club, “Group of Bathers”
1956 1st Prize, Baltimore Watercolor Club, “Mother-Children”
Medal of Honor, American Artists’ Magazine
Henry B. Shope Prize, Society of American Graphic Artists Etchers
1957 Honorable Mention, Philadelphia Sketch Club Annual Exhibition, etching
1958 Mary Trueblood Whitney Memorial Award, American Watercolor Society,
“Group of Children”
1959 Franklin B. Williams Fund Prize, Salmagundi Club, “In the Sunlight”
Prize, Baltimore Watercolor Club, “Heavy Fog”
1962 Emily Lowe Award, “Bathing in the Brook”
Friends of American Art, Watercolor Prize, “Women, Goat, and Brook”
Certificate of Merit, American Watercolor Society
1968 Syndicate Magazines Medal of Merit, “Figure Group,”
1915 MacDowell Club
1916 Corcoran Gallery
1917 Babcock Gallery
1920/23/28/33/36 Salmagundi Club
1922-24/27/54 Art Institute
1923-42 Pensylvannia Academy of Fine Art
1924 Frank K. M. Rehn Gallery
1925/27/28/30 National Academy of Design
1925/36/54/61 National Arts Club
1926 Sesqi-Centennial Expo
1928/32/33/36/58 American Watercolor Society
1928 Grand Central Art Gallery
Palm Beach AA
1933/38 Society of American Etchers
1942 Library of Congress
1944-46 Carnegie Institute
Society of American Graphic Artists
1944 Whitney Museum of American Art
1955 Ogunquit AC
1967 Group Exhibition, Metropolitan Museum, N. Y.
1968 Paine Art Center Wisconsin, and nationwide through the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service
2010 Mid America Fine Arts
Associate member of the National Academy of Design
National Academician (full member of the National Academy of Design)
American Watercolor Society
New York Watercolor Club
Allied Artists of America
American Society of Animal Painters and Sculptors
National Arts Club
Guild of American Painters
Philadelphia Society of Etchers
Society of American Etchers
Woodstock Art Association
Benjamin West Clinedist Memorial Medal, Artist's Fellowship, Inc.
Works by the artist may be found at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, The Art Institute of Chicago, Brooklyn Museum, Wichita Art Museum, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
John E. Costigan: A Retrospective Exhibition. Oshkosh, WI: The Paine Art Center and Arboretum, 1968.
Costigan, Daniel M. “J.E. Costigan, N.A.”. costigan.net 2014.
Watson, Ernest William. “John Costigan: the Millet of American Painting.” In Twenty painters and how they work,37-42. New York, Watson-Guptill Publications, 1950.
Falk, Peter Hastings, editor-in chief. Who was who in American art 1564-1975: 400 years of artists in America.Madison, CT: Sound View Press, 1999.
Quick, Michael. Artists by themselves: artists’ portraits from the National Academy of Design. New York, N.Y.: The Academy, 1983.
Lowrey, Carole. A legacy of art: paintings and sculptures by artist life members of the National Arts Club. New York, N.Y.: National Arts Club; Manchester, V.T. : In association with Hudson Hills Press, 2007.
Narodny, Ivan. “ John E. Costigan.” In American Artists, 13-23. New York: Roerich Museum Press, 1930.
Opitz, Glenn B., editor. Mantle Fielding’s dictionary of American painters, sculptors and engravers. Poughkeepsie, NY: Apollo, 1986.
John Edward Costigan (1888-1972) Askart.com. Artists' Bluebook. 2014.