Francis A. Silva has been described by an early biographer as one of the “most sensitive” painters associated with luminism, a style that flourished in American art circles from about 1850 into the 1870s. Indeed, like other major exponents of luminism––notably Fitz Henry Lane, Martin Johnson Heade, and John Frederick Kensett––Silva avoided the grandiose images of untamed wilderness that were associated with the first generation Hudson River School. Instead, he focused his attention on reductive, horizontal compositions featuring quiet waterways and shorelines, seeking to evoke the underlying poetry of nature by means of a heightened realist style and a nuanced handling of light and atmosphere. In Silva’s opinion, a painting that was simply a literal rendering of a particular place was insufficient as a work of art, which should also evoke feelings of peace and tranquility in the viewer. As he put it: “A picture must be more than a skillfully painted canvas;––it must tell something ... many of our artists learn certain artists’ tricks and then repeat them continually, with no idea of the deeper meaning of art, but only of the outside of things” (Francis A. Silva, “American vs. Foreign-American Art,” The Art Union 1 [June–July 1884], pp. 130–31).
Born in New York City, Silva was the eldest son of Francis John Silva, an immigrant barber who plied his trade in Lower Manhattan. According to family lore, Silva’s great-grandfather, François Joseph de Lapierre, had been a French diplomat and politician, while his grandfather (also named François), a boyhood friend of Napoleon, later served in the French army and eventually became a portrait painter in Portugal. Silva himself became interested in art as a young boy, executing ink drawings that he displayed at the annual exhibitions of the American Institute from 1848 to 1850.
Silva began his professional career as an apprentice to a sign painter, going on to specialize in “decorative sign painting and ... historical and landscape subjects [executed] upon the wooden panels of vans, stage coaches, fire engines and the like.". By 1859, he was advertising his services as a “painter” in the city directory. However, like his grandfather, Silva was also drawn to military life: when the Civil War broke out, he enlisted in New York’s Seventh Regiment and later joined Hawkins’s Zouaves (the Ninth New York Voluntary Infantry). Silva quickly rose to the rank of captain, but was dishonorably discharged in 1862, having been accused of desertion. In January of 1865, after it was determined that illness (likely malaria) had caused his absence, Silva was reinstated by General George McClellan. He subsequently worked as a steward in an army hospital in Lynn, Massachusetts, a posting which provided him with an introduction to the New England coast, which would emerge as one of his favorite painting grounds.
In 1867, Silva returned to New York and opened the first of three studios he would maintain on Lower Broadway. By 1870, as John I. H. Baur has pointed out, this talented self-taught artist had developed a repertory of marine subjects and atmospheric effects. Silva made seasonal trips to picturesque locales along the northeastern seaboard, such as Cape Ann, Massachusetts, Boston, and Narragansett, Rhode Island, producing sketches that he would later translate into easel paintings back in his studio. He likewise (especially during the 1870s) ventured to locales that were closer to home, exploring the pictorial potential of the Hudson River at places such as Kingston Point and Tappan Zee, the latter immortalized in such well-known works as The Hudson at the Tappan Zee (1876; Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York).
In 1880, Silva and his family moved to Long Branch, New Jersey, although he continued to maintain a studio at 11 East 14th Street in New York until 1882, when he acquired workspace in the legendary Tenth Street Studio Building. During these years, Silva traveled less frequently, devoting most of his time to portraying locales along the Jersey Shore, such as Monmouth Beach and Sandy Hook. He continued to paint sunset and shipwreck scenes for the remainder of his career.
Silva exhibited his work at the annual exhibitions of the National Academy of Design from 1868 to 1886, attracting patronage from collectors drawn to serene, almost dream-like images that provided solace from the increasing hustle and bustle of life in the city. He was also a contributor to the exhibitions of the Brooklyn Art Association. In addition to his activity as an easel painter, Silva was a highly accomplished watercolorist. One of the first artists of his generation to approach the medium seriously, he exhibited his aquarelles at the American Watercolor Society, where he was elected a member in 1872. A year later, he became a member of the recently established Artist Fund Society.
Unfortunately, Silva’s career was cut short when he died of double pneumonia on March 31, 1886, while visiting a friend on Waverly Street in New York. His reputation quickly slipped into obscurity; his conservative style eclipsed by the new taste for Impressionism. However, in the wake of Baur’s 1980 article on Silva, interest in this gifted artist was revived. A painter with a deep reverence for nature, Silva has since emerged as an important exponent of luminism, as well as a leading figure in the tradition of American marine painting of the late 19th century.