Seymour Joseph Guy was born and raised in Greenwich, England in 1824. Both his parents died while he was still a child and he was placed in the care of a guardian. He developed an early interest in art and was fond of painting dogs and horses. At the age of thirteen, he first expressed a desire to become an artist, at the displeasure of his guardian. Not dissuaded, Guy took up sign painting and earned enough money to buy the supplies to continue his art training. It is also believed that in the 1830s he studied with marine painter Thomas Buttersworth, who was a resident of Greenwich and had a successful career as a painter of ships and coastal scenes.
Around 1839, Seymour Guy began a seven year apprenticeship in the oil and color trade. This experience taught him how to mix pigments and prepare binders. The experience led Guy to grind and mix pigments for his own work. By 1845, he received the money from his parent’s estate. This was also close to the time his guardian passed away and his apprenticeship was over. Seymour Guy finally had the freedom and means to pursue his training to become an artist. He turned down an opportunity to study at the Royal Academy in London and instead decided to study on his own at the British Museum. A friend helped him obtain the necessary permit to set up his easel and copy paintings in the galleries. Guy decided to supplement his experience at the museum by joining the studio of the painter Ambrosini Jerôme. For appoximetly four years, he spent several days a week with Jerôme. Under Jerôme’s tutelage, Seymour Guy focused on whatever brought in money; portraiture, designs for naval basins and other projects.
In 1854, Guy and his family immigrated to New York and settling in Brooklyn. He had a studio in the Dodworth Building on Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights, which housed the studios of a number of the city’s leading artists. He also became close friends with the English-born genre painter, John George Brown. During their years together in Brooklyn, Guy and Brown gravitated toward artists and collectors of British heritage. They formed close friendships with the Scottish-born collector and amateur artist John M. Falconer and the English-born collector and restaurateur John Campion Force. Seymour Guy began to paint genre scenes of children about 1861. During this year, he also became one of the founding members of the Brooklyn Art Association and was named an associate of the National Academy the following year. As is typical of his genre paintings, the surface of the picture is marked by a smooth, glossy, enamel-like surface. Colors are carefully blended and fused, and brushstrokes are invisible.
By 1863, Guy and Brown moved their studios into the Tenth Street Studio Building in Manhattan. Many prominent artists resided there during the course of Guy’s forty-seven year occupancy including Sanford Robinson Gifford, Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Edwin Church, and William Merritt Chase.
In 1873 Seymour Guy received the most important and controversial commission of his career, a portrait of William Henry Vanderbilt and his family posed in the drawing room of their home in New York as they prepare to go out to the opera. Vanderbilt had become fond of Guy during the course of his frequent visits to the Tenth Street Studio Building, where he acquired genre paintings by Guy, Brown, and other artist tenants. Going to the Opera was displayed at the 1874 annual exhibition of the National Academy of Design, where it attracted great crowds because of its representation of members of such a prominent family, but received a generally poor reception from the art critics. Following the exhibition of Going to the Opera, Guy devoted most of his attention for the next decade to creating generally small domestic genre scenes. He never again created a work on the scale and ambition of the Vanderbilt picture. During the 1880s, he returned to creating portraits on a regular basis and also developed an interest in painting ideal heads, sometimes portraying a woman in a picturesque setting or out being entertained. His paintings were esteemed by his fellow artists and by important collectors of American art. With the emergence of a younger generation of European-trained artists in the 1880s, Seymour Guy’s smoothly polished scenes of childhood began to fall out of fashion.
By the time of his death in 1910, Seymour Guy was almost completely forgotten as an artist. During the last decade of his life he seems to have served as something of an elder statesman to younger artists interested in increasing their knowledge about the art and craft of painting. Today he is known as one of the most beloved genre painters of the nineteenth century. His works may be seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum of Art, New-York Historical Society, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.