Seton is often described as self-trained. This is largely correct concerning his scientific studies and writing, but it is far from true with respect to his art. He studied under some of the great artists of the day in Toronto, New York, London, and Paris. His study time was interspersed with time spent in Toronto, Manitoba, London, New York City, and Paris.
Informal Lessons and Apprenticeship – Toronto
Seton’s first training in art came from a series of lessons from a neighbor during the summer of 1876 when he was sixteen years old. He then served as an apprentice in the portrait studio of John Colin Forbes for about two years.
Toronto School of Art
Seton enrolled in night classes at the Toronto School of Art (now known as the Ontario College of Art and Design or OCAD). He thrived under the tutelage of the faculty there, especially artist Charlotte Schreiber, with whom he became close. He won the Gold Medal at the close of the 1878-1879 Winter term.
His father was proud of his son’s success and agreed to send him to London to study art.
Royal Academy – London
Upon arriving in London, he aimed to win a seven-year scholarship to the Royal Academy. He spent the first austere months in London preparing for the juried examination. As a minor, he had to petition the Board of Regents of the British Museum to access the museum. The regents included the Prince of Wales and the Archbishop of Canterbury. In December 1880, he won the scholarship but returned to Canada in 1881 due to ill health and poor living conditions. This was likely a major factor in Seton’s increasingly bad relationship with his father.
Seton’s often-told story of receiving an itemized bill from his father was probably inspired by his father expecting to be repaid for his expenditures sending him to London.
The Art Students League of New York
In the 1880s, Seton split his time between Toronto, Carberry, Manitoba, and New York City. In New York, he took classes at the Art Students League in 1884 and spent much time at the American Museum of Natural History, where he met many life-long friends.
In 1890, Seton resumed his formal art education, returning to London and moving on to Paris, where he enrolled at Académie Julian.
Académie Julian in Paris
It was in Paris that Seton painted his masterpieces, The Sleeping Wolf and Awaited in Vain (The Triumph of the Wolves). The Sleeping Wolf was selected for the Salon in 1891. Awaited in Vain was rejected as too grizzly. In her book By a Thousand Fires, Julia M. Seton tells the story of reacquiring The Sleeping Wolf fifty years later. It now hangs in the Seton Gallery at the Academy for the Love of Learning in Santa Fe.
He developed lasting relationships with many of his American classmates at Académie Julian. Among them were Bert Geer Phillips and Ernest Blumenchein, who later founded the Taos Society of Artists. He also befriended the influential painter Robert Henri. Henri was to become one of America’s greatest painters and among its most important art instructors. Henri made many trips in the early 20th century to New Mexico. He was an associate member of the Taos Society of Artists.