Destination Paintings . . . as Featured on Sunday Arts

In planning our spots for Channel 13, we faced the challenge of choosing two particularly engaging paintings from among the many works on view objects in our American Art galleries. We often select groups of works for inclusion in the tours we give to students and adult visitors, but there is usually some sort of thread—historical, thematic, or artistic—that links them together. In choosing single works, we think more about which objects have come to represent the entire collection. And in the case of the Museum’s pre-1945 American paintings, two works instantly come to mind. Each has come to represent the American art collection, even though one was acquired in 1846, and the other entered the collection more than one hundred years later . . . .

Francis Guy’s “Winter Scene” was painted about 1819, and made its exhibition debut in Manhattan in 1820. Viewers were bowled over to see such a remarkably accurate “portrait” of a locale that was familiar to many of them. Guy had painted this townscape of Brooklyn’s one-time center from the vantage point of his rented rooms on Front Street, and he included actual physical features of the place as well as the likenesses of many of the area’s most prominent inhabitants. In shaping the scene, he probably intended to contrast the old-fashioned barnyard that occupies the center of the image, with more the stylish residences of the more affluent residents at the far left of the scene—the latter component sadly was lost when the painting was damaged in a fire in 1881, and the left-hand edge was cut away.

The Brooklyn Museum’s predecessor, the Brooklyn Institute, held a series of important art exhibitions, featuring hundreds of works, in the 1840s, and Guy’s “Winter Scene” was prominently exhibited in two of them. Among the visitors who marveled at the picture was the young Walt Whitman, then the vocal editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and an active advocate for the arts in Brooklyn. In his review of the 1846 exhibition, Whitman called attention to the work’s power to suggest to present and future viewers how rapidly and completely this once rural village had changed: “. . . few things will be able to bring before the next race the fact how rapidly Brooklyn has ‘went’ in the progress of improvement, more fully than this well-delineated picture.” Whitman’s comments and a number of popular prints based on the painting guaranteed its public profile. Interestingly enough, when the new Brooklyn Museum building was opened to the public in 1897, “Winter Scene” once again occupied a prominent position, although not in the primary galleries of American and European paintings on the fifth floor; the early American portraits, and what were described as American “landscapes of great historical value,” were installed near the entryway on the third floor. The segregation of what was considered at the time to be “antiquarian” material from “contemporary” turn-of-the-century art was typical of many young American art institutions. Even after Brooklyn dedicated separate American art galleries in 1907, the “historical” works were exhibited separately from the modern American paintings.

Today, a wide array of the Museum’s American paintings is on view in the American galleries, grouped in a sequence of themes rather than by strict chronology. Guy’s “Winter Scene” is the focal object in our introductory gallery, which is entirely Brooklyn-centric. In reorganizing these galleries in 2001, our goal was to use this space to introduce viewers to the art-life that has existed in Brooklyn for centuries. Every object in this space has something to do with Brooklyn—Brooklyn as a longtime center of manufacturing, of creative expression, and of collecting, and Brooklyn as subject. A broad spectrum of New Yorkers, and visitors from much farther afield, still marvel at Guy’s townscape, as they consider how vastly different the Brooklyn environment is today.

Over the course of the 20th century, American collectors and museums became increasingly more interested in collecting 18th and 19th-century American art. Brooklyn was among the leaders in this direction in the teens, when the Museum actively purchased and exhibited colonial and Federal era portraits. American landscape painting surprisingly lagged in the revival of interest in pre-Modern American art. It was not until the 1930s that a germ of interest began to develop—in part out of a renewed Nativism in the Depression era, and a concerted effort to establish the independence of American art from European influence. Interest in Hudson River School landscapes grew steadily during the mid-20th century; most of the museum’s best Hudson River pictures were purchased during this period, beginning in the 1950s. The collecting market was most dramatically boosted, however, by the build-up toward and the celebration of the American Bicentennial of 1976. It was in 1976 that the Brooklyn Museum purchased its monumental Bierstadt painting, “Storm in the Rocky Mountains, Mount Rosalie”. Since entering the Museum’s collection, this painting has captured the interest and imaginations of thousands of visitors to the museum, owing to the impact of its size, and the dramatic nature of the artist’s portrayal of the American West. Bierstadt based it on his own expedition to the Colorado Rockies in 1863, and conceived the final canvas as a blockbuster that would introduce the remote western landscape that few individuals had experienced into the consciousness of largely urban audiences in America and Europe.That a painting as large and well-publicized as this one fell off the radar screen by the early 20th century had to do in part with the fact that it was purchased immediately by the Englishman Thomas William Kennard, a civil engineer who had presided over the building of the Atlantic and Great Western Railway in the United States. At the outset of the revival of interest in 19th -century American landscape art, preference was given to artists who were considered to have been less reliant on European landscape models. Since Bierstadt was associated so closely with the German Dusseldorf school, his work initially lagged in popularity. By the 1970s, however, when art historians began to revalue work by foreign-trained Americans, Bierstadt’s reputation was gradually revived.”Storm in the Rocky Mountains, Mount Rosalie” remained officially “unlocated” for almost ninety years—even reported by some sources to have been destroyed by fire. After Kennard’s death in 1896, it entered the inventory of a London dealer and resurfaced only in 1974. Today, Bierstadt’s grand canvas speaks to innumerable viewers who are captivated the artist’s vision of the West despite their own broader familiarity with the region it recorded. Most people gravitate toward this painting even while understanding the hyperbole of Bierstadt’s composition—a composite of various landscape elements in a super-sized view, animated by theatrical atmospheric and light effects. The painting still conveys the natural force and resources that were directly associated throughout the late-nineteenth century with the might and rising potential that the United States would bring to bear on the world stage. For contemporary viewers, it also presents a nostalgic vision of an unspoiled place, just as Guy’s “Winter Scene” allows us to time travel nearly two hundred years into the past.

It is the power of both of these pictures to make us pause and look that has made them among the popular favorites on view in “American Identities: A New Look“.