Exhibitions: Picturing Place: Francis Guy's Brooklyn, 1820

Francis Guy (American, 1760–1820). Winter Scene in Brooklyn, circa 1819–20. Oil on canvas. Brooklyn Museum, Transferred from the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences to the Brooklyn Museum, 97.13.

Francis Guy: Winter Scene in Brooklyn

Francis Guy (American, 1760–1820). Winter Scene in Brooklyn, circa 1819–20. Oil on canvas. Private Collection.

March 22–June 18, 2006

This exhibition brings together, for the first time in more than 180 years, two scenes of downtown Brooklyn made around 1820 by the important early landscape painter Francis Guy (1760–1820). Representing the bustling village on a winter day, these monumental paintings have become iconic images of early-nineteenth-century Brooklyn. This exhibition, featuring Guy's pictures and a selection of related objects from the Museum's collections, explores the way art constructs the identity of a place through the depiction of its physical appearance and its people.

In his two Winter Scenes, Guy carefully delineated Brooklyn's busy intersections and distinctive architecture, as well as the diversity of its inhabitants. While this reportorial approach suggests a local focus, the paintings participate in broader artistic trends that distinguished American scenery as a source of aesthetic beauty and national pride. Guy's representation of the Brooklyn community comprises a range of professional, social, and ethnic groups and testifies to a Brooklyn that was marked by diversity then, as it is now.

Francis Guy and Brooklyn

Trained as a tailor and silk dyer, Francis Guy immigrated to America from England in 1795. He spent most of the next twenty years in Baltimore, where in 1800, he added landscape painting to his repertoire of skills. Between settling in Brooklyn in 1817 or 1818 and his death in 1820, Guy painted at least five views of his neighborhood from the second-story window of his home. An artist with an entrepreneurial spirit, Guy probably sought to capitalize on both local pride (this area of Brooklyn had been incorporated as a village in 1816) and national interest in American landscape imagery. Guy's two largest and most complex versions are on view here. They depict a section of Front Street between Main and Fulton streets (now under the Brooklyn Bridge). At the time, this was the most developed part of Brooklyn owing to its proximity to the Fulton Ferry dock, Long Island's primary port to Manhattan. Guy's pictures capture the location's vitality: Brooklynites, both human and animal, go about their daily business alongside snow-capped buildings in a variety of architectural styles.

From the time the Museum's Winter Scene in Brooklyn was first exhibited in 1820, observers have marveled at its beautiful atmospheric effects and the striking likenesses of its architecture and people. The painting entered the collection of the fledging Brooklyn Institute (the Museum's forerunner) in 1846 and quickly became a gallery favorite. Both of Guy's pictures were also reproduced in prints and in history books, a phenomenon that secured their aesthetic and documentary value for future generations. Originally, these two Winter Scenes were nearly identical, except for variations in the sky and some of the figural vignettes. In 1881, the Museum's canvas suffered damage from a fire and lost about two feet from its left side. This section is preserved in the other version on view here, as well as in the key, allowing us to appreciate the Museum's original composition.

The American Scene
When Francis Guy completed his Brooklyn scenes, landscape painting was a relatively new phenomenon in American art. During the colonial period, landscapes were uncommon and often depicted idealized subjects drawn from European artistic models rather than from nature. By the end of the eighteenth century, several artists, including Guy, began painting America's distinctive scenery with an eye to topographical accuracy. Their pictures of towns, architectural landmarks, and natural wonders celebrated the young nation's development and material prosperity. Landscape imagery also appeared in prints, books, and on decorative arts objects to meet popular demand for such subject matter—demand that was fueled not only by increased nationalism, but also by a growing tourism industry. With the ascendancy of the Hudson River School in the middle of the nineteenth century, landscape painting became a significant facet of American art.

Brooklyn Identities
A feature that distinguishes Francis Guy's Brooklyn scenes from contemporary townscapes is the strong human dimension. His figures are not merely staffage—anonymous figures subordinated to the setting—but portraits of actual residents, who range in age, occupation, social status, national background, and race. Notably, several African American laborers (some of whom were probably enslaved) occupy prominent positions in the foreground—a testament to their vital role in the region's economy. Guy also alludes to the Dutch heritage of some Brooklynites: Abiel Titus's barnyard, which dominates the center of the composition, resembles the homesteads of early settlers.

Well into the nineteenth century, communities across Long Island still largely retained the rural character of seventeenth-century Dutch settlements—with the exception of Brooklyn. By 1820, Brooklyn had developed into a commercial and manufacturing hub, an urban center with a large and varied population. The objects in this exhibition explore the different identities of the people who made Brooklyn their home.

Picturing Place: Francis Guy's Brooklyn, 1820 was made possible by the American Art Council of the Brooklyn Museum. It was organized by Karen Sherry, Assistant Curator of American Art.

Exhibition Highlights

Alvan Fisher: View of Springfield on the Connecticut River Nicolino V. Calyo: The Butter and Milk Man Kas

Key to Winter Scene