Features: Walt Whitman and the Arts in Brooklyn

Art and Industry

Porcelain pitcher

Walt Whitman's interests embraced a wide spectrum, including painting, photography, ancient Egypt, and the decorative arts. In an 1857 editorial for the Brooklyn Daily Times, he wrote about visiting porcelain manufacturing factories in Greenpoint, Brooklyn:

In due time a Mr. Cartlidge, an Englishman we believe, and still a resident of this Island, conceived that great things would yet be accomplished with the mixture of clay, bone and feldspar, now so extensively used in so many different shapes, under the name of Porcelain. Through his exertions, a stock company was formed, and commenced operations in Greenpoint, under the name of the "American Porcelain Works". . . . We found it to be a large, rambling, three-story building, covering with its kiln-yards and surroundings, a large space of ground.
. . .The tables all around, we found loaded with articles in a state of completion. There were some half dozen costly and richly ornamented "presentation pitchers" intended for various societies, the least of which was capable of holding a pail of water, and these were among the most conspicuous objects. [20]

Depiction of United States Sanitary Commission Fair

Although Whitman had since moved elsewhere, he visited Brooklyn several times in the 1860s and 1870s and continued to follow the Brooklyn art scene. Based on his documented interest in the Civil War, it is fairly certain that Whitman visited the United States Sanitary Commission Fair held at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1864, then located on Montague Street. The fair raised money to provide goods and services to the Civil War soldiers in the field and in the hospital. Whitman, whose brother George served in the war, wrote often about the conflict and its soldiers.

Portrait of elderly Whitman

Walt Whitman felt such a strong connection to the visual arts that in one poem, entitled Pictures, he compared his mind to an exhibition space:

In a little house pictures I keep,

Many pictures hang suspended—

It is not a fixed house,

It is round—it is but a few inches from one side of it to the other side, . . .

And there, on the walls hanging, portraits of

women and men, carefully kept . . .

This is a beautiful statue, long lost, dark buried,

but never destroyed—now found by me,

and restored to the light; . . .

For all those have I in a round house hanging—such pictures have I—and they are but little,

For wherever I have been, has afforded me superb pictures,

And whatever I have heard has given me perfect pictures,

And every hour of the day and night has given with me copious pictures,

And every rod of land or sea affords me,

as long as I live, inimitable pictures. [21]