Features: Walt Whitman and the Arts in Brooklyn

Whitman and American Art

The Brooklyn Institute

By 1842, the Brooklyn Institute had opened its first art exhibition and had developed plans to establish a permanent gallery showcasing the work of American and European artists. In 1846, Walt Whitman became editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Brooklyn's main daily newspaper covering national and international affairs as well as local events. Whitman expanded the scope of the newspaper by publishing frequent reviews of art exhibitions, including the following description of a visit to the Brooklyn Institute:

We went into the Institute rooms . . . to take 'a last fond look' at the pictures—(which we blame ourselves much for not having noticed more fully before.) If we may flatter ourself that our readers remember any length of time what sentiments we advance in these columns, they must be aware that we 'go' heartily for all the rational refinements and rose-colorings of life—such as music, mirth, works of art, genial kindness, and so forth. We wish every mechanic and laboring man and woman in Brooklyn would have some such adornment to his or her abode—however humble that abode may be—a print hung on the wall. . . . We commend these Exhibitions—and hope the spirit which prompts them will increase and multiply in Brooklyn. We wish some plan could be formed which would result in a perpetual free exhibition of works of art here, which would be open to all classes. [6]

A year later, Whitman spoke highly of the Institute's work:

This truly valuable institution is now about to commence its usual career of usefulness during the winter months. Being decidedly the most interesting feature of Brooklyn life, it has so insinuated itself in the affections of a large class of our citizens that its absence would create a blank much to be deplored. For this, thanks to the assiduity and unselfishness of a comparatively small number of gentlemen, of whom Brooklyn ought to be proud. . . . Though we do not value highly the specimens to be exhibited as a collection, there are in it nevertheless some pieces which are perfect gems of art. Doughty, the prince of landscapists, has two of his exquisite productions; one of which was exhibited a year or two since in the Louvre at Paris. [7]

Thomas Doughty: Landscape after Ruisdael

While probably not the exact work mentioned by Whitman in the previous excerpt, this painting is an example of Thomas Doughty's work from the time. In another article, Whitman again mentioned the Brooklyn Institute's efforts:

The directors of the Brooklyn Institute have presented the public a very rational treat in the shape of an exhibition of paintings, and have culled from various sources some highly creditable specimens of the limning art. Our Brooklyn artists are well represented as they ought to be, and we find on the catalogue the names of Frothingham, Oddie, Havel, Powers, Gignouox. . . . In addition we find three splendid pictures by the best of American landscape painters—we allude to Doughty, whose name is as high abroad as it is at home. [8]

George Catlin: The Author Painting a Chief at the Base of the Rocky Mountains

Whitman believed art could be a source of moral and spiritual inspiration for the masses, as well as a powerful force to reform American society. He viewed American art in particular as a way to present a democratic society, as opposed to the more aristocratic world depicted in European painting. Whitman was interested in both genre painting—such as the work of his friend William Sydney Mount—and the landscapes painted by the artists of the Hudson River School. In Leaves of Grass, he referred to natural phenomena such as light and space and the geography of America, a common subject among the Hudson River School of painters. Whitman also appreciated American historical portraiture, as evidenced by an article that appeared in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on July 22, 1846. Whitman was concerned that a series of paintings by George Catlin then on view at the Louvre Museum in Paris would be sold to a European institution or collector:

More than forty of our Indian tribes are represented in this collection; and the extraordinary genius and enthusiasm of Mr. Catlin impelled him . . . to devote eight years . . . to secure faithful and spirited representations of their persons, costumes, manners, ceremonies and the scenes in which they live. His chief ambition now is to see his works protected by the government, and to enlarge and complete them, in memory of a powerful race, who once owned the soil we cultivate, in honor to his country, and to the art that he has cultivated with such eminent success
. . . we fear unless Government act promptly, we shall never again have the opportunity of restoring to our country these paintings and memorials, so emphatically American, and of such decided importance to Art and to our national History. [9]

Whitman frequently wrote in support of the Brooklyn Art Union, an organization modeled after the New York American Art Union whose goal was to stimulate interest in American subjects produced by American artists. In an 1851 address to the organization, entitled "Art and Artists," Whitman demonstrated his faith in the power of art:

It is the glorious province of Art, and of all Artists worthy the name, to disentangle from whatever obstructs it, and nourish in the heart of man, the germ of the perception of the truly great, the beautiful and the simple. . . . To the artist, I say, has been given the command to go forth into all the world and preach the gospel of beauty.

. . . . As there can be no true Artist, without a glowing thought for freedom, so freedom pays the artist back again many fold, and under her umbrage Art must sooner or later tower to its loftiest and most perfect proportions. [10]

By the 1850s, Brooklyn was a thriving independent city with many cultural institutions. In addition to the Brooklyn Art Union, organizations such as the Brooklyn Sketch Club (1857), the Graham Art School (circa 1858), and the Brooklyn Art Association (1861) were dedicated to the creation and presentation of art. Whitman wrote about numerous exhibitions and artworks that he saw at these institutions.

Daniel Huntington: William Cullen Bryant

Whitman's many friendships with artists and other writers enhanced his interest in the visual arts. One notable friend was William Cullen Bryant, who published articles by Whitman in his newspaper the New York Evening Post. Bryant, also a poet, served as president of New York's American Art Union in the 1840s.

Walter Libbey: Self-Portrait

Whitman also encouraged young artists, including Walter Libbey (1827–1852), a portrait painter in Brooklyn. The following passage illustrates Whitman's support:

Though the collection of paintings of the Brooklyn Art Union, now open, includes none approaching the highest order of merit, it is nevertheless a very agreeable collection, and contains some works of taste and talent. The association is composed mostly of young artists. . . . This thing of encouragement, 'specially of encouragement to the younger race of artists, commends the Brooklyn Art Union to the good will and patronage of the public. . . . One of the most promising of these is Walter Libbey: the reader may have noticed some of his pictures in the exhibitions of the Academy or the New York Art Union. [11]

William Sydney Mount: Caught Napping (Boys Caught Napping in a Field)

Whitman compared a work by Libbey to a painting by his friend William Sydney Mount:

I returned, the other day, after looking at Mount's last work . . . and though it certainly is a fine and spirited thing, if I were to choose between the two, the one to hang up in my room for my own gratification, I should take the boy with his flute (by Walter Libbey). This, too, to my notion, has a character of Americanism about it. Abroad, a similar subject would show the boy as handsome, perhaps, but he would be a young boor, and nothing more. The stamp of class is, in this way, upon all the fine scenes of the European painters, where the subjects are of a proper kind; while in this boy of Walter Libbey's, there is nothing to prevent his becoming a President, or even an editor of a leading newspaper. [12]

Candelabrum designed by Cornelius & Co. of Philadelphia, 1853

In addition to galleries and institutions, Whitman attended popular events such as the Crystal Palace Exhibition (1853–4), held in New York at what is now Bryant Park. Whitman wrote several articles about the exhibition, which showcased art and products manufactured in America and Europe. One such article, entitled "Grand Buildings in New York City," appeared in the Brooklyn Daily Times on June 5, 1857, and included the following commentary:

The Crystal Palace . . . certainly unsurpassed anywhere for beauty and all the other requisites of a perfect edifice
. . . an original, esthetic, perfectly proportioned American edifice. [13]

Engraving of Walt Whitman

Whitman's artistic circle included the photographer Gabriel Harrison, who worked to raise the status of photography as an art form. Harrison wrote for the Photographic Art Journal and opened a studio on Fulton Street in Brooklyn in 1852. He was also an actor, a curator, and a painter who taught at the Brooklyn Art Association. Harrison took the photograph of Whitman that was used to produce the engraving for the frontispiece of the first edition of Leaves of Grass. The photograph, in the form of a daguerreotype, served as an analog to the self-presentation and self-portraiture that were key themes in Whitman's writings.