Francis Guy’s images of downtown Brooklyn on a winter day are replete with realistic details and charming vignettes—features that have captivated viewers since the paintings’ creation. Many of the buildings and individuals can be identified through period descriptions and the key.
At the far left (section lost in Museum’s painting), Augustus Graham (no. 20), a businessman and future founder of the Museum, converses with his neighbor Joshua Sands (no. 21) in front of Graham’s new brick town house (no. 15). The white building on the opposite corner is Benjamin Meeker’s carpenter shop (no. 10). Meeker himself appears nearby holding a pole and carpenter’s square (no. 27) and talking with Judge John Garrison (no. 28). Occupying the center of the compositions is the “Dutch-style” barnyard and slaughterhouse of Abiel Titus (no. 9), who feeds his chickens in the gateway (no. 31). The large yellow structure at the right is Thomas Birdsall’s home, hardware store, and post office (no. 1) with Sam Foster, an African American chimney sweep, peeping out of a chimney (no. 35, in the Museum picture only). Some of the unidentified figures include the men who work with the piles of wood and coal in the foreground, and a boy who has slipped on the ice near the water pump.
One of the most impressive furnishings in elite Dutch homes was the kas, a large storage cupboard. It is believed that this Baroque-style example was imported to New York in the seventeenth century, possibly by François Rombout (d. 1691). An immigrant from Hasselt (now in Belgium), Rombout became a successful merchant and served as mayor of New York in 1679. After dying out in Europe, the kas form persisted in America for at least another century, a sign of the enduring Dutch heritage of the New York region.
The Italian-born Nicolino Calyo settled in New York City in the 1830s, where he made a series of images of local tradespeople. African Americans played a crucial role in the economies of New York and Brooklyn, typically working as street vendors, chimney sweeps, domestic servants, farmhands, and dockworkers. Prior to 1827, when slavery was abolished in New York State, the black labor force included enslaved and free individuals (a system of gradual emancipation was enacted in 1799). In 1790, 40 percent of households in Kings County owned slaves—the highest percentage in the nation. By 1820, the county had a population of 9,821 whites, 882 enslaved blacks, and 879 free blacks. Some of the African Americans depicted in Francis Guy’s paintings of Brooklyn were probably enslaved, while several of the white residents were slaveholders.
In art of this period, African Americans regularly appear as stereotypes, performing manual labor or providing comic relief (note the boy who has fallen on the ice in front of the water pump in Guy’s paintings). Such imagery, consistent with racial prejudices of the day, ignores the myriad contributions and vital community lives of blacks. In Brooklyn African Americans established the African School in 1815 and the African Wesleyan Methodist Episcopal Church (later Bridge Street Church) in 1819, which served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. By the time of Calyo’s painting, Brooklyn’s historic independent black community, Weeksville, had also been founded.
Alvan Fisher’s bucolic view of Springfield, Massachusetts, from across the Connecticut River typifies the kind of landscapes that were popular in the period. It describes a specific locale—note the steepled First Church on the far bank—using the well-known artistic vocabulary of the “Claudian” landscape. Based on the widely emulated works of the seventeenth-century French painter Claude Lorrain, this compositional format is an ordered progression from the dark foreground stage framed by trees to the well-lit body of water in the middle ground to hazy hills in the background.
Picturing Place: Francis Guy’s Brooklyn, 1820
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.
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.