From the Schuylkill to the Hudson: Landscapes of the Early Republic
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
June 28–December 29, 2019
Reviewed by Ed Voves
Original photos by Anne Lloyd
'"Thus in the beginning all the World was America."
This often-quoted statement by John Locke in his Second Treatise of Government (published in 1689) is acutely relevant to an outstanding exhibition on the birth of landscape art in the United States. This splendid, beautifully-mounted exhibit recently opened at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia (PAFA).
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)
Gallery views of the From the Schuylkill to the Hudson: Landscapes of the Early Republic exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
Locke commented on the way that human beings originally lived in a state of nature. He contrasted this primal life-style with habitation in a civil society based on legal codes enforced by the rule of political authority.
A century later, after the English-speaking colonists had asserted political independence from Britain, their relationship to the natural world became a matter of great importance. The Patriots having won the War of Independence, "America" was now theirs to "make use of it to the best advantage of Life, and convenience."
Charles Thomson, secretary of the Continental Congress, proposed in 1782 that a quote from the Roman poet Virgil be modified to appear on the Great Seal of the United States, Novus Ordo Seclorum. The motion passed but the idea of "a New Order of the Ages" no longer corresponded to Locke's conception of "America" as a virgin wilderness. After a century of using the lands along the Atlantic seaboard for "the Support and Comfort of their being," few Americans now lived in a "state" of nature.
In 1790, George Washington and the freshly-minted United States Government launched into the serious business of nation-building. The U.S. capital was the most-populous and centrally-located of America's cities, Philadelphia. As Washington's administration and the First Congress wrestled with the many problems facing the fledgling nation, Philadelphia-based artists addressed the challenges of visually representing "a New Order of the Ages" for their country.
This crucial moment in the history of the United States is where the PAFA exhibition comes in. The exhibit has a rather unusual name (which we will discuss) but it really is vital to think of it in terms of the birth of landscape art in the U.S and of the cultural identity crisis which occurred during the 1820's and 1830's.
The PAFA exhibition is entitled From the Schuylkill to the Hudson: Landscapes of the Early Republic. The Hudson River, because of its relation to New York City, is well-known, but what or where is the Schuylkill?
Pierre Varlé, Plan of the City and Its Environs, 1798
This map of Philadelphia shows the grid of the city between the shallow, meandering Schuylkill River on the left and the deep-water Delaware on the right.
The Schuylkill is one of two rivers which flow around the central and oldest part of Philadelphia. Schuylkill means "hidden creek," a name conferred on it by Dutch explorers in the 1600's. Unlike the much larger Delaware River, the Schuylkill is a shallow stream, limiting its use by ocean-going ships. To make the Schuylkill more usable for "the Support and Comfort of their being," Philadelphians tried a number of economic strategies like the use of steamboats and the digging of one of the first canals in the U.S., opened in 1825.
Philadelphia's claim to greatness during the early 1800's, once the political capital had moved to Washington D.C., was the Fairmount Water Works.
Designed in 1812, the Fairmount Water Works consisted of a pumping station and reservoir to supply the city with fresh water from the Schuylkill. Ironically, this impressive facility was conceived and approved on the mistaken assumption that the devastating 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic, which killed half of Philadelphia's population, had been caused by polluted water. Mosquitoes were the real culprit, but the "Watering Committee" had indeed acted wisely. Even Charles Dickens, no great admirer of Americans, was impressed with the Fairmount Water Works when he visited the United States in 1842.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Detail of Thomas Birch's Fairmount Water Works, 1821
The stately, neoclassical edifice of the Fairmount Water Works became so famous that the image was used to decorate Chinese export porcelain, made for the U.S. market.
Unknown artist (China), Cup and Saucer showing the Philadelphia Water Works, 1825
The image of "American" nature which the early Philadelphia artists used time-and-again was one of "progress" and utility, as well as charm and beauty. Philadelphia's merchant elite built country homes on the banks of the Schuylkill and the Delaware where they could watch the movement of their steamboats and coal-laden canal barges.
To give them credit, Philadelphia's "movers and shakers" devoted a considerable amount of effort and money on the arts. The redoubtable Peale brothers, Charles and James, played a dual role as major portrait painters and civic leaders. Not only did the Peales paint the proud "face" of America's prominent leaders and citizens, they also depicted the countryside of the new American nation as we can see in the setting of this family portrait by James Peale.
James Peale, The Artist and His Family, 1795
The Peale brothers were leaders in the founding in 1805 of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The first art school in the U.S., PAFA provided budding artists with the skills to paint or sculpt images of "progress" for the new Republic.
What should have been a straightforward American success story quickly became rather complicated. For one thing, most of the painters involved in the Philadelphia-based landscape movement were named Thomas: Thomas Birch, Thomas Doughty, Thomas Cole and Thomas Moran.
The real wrinkle in this story is the fact that three of these artists named "Thomas" were born in England. A number of early America's leading artists like Benjamin West and John Singleton Copley had traveled to Britain around the time of the Revolution, never to return. These young British-born artists looked to the New World to make their fortune.
Thomas Birch's panoramic view of the Fairmount Water Works and the Schuylkill River is perhaps the greatest of the "landscapes of progress" which preoccupied American artists during the early 1800's. Birch painted this exceptional landscape in 1821, epitomizing the virtue and hard work needed to create the Novus Ordo Seclorum in America.
Thomas Birch, Fairmount Water Works, 1821
America had plenty of "sublime" of its own. Upstream of the Fairmount Water Works was the "Falls of the Schuylkill" and for those willing to venture into the frontier region of the U.S. there was the breath-taking Niagara Falls. Already famous from drawings made by British military engineers during the 1700's, Niagara with its awesome, cascading streams of water began nudging the Fairmount Water Works off the sketch-books and easels of American artists.
William Russell Birch, Falls of Niagara, 1827
"Stay-at-homes" could also savor the sublime with views of Niagara Falls on their dinnerware as with this magnificent lead-glazed earthenware serving dish. It was made by the British firm, William Adams and Sons, at some point between 1834 to 1850.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)
William Adams & Sons Factory & Thomas Cole, The Falls of Niagara, U.S., 1834-1850
The image on the Adams and Sons serving dish was based on a painting by Thomas Cole (1801-1848). Born in Lancashire, Cole came to America in 1817. His family's fortune had been ruined in an economic downturn in England. Though largely self-taught, Cole did study for a time at PAFA from 1823 to 1825. He then departed for an extensive sketching and painting tour of New York state, at that time still heavily-forested and sparsely populated. It was Cole who made the definitive turn in U.S. art from "Arcadia" inspired landscapes to the rugged, authentic American scene of the Hudson River School.
That is the canonical version of U.S. art history. A major exhibition in 2018, presented by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery in London, examined Cole's decisive contributions to American culture. Thomas Cole's Journey: Atlantic Crossings also investigated the influence of J.M.W. Turner, John Constable and other leading British artists upon Cole when he returned to Britain for a study-visit in 1827. Atlantic Crossings was a wonderful exhibit - but did not address in any detail the early formative contributions of the Philadelphia art scene to Cole's success.
That the "Schuylkill River School" laid the foundation of the more famous Hudson River School is the theme of the PAFA exhibition. It would be incorrect, however, to assume that PAFA's From the Schuylkill to the Hudson was planned as a rebuttal to Atlantic Crossings at the Met. Exhibitions take many years to plan. For over a decade, Dr. Anna O. Marley, PAFA's Curator of Historical American Art, has been studying the origins of American landscape art, dating back well before 1800.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)
Dr. Anna O. Marley, PAFA's Curator of Historical American Art. Dr. Marley stands next to Thomas Birch’s The Residence of James Craig, Bristol, Pennsylvania, ca.1820-21
No less an authority than Thomas Cole would have agreed with Dr. Marley on the accomplishments and example of the Philadelphia-based landscape artists. Speaking later in his life to the art historian, William Dunlap, Cole said as a young artist that "his heart sunk as he felt his deficiencies in art when standing before the landscapes of Birch."
Cole more than made-up for his "deficiencies." He became a national cultural figure and that is how we should view the rise of landscape painting in the early Republic. This was not an either/or process, Philadelphia vs. New York. The artists involved, whether the many "Thomases" or John Lewis Krimmel, Joshua Shaw, Russell Smith and Asher Durand, all had one objective. It was to discover and accurately depict the authentic American landscape.
The key discovery was the need to go back to primal nature, Locke's "America," or as close as the artists could reach. It did not matter whether they were members of a Schuylkill River School or a Hudson River School. Their paintings played a leading role in a national trend. Beginning In the 1820's, Americans began to search for their identity in art, literature, religion and philosophy. James Fenimore Cooper, after writing dull English-style novels, dropped this derivative format, selecting American frontier history as the subject for his immortal "Leatherstocking" tales.
Jacob Eichholtz, Conestoga Creek and Lancaster, 1833
Albert Bierstadt, Niagara, 1869
Cooper was writing The Last of the Mohicans in 1825, the year that Cole first traveled up the Hudson. The Pennsylvania-born Jacob Eichholtz (1776-1842) and the German-born Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) followed Cooper and Cole to the "backcountry" for the same purpose. All sought to discover the real America and the true meaning of American life.
It is delightful to be able to report that this journey of discovery continues with From the Schuylkill to the Hudson at PAFA.
Most of the works of art on view in the exhibition come from PAFA's extensive collection. Dr. Marley conducted a thorough audit of PAFA's paintings from the 1800's and came across a magnificent mid-nineteenth century landscape which had been forgotten or overlooked for decades. Research showed that the painting had quite a tale to tell, directly relevant to the theme of From the Schuylkill to the Hudson.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Paul Weber’s Landscape: Evening, 1856
The huge oil-on-canvas was entitled Landscape: Evening. A now obscure German artist, Paul Weber (1823-1916), had created this masterpiece in 1856. It is a tour-de-force depiction of the American wilderness and was so-regarded during the 1850's. A subscription was taken among Philadelphia's art lovers to purchase the painting for PAFA.
Who was this virtually unknown painter? Gottlieb Daniel Paul Weber had fled Germany after the 1848 democratic revolutions in Western Europe had been crushed by military forces. He emigrated to the U.S., settling in Philadelphia. He exhibited widely throughout the U.S. and won the Silver Medal from PAFA in 1858.
Weber was also an influential teacher. Two of the greatest American landscape painters of the 1800's, William Trost Richards and William Stanley Haseltine, studied with Weber. Both are now relatively forgotten, as is Weber.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Detail of Paul Weber’s Landscape: Evening
Landscape: Evening is a revelation. This is not only a technical marvel, as can be seen in the incredible way that Weber handled the golden glow of the setting sun on the topmost branches of the trees. More significantly, Weber transformed a relatively undistinguished patch of woodland into a setting for profound meditation on the mysteries of creation, the cosmos, the passage of time.
There are no landmark features of nature here or man-made monuments, no Niagara Falls or Fairmount Water Works, to distract your attention. It's just you and God.
With this rediscovered masterpiece, Paul Weber places each of us in that much-discussed realm, the state of nature, where "in the beginning all the World was America."
Text: Copyright of Ed Voves. Original Photos: Anne Lloyd. All rights reserved
Images courtesy of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Detail of Thomas Birch's Fairmount Water Works, 1821. Oil on canvas: 20 1/8 x 30 1/16 in. (51.1175 x 76.35875 cm.) Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts collection. #: 1845.1. Bequest of Charles Graff.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Joshua Shaw’s Landscape with Farmhouse and Castle, 1818. Oil on canvas: 15 1/4 x 21 1/2 in. (38.7 x 54.6 cm.) Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts collection, #1879.8.21. Bequest of Henry C. Carey (The Carey Collection).
Pierre Varlé. Plan of the City and Its Environs, 1798. Watercolor on paper: 18 x 20 in. (45.72 x 50.8 cm.) Private collection, Chestnut Hill
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Detail of Thomas Birch's Fairmount Water Works, 1821.
Artist/maker unknown, Chinese, for export to the American market. Cup and Saucer showing the Philadelphia Waterworks,1825. Hard-paste porcelain with cobalt underglaze decoration and gilt cup: 2 5/8 x 4 3/8 x 3 5/8 in. (6.6675 x 11.1125 x 9.2075 cm.); saucer: 1 1/8 x 5 1/2 in. (2.8575 x 13.97 cm.) Philadelphia Museum of Art
James Peale, (1749 -1831) The Artist and His Family, 1795.Oil on canvas: 31 1/4 x 32 3/4 in. (79.4 x 83.2 cm.) Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts collection, #1922.1.1. Gift of John Frederick Lewis, 1922.1.1.
Thomas Birch, (1779-1851) Fairmount Water Works, 1821. Oil on canvas: 20 1/8 x 30 1/16 in. (51.1175 x 76.35875 cm.) Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts collection, #1845.1. Bequest of Charles Graff.
William Russell Birch, (1755-1834) Falls of Niagara, 1827. Enamel on copper: 2 1/2 x 2 1/4 in. (6.4 x 5.7 cm.) Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts collection, #1860.1. Bequest of Eliza Howard Burd.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) William Adams and Sons Factory & Thomas Cole, The Falls of Niagara, U.S., 1834-1850. Earthenware (white) and lead glaze 1 11/16 x 19 7/8 x 16 3/8 in. (4.318 x 50.546 x 41.656 cm.) Winterthur Museum, Bequest of Henry Francis du Pont
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Dr. Anna O. Marley, Curator of Historical American Art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Dr. Marley stands next to Thomas Birch’s The Residence of James Craig, Bristol, Pennsylvania, as seen from the Delaware River, ca. 1820-21, PAFA collection.
Albert Bierstadt, (1830-1902) Niagara, 1869.Oil on paper laid down on canvas: 19 x 27 in. (48.26 x 68.58 cm.) Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts collection, #2015.18. Joseph E. Temple Fund.
Jacob Eichholtz, (1776-1842) Conestoga Creek and Lancaster, 1833. Oil on canvas: 20 1/4 x 30 1/4 in. (51.4 x 76.8 cm.) Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts collection, #1961.8.10. Gift of Mrs. James H. Beal.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Paul Weber’s Landscape: Evening, 1856. Oil on canvas: 60 1/4 x 86 in. (153.0 x 218.4 cm.) Pennsylvania Academy purchase, by subscription, #1857.1.