Thursday, January 15, 2009
Outside my apartment window, I can see snow building up on the fire escape and in the bare trees of the courtyard. The snow started during the night, and it is coming down pretty heavy right now, but we probably won't get anymore than a few inches by the time it's done. I was inspired to share the picture above, Winter Scene in Brooklyn by Francis Guy (1760-1820), which is one of my favorite American paintings at the Brooklyn Museum. This small image doesn't do it justice, but the museum's website for the painting allows you to download a larger version and details that will make it easier to look more closely at this work. Painted just before the artist's death, the picture shows a photographic-like representation of a section of Brooklyn after a snowstorm. The people in the picture were identifiable to its residents of the day, and the buildings are considered to be accurate representations of Brooklyn life at the time. This picture was, in essence, a photograph in that it captured Brooklyn life on any given winter day around 1820 (note this is 20 years before photography officially appeared on the scene). The subject of this picture follows the tradition of Dutch landscapes by artists such as Jacob van Ruisdael, whose paintings are known for their rugged, realistic depictions. Guy's picture is also a genre painting, depicting everyday people doing everyday things, and in that sense it borrows on the Flemish traditions of artists such as Pieter Bruegel the Elder, who populated his pictures with scores of people in everyday activities (one of my favorite Bruegel paintings is Hunters in the Snow at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna). Surprisingly Guy's painting is quite large, measuring 58 3/8 x 74 9/16 inches in size. This is unusual for American local art at the time. Paintings that large were reserved for history painting, considered at the time to be the highest form of Western art in which historic or mythological characters were represented as idealized figures with identifiable narrative subjects. Thus, Guy is elevating a landscape/genre scene to the level of history painting, something which would not have been as acceptable in Europe at the same time. Interestingly, the picture is even missing a section. In the late 1800s, a portion of it was burned in a fire. (Fortunately, another copy of the same painting with the missing piece intact does exist, recently acquired by the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, aka the Wal-Mart Family Museum.) There are so many other wonderful things about this picture, including the fact that it represents African-Americans living among the rest of the Brooklynites of Dutch and English ancestry. But for now I think I'll just watch the snow outside my window in Brooklyn.