Personal Histories: A Glimpse into 19th Century Life
As the Athenaeum's founder, Horace Fairbanks brought together the works that formed the core of the institution's art collection, including a broad range of depictions of everyday life in different parts of the country. This tour pays particular attention to these works to provide a sense of the lives of nineteenth-century Americans. In this tour, you'll visit with local Vermonters discussing the day's news, travel to the heights of the Catskill Mountains with early tourists, and join westward migrants on their perilous trip to California in search of new opportunities. As distant as they are in time, you'll recognize aspects of modern life that have endured to the present day.
Let's begin with George Cochran Lambdin's masterful Girl Reading.
Travel was a difficult, exhausting, and often dangerous activity during the nineteenth century. As a result, many Americans relied upon books to bring the world to them. Similarly, Fairbanks assembled the Athenaeum's library and art collection to bring the world to St. Johnsbury. In Lambdin's composition, an unlimited expanse of blue sky opens beyond the young woman's window. Light from the outside illuminates the woman's face as well as her book. The juxtaposition portrays the infinite opportunities that books provide. The mass production of books, particularly the introduction of dime novels during the 1860s, made reading an ever more accessible source of entertainment and escape. Based upon what you see in the painting, what type of book do you think the woman is reading?
Recreational travel to areas such as New York's Catskill Mountains, shown in Sanford Gifford's View from South Mountain, in the Catskills, was also facilitated by the rise of the railroads.
The Civil War precipitated the development of complex rail networks throughout the northeast and midwest. Trains not only delivered raw materials to manufacturers and finished goods to market, but also carried passengers far and wide. Unlike travel by carriage, an arduous experience in an era before paved roads, the railroads made travel both more convenient and more pleasant. Obeying strict schedules necessitated by the many trains traveling the same tracks, trains could be relied upon to bring passengers to and from their destinations in a timely manner. America experienced its first upsurge in tourism thanks to such advances in transportation. Attracted by the region's natural beauty, which had been celebrated in art by American painters since the 1820s, tourists who visited the Catskills could choose from among a group of large hotels that catered to the new industry. One of those hotels, the well-known Catskill Mountain House, was situated on a ledge just to the right of Gifford's view in this composition and is likely where the hikers shown in the foreground are staying. Gifford's painting is a veritable postcard of the hotel's majestic view. Why would collectors buy a painting that so closely approximates the view from a hotel window?
Technology also transformed local life in America's small towns during the mid-nineteenth century. With the introduction of the electromagnetic telegraph, news traveled almost instantly. No longer reliant upon mounted messengers to bring the news from afar, the distribution of newspapers and mails was also greatly enhanced by the railroads. Th hear the news, however, local residents still came together at village post offices, as depicted in Thomas Waterman Wood's The Argument.
This work is actually a later version of a much larger composition showing many more figures that Wood painted two years before, and titled The Village Post Office. In both paintings, the artist portrayed a group of identifiable Vermonters at the Ainsworth General Store in Williamstown, near Montpelier. The figures have an animated discussion of the day's news while warming themselves by the store's woodstove. This welcoming center of community life still remains intact in some New England communities, but has long since been replaced as a primary source of news and conversation.
A notable absence in the Athenaeum's collection is a depiction of city life. In an era characterized by rapid urbanization, city scenes were remarkably rare subjects in art, so the Athenaeum's collection is not unusual. Instead, artists and their patrons preferred romantic idealizations of rural life such as J.G. Brown's endearing Hiding in the Old Oak.
Fairbanks not only exhibited such idealized visions in the Athenaeum, however, but he strove to mold the town of St. Johnsbury similarly. Encouraging civic engagement among the workers at his platform scale factory, St. Johnsbury's primary industry, Fairbanks also became involved in town life himself, modeling the behavior that he hopes his employees would practice. Brown's painting also illustrates American's dedication to their children during this period. Careful consideration was given in the formation of the Athenaeum itself to all for children's participation and enjoyment. As never before in American culture, childhood development became a primary focus of national attention, and that preoccupation was reflected in the art of the time. Why do you think childhood became such a popular theme in the wake of the Civil War?
Idealizations of rural life were not confined to depictions of children, however. Jasper Cropsey's expansive Autumn on the Ramapo River--Erie Railway, provides a sense of how urban audiences idealized the simplicity and carefree qualities of life in the country.
None of the works in the Athenaeum's collection were created for rural audiences. Wealthy and upper middle class residents of America's major cities, particularly New York, formed the vast majority of the residents of America's major cities, particularly New York, formed the vast majority of the nation's collectors. Cropsey's title, however, dispels any possibility that even this idealized vision of rural life has escaped the influence of modernity. Like the distant train whistle that interrupted Henry David Thoreau's sojourn at Walden Pond during the mid-1840s, the reference to a railroad in Cropsey's title, and not coincidentally a railroad that intersected the Ramapo River, suggests that this view may be one seen from the window of a passing train. If that is the case, then this view of country romance if fleeting. Idealizations of rural life abound in the collection. How do yo think nineteenth-century residents of St. Johnsbury would have felt about such generalizations?
Although the completion of the transcontinental railroad was celebrated in 1869, it had relatively little immediate impact on average migrants. Samuel Colman's Emigrant Train, Colorado was painted three years after the symbolic driving of the golden railroad spike at Promontory, Utah.
The families, still traveling by covered wagon, graze their cattle and store water in anticipation of the difficult crossing of the Rocky Mountains, visible in the distance. Colman's composition reinforces the group's interdependence, as they travel together in convoy to help one another in times of trouble and cluster their wagons to protect against unseen threats. Although the sky is clear and sunny overhead, and this particular day has provided an opportunity to rest and prepare for the next part of their journey, storm clouds gather over the mountains' already snow-capped peaks. Nevertheless, the presence of a woman and child at the left-hand side of the composition shows that families are increasingly making their way westward, not just unwed men. Over two decades after the discovery of gold in California, what could make these families undertake the difficult journey?
Come visit the Art Gallery to find more depictions of everyday life in nineteenth-century America. How do those works relate to others in the collection?