At Home With History

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

The great virtue of the recent slavery exhibit at the New-York Historical Society was that it focused our attention on the daily lives of individual slaves – their thoughts, feelings, hopes, dreams, religious practices, and interactions with others. Before seeing it, I felt I knew a lot about slavery in New York because I knew all about slavery’s relation to the city economy. But the exhibition’s “at home” view had eluded me.

In this respect, “Group Dynamics,” on exhibit at the N-YHS, is a great follow-up to the slavery exhibit. “Group Dynamics” brings the worm’s-eye view to bear on a more varied cross-section of people over a broader time frame, the 18th and 19th centuries.

The portrait, especially the group portrait, is first of all an aide-memoire, of interest ostensibly chiefly to the person or persons doing the commissioning. But as a wall text informs us, there is an “implied narrative” in group portraits, what Lionel Trilling called “a culture’s hum and buzz of implication.” The genre scenes included along with portraits in this exhibit establish a broader context of conventional values. The trick for the viewer is in chronologically keying the genre scenes to the portraits.

Many media are on display here: oil paintings, watercolors, silhouettes, daguerreotypes, tintypes, gelatin silver prints, albumen prints, ambrotypes – with a couple of John Rogers bronzes thrown in for good measure. Some of the artists are famous. William Sidney Mount’s “Dregs in the Cup”shows a fortune-telling session with two women who were real and a third, unidentified woman – or is it a man? Eastman Johnson’s “Negro Life in the South” (1859) is a superb pendant to the slavery show: a genre scene of slaves at leisure, at once conventional yet humanly gripping in its details. It’s especially interesting that the plantation in question was in Washington, D.C. From an earlier time,there is Charles Willson Peale’s outstanding portrait of his family, executed over 36 years.

Among well-known photographers, Mathew Brady is represented by an exquisite daguerreotype of the “Hurlbutt Boys” (c. 1850), whose rosy cheeks were hand-tinted. If you’ve ever wondered what it was like to pose for a Brady da guerreotype, the show includes a display of items from a 19th-century photographer’s studio, including a c. 1850 daguerreotype camera and a c. 1848 headrest that looks less like a “rest” than some medieval torture device.

And then there are the Asher Durands. “The Pedler” (1835-36) is a fine though conventional genre scene. “Durand Children” (1832) is a masterly work combining up-close portraiture with a dramatic, infinitely receding landscape.

There are also portraits of famous people. An albumen print of c. 1855-60 shows Brooklyn’s renowned clergyman Henry Ward Beecher with his wife, Eunice (who had to endure a lot) and two of his sons. This is said to be a rare Beecher family portrait. Francis Carpenter’s oil painting of Abraham Lincoln and his family is dated, I noted with one of those pangs this show as a whole often induces, c. 1865: The painting is almost in black and white and from a few feet away can be mistaken for a photograph. I was chilled by Daniel Huntington’s 1857 oil portrait showing two Barney boys. One of them is Charles T. Barney, who, 50 years later, killed himself when his Knickerbocker Trust Company collapsed.

But it is the unexpected pieces that cast light on a more anonymous or a more intimate history that make this show special. Several pictures tell us something about old New York.”Lower Hudson Street” (1865), an albumen print shot just above Chambers Street, shows that street’s rough denizens looking toward the camera while standing in front of their business premises or hanging from the windows. The two things we immediately notice are that all the people in the picture are men and boys. Second, we notice the sheer profligacy of loud advertising signs, a reminder that the mid-19th century was in fact more dense with public ads than is our own time. Another photo shows Hester Street, c. 1898, with all the tenements and pushcarts one expects, with hordes that are fully sexually integrated.

Most striking of the New York history pictures is an amazing oil painting by Mary Pillsbury Weston of the William Coventry Henry Waddell family posed before their grand Gothic country house, said to be situated in the block bounded by Fifth and Sixth Avenues and 37th and 38th Streets. The year is 1852. Well, lest you think that area of Manhattan was sylvan countryside at that time, it was in fact booming with row-house construction (many of those houses, converted to commerce, still stand in those side streets today).

Weston, incidentally, is one of several women artists in this exhibit, reminding us that there were in fact numerous women artists of outstanding abilities in 19th-century New York. I was particularly taken by two diminutive watercolors on ivory by Ann Hall. One is from 1828 and shows the artist with her sister and nephew. The left third of the frame is occupied by a joyous, Fantin-Latour-like heap of flowers, making the women in turn flower-like. A c. 1845 work by Hall shows a mother and daughter; it is as charming as can be and shows great technical skill. Indeed, the wall text informs us that Hall was the first woman elected to full membership in the National Academy of Design.

What’s the single most riveting thing in the show? For me that’s easy. It’s another small watercolor on ivory (an art form that must be revived!), Carl and Fredrika Weidner’s “Daughters of Robert Bowne Minturn” (c. 1895). The Minturns were a remarkable New York family, intermarried with the Shaws of Boston. Exceptionally wealthy, they threw themselves into charity work and cultured pursuits that made them the very embodiment of noblesse oblige among a New York high society that by 1895 had grown frivolous. Each of the five grown daughters depicted is heartstoppingly beautiful, but more than that each also represents that peculiarlyAmerican phenomenon at the turn of the 20th century: the strong woman.

I’m particularly fond of Edith Minturn, who married the redoubtable architect and historian I.N. Phelps Stokes. In the Met’s American Wing is a mesmerizing Sargent portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Stokes, in which he recedes in the background as she steps forward toward the viewer with joyous self-confidence. For that magic moment when the narrative gist of group portraiture also expressed a maturing – and wholly feminized – Americanness, you could not do better than to shuttle from the historical society to the Met.

“Group Dynamics,” every item in which is drawn from the collections of the N-YHS, is guest curated by Professor Richard Brilliant. It’s one of the most entertaining things going in New York right now.

Until September 17 (170 Central Park West, 212-872-3400).

The New York Sun

© 2023 The New York Sun Company, LLC. All rights reserved.

Use of this site constitutes acceptance of our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. The material on this site is protected by copyright law and may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, cached or otherwise used.

The New York Sun

Sign in or  Create a free account

By continuing you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use