The New-York Historical Society, founded in 1804, is New York City's oldest museum. It has had its ups and downs, and in recent years has been on a dramatic upswing. While such outstanding exhibitions as "New York Divided: Slavery and the Civil War" (2006-07), "Life's Pleasures: The Ashcan Artists' Brush with Leisure, 1895-1925" (2007-08), and the Audubon series have drawn from the society's rich holdings, these shows' narrow thematic scope has meant that no one of them has by itself conveyed the awesome size and range of those holdings.
"Drawn by New York: Six Centuries of Watercolors and Drawings at the New-York Historical Society" is different. This sprawling exhibition's expansive theme seems to be, quite simply, the embarrassment of riches that is the society's permanent collection.
Contrary to what many people presume, the society's focus has never been exclusively on New York City. The visitor to "Drawn by New York" who expects to see only images of the city will be disappointed. That said, the careful viewer will be rewarded with many outstanding drawings and watercolors of New York City, as well as a wealth of other graphic art of the first quality.
Another thing to bear in mind when visiting "Drawn by New York" is that the collection, begun some 200 years ago, was not assembled with aesthetics top of mind. Rather, the images were collected for their value as historical documentation. Yet the exhibition yields sheer aesthetic delight at every turn. In part that's because graphic art that succeeds as historical documentation must be graphic art that communicates well, and graphic art that communicates well is always a pleasure to look at.
While many very well-known artists — Asher Durand, Thomas Cole, John Singer Sargent, Audubon, and others — are represented in "Drawn by New York," it's invariably the case that what's most captivating in a show such as this are the works by lesser-known artists. Take the watercolors by John Joseph Holland from 1814. The London-born Holland had been commissioned by the Common Council of New York City to illustrate a "Report on the Defense of the City of New York" amid fears of a British invasion during the War of 1812. In delicate watercolors Holland shows broad landscape vistas with miniature soldiers and cannon amid mist-enshrouded fields, hills, and swamp. In one image, Holland painted McGown's Pass half a century before it was surrounded by Central Park.
In addition to his townscape and landscape work, Holland was a highly successful theatrical scene painter. He came to New York in 1807 to decorate the interior of the prestigious Park Theatre (Broadway at Park Row), and remained at the Park as a scene painter until 1813. Holland collaborated with William James Proctor on an exquisite "Military Map of Harlem Heights," part of the same defense report. Proctor — "trained in the distinguished British military tradition of topographical drawing skills," in the words of curator Roberta J.M. Olson — created the topographical map of Harlem fortifications; its neat sectioning, minute detail, beautiful colors, and sense of scientific rigor play nicely off Holland's inset vignette of sylvan landscape.
A love of abstract form shows itself in a startling watercolor by a tavern keeper named David Grim, who shows us the layout of the 1788 banquet that capped off lower Manhattan's "Grand Federal Procession" in honor of Alexander Hamilton following New York's ratification of the Constitution. The banquet pavilion was designed by Pierre L'Enfant, and the picture of radiating long banquet tables looks as though it were an early version of the French architect's plan for Washington, D.C.
I am always much taken with the work of the Dijon-born Charles-Balthazar-Julien Févret de Saint-Mémin. His range is amply on display here, with an excellent panoramic view of New York City and the harbor, made in 1794, and several of his remarkable profile portraits of American Indians (1804-07). It's always a pleasure to see works by William Guy Wall, and a watercolor view of the Palisades, from 1820, is particularly striking for the effects of sunlight on the basalt columns, the detail of the steamboat, and the vitreous sheen of the Hudson River. The Lyon-born Marie-François-Régis Gignoux's watercolor (1841) of the Barge Office at the Battery reminds us that this artist deserves to be far better known.
The same may be said of Frances Bond Palmer, whose works never fail to charm and instruct. Her watercolor "Staten Island and the Narrows from Fort Hamilton," circa 1861, is a case in point. The Naples-born Nicolino Calyo is yet another artist one wishes to see a full show on. Two brilliant gouaches depict the Great Fire of 1835 in Lower Manhattan; one was painted from Brooklyn Heights on the night of the fire, the other depicts the ruins in the fire's aftermath. Calyo also made watercolors of New York street criers, such as "The Strawberry Girl" (c. 1840-44).
I'm out of space and I've merely skimmed the surface of a beautiful exhibition. I also strongly recommend Ms. Olson's massive and outstanding catalog.