A RARE AND SPLENDID VIEW OF EARLY BROOKLYN
Engraved by Wellstood & Peters. 29 ½ x 43 ½ inches visible, 33 ¼ x 47 ½ inches framed. Engraving on paper (minor stain on lower left corner, faint discolorations extending into image). Title printed on lower margin, annotation in cursive below respectfully dedicating this work to the citizens of Brooklyn.
This rare early view of Brooklyn, New York is based on a painting by Benjamin Franklin Smith, Jr. It is from the vantage point of the West (approximately the area of the Wall Street Pier) and shows a vibrant East River scene, teeming with sailboats and a few early steam vessels, including the paddle wheel passenger steamer Empire State. The delicate ripples of the river and silvery cloud formations in the sky contribute pleasing atmospheric elements to the scene. In the very foreground, human figures in period dress are visible aboard boats and ships of various sizes. A rowboat heads toward shore alongside a steamship, showcasing the coexistence of industrial and pre-industrial modes of transport and signifying a moment of great transition and transformation in the history of this iconic city. A meticulously rendered cityscape of buildings and churches is visible on the other side of the river, and stretches splendidly across the horizon.
The land of BroOklyn first became populated by Europeans in the 17th century, when Dutch settlers named the small town on the East River shore of Long Island “Breuckelen.” It grew to be a full-fledged city in the 19th century, when industrial development and economic activity rose due to the city’s proximity to the shipping center of the East River shore. For much of the 19th century, Brooklyn was known as the 3rd most populous city in the United States. In the 1883 poem “The New Colossus,” inscribed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, Emma Lazarus called Brooklyn a “twin city” of New York, and it officially became a part of New York City in 1898. Today, Brooklyn is the most populous of the five boroughs of New York and a center of art, culture, music, and business, whose vibrancy and diversity rival that of its longtime neighbor and partner, Manhattan island.
From 1848 to 1856, the four Smith brothers (Francis Smith, George Warren Smith, David Clifford Smith, and Benjamin Franklin Smith) issued a series of large folio views of cities from throughout the eastern half of America. Benjamin Franklin Smith, Jr., the youngest of the brothers, was the “artist of the family” and responsible for drawing six of the views, while collaborating with J.W. Hill on six others (Reps, 206). Originally from Maine, the Smith brothers established an independent publishing firm specializing in city views at around 1849, after traveling and jointly publishing views with the artist Edwin Whitefield for several years. This separation from Whitefield was likely driven by the clear artistic talent of Benjamin Franklin Smith, who quickly proved himself able to compete with the more experienced Whitefield.
According to scholar John Reps, B.F. Smith “possessed artistic skills of a very high order, clearly surpassing those of Whitefield” (Reps, 207). On the subject of the Smith brothers’ series of city views, Reps remarks: “large and imposing in size, splendidly drawn...the Smith brothers’ views achieved a standard that equalled or surpassed the best work of its kind” (Reps 207).
Reference: John W. Reps, “Views and Viewmakers of Urban America” (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1984), 206-208.
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