Panorama of a painting life

Artworks of John Vanderlyn, a local guy who came home very unhappy, are focus of Senate House program next Saturday

by Geddy Sveikauskas
October 18, 2010 02:22 PM | 0 0 comments | 18 18 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Detail from John Vanderlyn’s portrait of Catherine Hasbrouck Bruyn (1787-1867), Daughter of Judge Jonathan Hasbrouck, New York State Historic Preservation Office, Peebles Island Resource Center.
Detail from John Vanderlyn’s portrait of Catherine Hasbrouck Bruyn (1787-1867), Daughter of Judge Jonathan Hasbrouck, New York State Historic Preservation Office, Peebles Island Resource Center.
Next Saturday, October 23, the state Senate House Museum in Uptown Kingston will present a daylong program about John Vanderlyn, a Kingston painter who was one of the first American artists to gain national and international prominence. The event will feature talks by local historians and collectors, a state conservator, the most active academic expert on Vanderlyn and Leigh Keno, one of the twins from Antiques Roadshow. The program will run from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. A reception described as a French soiree, replete with chamber music, period French wine and hors d’oeuvres, will be held from 5 to 7 p.m.

The Senate House Historic Site was the largest repository of Vanderlyn drawings in the world until the state, a few years ago, snatched the collection away for preservation at Peebles Island near Troy. Currently on display at the Senate House are several well-known Vanderlyn works.

Vanderlyn’s birthplace and the site of his death are only a block-and-a-half apart. Vanderlyn was born in 1775 in a stone house that stood where Wall and John Streets in Kingston now intersect; and he died in 1852 – by legend, a broken and embittered man – at a small hotel on Crown Street between North Front and John, the last remains of which were carted off to the dump so a parking lot could be extended only a few years ago.

Like many residents of the Stockade, Vanderlyn would spend the rest of eternity in Midtown. According to the historian Benjamin Myer Brink, Vanderlyn’s grave at Wiltwyck Cemetery remained neglected for years. Finally, Brink said, “a noble monument” was erected, saying: “A man of genius, an artist of renown, an honor to his country, he achieved broad and enduring fame.”

A week from Saturday, a small-but-distinguished coterie of Vanderlyn expertise will arrive in the small Stockade art universe. As far as is known, this program is the most thoroughly prepared and extensive ever held to explore the world of John Vanderlyn.

Art and antiques

Katherine Woltz, perhaps the only actively publishing Vanderlyn scholar extant, is completing her doctoral dissertation titled “Framing the New Republic: History Painters and American Cultural Politics, 1783-1825,” at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. Woltz is editing Vanderlyn’s letters and intends to compile a complete catalogue of his known works. She will present the first lecture on Vanderlyn in the morning and give closing remarks scheduled to conclude the afternoon.

In a way, Vanderlyn – possibly the first American to have a formal European art training – can be said to have ended up with one foot in the world of fine art and the other in the world of antiques. The title of the event, “Appraising Art, Re-Appraising Vanderlyn,” utilizes a pun that encompasses both universes.

Leigh Keno, who straddles both sides from an antiques perspective, will give the keynote speech on October 23 and participate in the morning discussion called, “Opening the Cupboard: Vanderlyn Family Heirlooms,” as well as the afternoon talk entitled, “Falling in Love with an Older Woman: Anna Brodhead Oliver and Other Great Adventures in Collecting Antiques.” Keno and Barbara Duffy will also share fireside stories about the Senate House, and the Antiques Roadshow regular will provide evaluation of Vanderlyn-era work.

Rod Blackburn and Ruth Piwonka, from Greene County, will discuss the place of the Vanderlyn family in early Hudson Valley art. Eric Roth from New Paltz will talk about Vanderlyn’s musical ear. Regional historian Neil Larsen’s talk is titled “A Countryside Tour: Ammi Phillips, Vanderlyn and the Rural Folk.” Two local Vanderlyn collectors, Harry Anderson and Avery Smith, will talk about their experiences.

The two state employees who will be speaking both have a special relationship to John Vanderlyn. The recently retired manager of the Senate House and other state sites in the region, Rich Goring, has championed Vanderlyn’s art and sought to bring broader recognition to it. It was Goring who shepherded the October 23 program into being.

Joyce Zucker, the state painting restorer at Peebles Island, is a meticulous and scholarly professional conservator of early American art, according to Woltz, and something of a detective. By taking X-rays of artworks, scanning them in Photoshop and studying brushstrokes and painting methods, she and colleagues are able to identify different painterly hands: a great asset when it comes to looking at works from the period claimed to be by John Vanderlyn.

Not the happiest life

In Vanderlyn’s time, American art in general and New York art in particular consisted almost exclusively of portraiture. Never fond of that specialty, Vanderlyn did portraits mainly for the money. There’s a contemporary market for these portraits – generally of various eminent people of Vanderlyn’s time.

The Neoclassical style that Vanderlyn learned in Paris was appropriate for the limited market for public art. Ever-ambitious, he extended his formidable drafting skills by turning his hand to historical allegory. His Marius amid the Ruins of Carthage won him a Napoleonic gold medal. But another effort called Ariadne in Naxos earned him only opprobrium in his native land, which was not ready, as Europe had already been ready for centuries, for nudes.

Unable to make a satisfactory living off his portraits and allegories, he turned to the painting and public display of grand panoramas, the only surviving example of which is his vision of Versailles in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He also spent eight years exhibiting his panoramas at a rotunda in New York City, completed in 1817. That project never made money, and embroiled Vanderlyn in financial disputes for many years. Woltz said that Vanderlyn, a close protégé of Aaron Burr, was also haunted by the latter’s business deals.

“The whole history of Vanderlyn’s life from that period to 1836 is a record of straits and struggles, repeated efforts and disappointments, and cruel injustice withal,” wrote a sympathetic Benjamin Brink. “It is enough to say that the entanglements of the rotunda and kindred panorama projects were fatal to his peace and paralyzed his pencil.”

For the rest of his life, he sporadically pursued public commissions in the United States. Of these, his stiff portrait of George Washington and almost-lifeless The Landing of Columbus in the United States Capitol Rotunda, which Woltz said took Vanderlyn nine years to execute, may be the best-known.

The combination at the time of economic turmoil and intense political conflict – not unfamiliar to the present era – apparently preyed on Vanderlyn’s psychological weaknesses. A cultured and sophisticated francophone of humble origin, who owed his rise to Aaron Burr’s support and who was himself an outspoken supporter of Andrew Jackson, was not the sort of person with whom the moneyed classes of the time resonated. Vanderlyn eventually returned to Kingston, the arc of his unlikely career starting as promising young artist by then dashed by a combination of circumstances with which he could not cope.

Though no landscape painter, Woltz said, Vanderlyn loved the Hudson Valley landscape. He felt there that was no need for design in a landscape as beautiful as that with which he was familiar. In that, he was of a different generation from Thomas Cole, who famously did feel a painterly need in that direction.

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