Friday, April 01, 2005

Vanderlyn the Artist

From the Woodstock and Kingston Times, November 15, 2004:
Someone told me, four years ago, that after decades of neglect the old Kingston Hotel at 20 Crown Street had finally been torn down. I knew its story, how in an upstairs room on Thursday evening, September 23, 1852, John Vanderlyn, the man who had once been the most famous painter in America, had died alone without a penny in his pocket. I rushed over to pick among the rubble, like a child imagining that Providence would reveal to me a paintbox, a stickpin, a tangible remnant of the artist and his dream.

The atomized shrine offered nothing, of course, but splintered clapboard and shards of tin ceiling. And I knew full well that Vanderlyn’s legacy was gloriously intact only two streets away, at the Senate House Museum. Yet to revive the meaning of the man and understand his lifelong course against the grain would indeed take some clearing of rubble, filtering through received opinion and modern interpretation, returning to contemporary accounts.

John Vanderlyn was born in Kingston on October 15, 1775. His reasonably prosperous family lived on Green Street, between the still extant Van Keuren and Tappan houses, and was able to send him to the Kingston Academy when he was 11, where he soon became fluent in French as well as in Dutch and English. His early gift for drawing, however, had been a family trait, most evident in his grandfather Pieter, whose portraits survive. At age 16 he sought employment in New York and found it with Thomas Barrow, a print dealer, in whose shop he met Gilbert Stuart, just returned from Paris and already a famous portrait painter. Stuart encouraged Vanderlyn to pursue his studies, which he did at the Robertson brothers’ Columbian Academy of Painting, at 79 Liberty Street, from 1792 through 1794. In 1795 he moved to Philadelphia to apprentice with Stuart, whose portrait of Aaron Burr he copied. The New York senator so admired the oil that he backed the young man’s further education in Paris, where he remained from 1796 to 1801.

At this time there was no nativist tradition of historical painting, nor landscape. Portraiture was the only form of painting that Americans appreciated and, in the days before photography, for which they would pay. Furthermore, American artists of high promise in the years before the Revolution regarded London as their finishing school. As a Democratic-Republican, Burr drew his inspiration from France, not England, the maternal shrine of the Federalists, notably Alexander Hamilton.

Burr’s financial straits in 1798 compelled Vanderlyn to support himself by executing portraits, but his heart was already elsewhere. Studying at the Académie de Peinture at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts with Francois-Andre Vincent, he improved his draughtsmanship, working from life, from old masters, and from antique casts. As James Flexner wrote in The Light of Distant Skies, “This, he was told, was the necessary preparation for painting great historical pictures. When Vincent pulled him away to study landscape he complained — ‘I do not intend to adopt this branch of my art’ — and as for the portrait work of his forbears, he considered it ‘millhouse drudgery.’ Vincent agreed that painting likenesses was a waste of time.”

That concord rendered all of Vanderlyn’s subsequent years fraught with financial peril as he continually failed to make foreign seed sprout in native soil. The painter Samuel F.B. Morse was to become similarly afflicted in his years of study in Paris; returning home with a passion to paint grand allegorical subjects, he found a public that admired only his commissioned portraits. Where Morse eventually turned away from painting altogether, devoting his energies to invention (the telegraph, of course, but also the first American photograph), Vanderlyn tried to make his art palatable through entrepreneurial ventures.

“The tide of utility sets against the fine arts,” Thomas Cole once said, and the observation is equally apt today. The European tradition of patronage of the arts — and individual artists — was as yet unmatched in America, where those with money were dedicated only to acquiring more of it. This devotion to the almighty dollar earned the scorn of Europeans, who believed that pursuing amusement was the key to enjoying life. All the same, Vanderlyn returned in 1801 to find commissions stacked up in advance, as Aaron Burr was now Vice President of the United States and thus restored to financial health. In the two years before his return to Europe, Vanderlyn painted portraits not only of his patron but also of his daughter Theodosia, a famous beauty in her day and a captivating heroine in Gore Vidal’s historical novel Burr.

Edward and Robert Livingston of the New-York Academy of Fine Arts, newly formed to import popular casts to sell by subscription, funded Vanderlyn’s trip in 1803 by assigning him to return with copies of old paintings and sculpture from Paris, Florence, and Rome, in return for which he would receive a salary and a line of credit. However, once again the artist’s financial tether to America was cut without notice. Scrambling for commission work, Vanderlyn managed to create three of the paintings regarded then and now as his masterpieces: The Death of Jane McCrea, Caius Marius Amidst the Ruins of Carthage, and Ariadne Asleep on the Island of Naxos. The first was notable for its bosomy victim and the last for its scandalously undraped nude form.

Marius won a medal from Emperor Napoleon in 1808 as the best painting exhibited at the Paris Salon, but Vanderlyn later sold it cheaply and pawned the medal twice. It was Ariadne and a copy of Correggio’s Antiope that inspired him to visions of filthy lucre. He speculated that while such pictures might prove too naked “for the house of a private individual … on that account it may attract a greater crowd if exhibited publicly.” Ariadne is important as the first formal nude in American art, but is more important in the history of hucksterism, with which the sale and public display of art in America has so often been linked.

When Vanderlyn returned to the States he had his former benefactor Burr in tow, traveling under a pseudonym after four years of ignominious exile in France. Having shot Hamilton dead in the duel at Weehawken in 1804, Burr followed with an adventure in Western expansion that brought a treason charge upon his head. Hounded and broke, Burr returned to New York only because Vanderlyn paid his passage by painting portraits of three fellow passengers.

In 1816, Vanderlyn opened his first American exhibition in New York. In it, he exhibited Ariadne, Marius, his Antiope, portraits of James Monroe and James Madison, and copies of paintings by the masters. Separate viewings were arranged for men and women; America was not France. The exhibition toured Philadelphia, Charleston, Montreal, Washington, and Boston, but lost money.

Those with money may think about art, fancying themselves artists but for lack of time if not talent. Artists, however, are always thinking about money.

When Vanderlyn had applied to the New-York Academy of Fine Arts, the organization that had sent him to Europe in 1803, to display his Ariadne, he was turned down on the grounds that his painting offended public decency. Now he leapt upon an idea he had nurtured since 1814-15, when he had sketched the palace and gardens of Versailles. Not only would he paint a panorama of unprecedented scale and beauty -- the form had been invented by the Scottish painter Robert Barker, who exhibited in Edinburgh in 1788 a panoramic view of that city -- he would also construct and manage a building for its exhibition. He would curry no favor with societies and academies but appeal directly to the public, a public that might otherwise never see the splendor of France.

On March 31, 1817, Vanderlyn the Entrepreneur announced his plan to erect a rotunda for the exhibition of panoramic as well as conventional art at Chambers and Cross Streets, directly east of the despised Academy of Fine Arts. He soon solicited $14,000 (a huge sum at a time when average annual salaries ran to $250) from 100 patrons, including John Jacob Astor. He persuaded the Common Council to grant him a ten-year lease of the land in exchange for one peppercorn, as the city’s demonstration of its newfound recognition that New York had been “too long stigmatized as phlegmatic, money making & plodding.” At the conclusion of the lease, however, the building would devolve to the city, and the proprietor’s right to renew was not assured.

Theodore S. Fay, in Views of New-York and Its Environs (1831), wrote of the Rotunda, which was constructed during the summer of 1818: “It is constructed of brick, is fifty-three feet in diameter, and forty feet in height, surmounted with a pantheon-shaped dome and skylight, through which the interior is lighted.” Among the panoramas exhibited were “the palace and gardens of Versailles, painted by Mr. Vanderlyn, and the city of Paris, by Mr. Barker; also, the cities of Mexico and Athens, and the city and lake of Geneva….”

On October 6, 1818, this gem of a building opened not with The Palace and Gardens of Versailles, which Vanderlyn had been busily painting in both New York and in Kingston, but instead with Barker’s City of Paris as the panoramic offering. This was followed on January 22, 1819 by the Attack of the Allied Forces on Paris. Vanderlyn’s panorama, complete at 3,000 square feet of canvas, 167 feet long and 12 feet high (early reports pegged its height as 18 feet), debuted on May 26, 1820. It was a sensation, and was soon mimicked by a “Cosmorama” at Scudder’s Museum (predecessor of P.T. Barnum’s American Musum, and housed in the same building with the Academy of Fine Arts). However, Versailles was not a financial success, having cost so much to execute that it could never be exhibited at profit.

Vanderlyn’s hold on the Rotunda was threatened. On December 6, 1824, he petitioned the City for extension of his lease and was denied. Still hoping to win approval, he invited members of the Common Council to attend the debut of a new panorama of the City of Athens on July 18, 1825. Not only were they unmoved, but the vultures were circling above. On May 8, 1826, the newly formed National Academy of Design petitioned the Common Council for a lease of the Rotunda. Vanderlyn had been approached to be one of its founding members, but thus betrayed he declined the invitation, the only artist to do so. A month later Dr. Hosack, creator of the city’s botanical garden, and others also petitioned for the lease. Despite entreaties by Vanderlyn’s friends, on March 23, 1829, the Common Council ordered him to vacate.

Financially crushed and embittered, he kept body and soul together with private commissions for portraits. He took the panorama on tour in the 1830s, frequently stopping at Kingston, where his siblings, nieces, and nephews still resided. A large government grant came his way to paint one of eight panels of the Capitol rotunda with a historical painting of Columbus, for which he traveled to Cuba for research. By the time this latter commission came to him he was in his sixties and enlisted the assistance of French limners, a concession to age for which he was excoriated in the press.

All the while Vanderlyn was abroad, readying his Landing of Columbus, the panorama of Versailles lay rolled up in storage in Kingston, under the watchful eye of his nephew, John Vanderlyn Jr., himself an artist of some ability. After the painting’s creator died in 1852, the nephew continued to secure it until his own death, when it passed to his sister Catharine, a dressmaker who lived at 44 Green Street. Upon her death it descended to the Senate House Association, which had neither the funding nor the venue to exhibit it. In 1952 Senate House made a gift of the panorama to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it may be seen today in very nearly its original magnificence, in a specially constructed oval room. (The Rotunda’s architect had been Martin Euclid Thompson, whose most notable work may have been the 1822 Branch Bank at 15-1/2 Wall Street, whose full façade also adorns the American Wing of the Met.)

Vanderlyn’s Rotunda improbably survived, first as a naturalization office, then as a marine court of sessions; after the Great Fire of December 1835 that destroyed much of lower Manhattan, it served as the city’s post office. For two years in the 1840s it became once again an art gallery, and then was refitted as city office space in 1848. When it was demolished in 1870, there were few who recalled Vanderlyn’s panorama. A generation later there were few who recalled Vanderlyn; at a May 27, 1892 auction in Kingston, his painting of George Washington, now on display at Senate House, was knocked down at five dollars.

Why does this obstinate artist seem more significant today than he did a century ago? Not because he was a formidable painter, though he was; not because he withered sadly, though he did. Not for the carny-barker wink with which he exhibited Ariadne, nor the optimism and ambition with which he created the Rotunda. I think it is because his struggles and triumphs epitomize the ever swirling waltz of art and money, which he mastered no better than we. I like to imagine that when the money was gone, and life very nearly so, he saw what truly endures.


In 1842 an indifferent engraving by Stephen Alonso Schoff of Vanderlyn’s Marius was a gift to subscribers of the Apollo Association, an entrepreneurial venture on behalf of American artists that unlike the Rotunda succeeded wildly. As Russell Lynes wrote in The Tastemakers, “The scheme was this: People were invited to pay $5 for an annual subscription to the Apollo Association. Each subscriber would then receive ‘a large and costly Original Engraving from an American painting.’ He would also receive a ticket with a number on it which would entitle him to a long shot at one of a number of genuine, hand-painted pictures by American artists in an annual lottery to be held by the Association….”

In 1844 the Apollo Association changed its name to the American Art-Union, and its membership rose to more than 2,000. In 1848 it distributed more than 450 prize paintings, for which the Art-Union had paid the artists $40,907. When Thomas Cole’s painting Youth was chosen for the gift engraving (it was part of the series called “The Voyage of Life”) and was also one of the grand prizes, the number of subscribers jumped to 18,960. The stimulus to American art and artists was overwhelming … but the courts struck the Art-Union down for violating the anti-lottery laws, and by 1851 it was dead.

Now that anti-lottery laws are themselves dead (“ya gotta be in it ta win it”), isn’t it time to revive this idea?

--John Thorn


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