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16 June 2021

John Vanderlyn’s art of the New World

Why the artist was hailed by Aaron Burr as “the first painter that now is or ever has been in America”. 

By Michael Prodger

When, in January this year, Donald Trump’s Maga-hatted cohort of rioters broke into the Capitol building in Washington, DC, many of these diehards ended up in the Rotunda at the heart of the complex. There, bewildered by what they had done and awed by where they found themselves, they took out their phones and photographed the chaos. On the wall, in the background to many of those snaps, is a painting commissioned in 1836/37 showing Christopher Columbus landing in the New World. Here was the arc of America’s idea of manifest destiny: an image of the beginning of the European adventure in North America now bearing witness to its most recent – and ignoble – point of evolution.

The painter of the Columbus picture was John Vanderlyn (1775-1852), who in 1802 was hailed by vice-president Aaron Burr as “the first painter that now is or ever has been in America”. Vanderlyn’s eminence did not last long, though, and he is a little-regarded figure today. He was, however, an American patriot that Trump’s rioters might have recognised, had they been interested in that sort of thing. Perhaps if they had known he was the first American to paint a proper nude, or that his Columbus painting was once engraved on the $5 bill, they would have taken notice.

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In the early years of the 19th century it was Vanderlyn who was most determined to open his countrymen’s eyes to the elevating virtues of art that had its origins in classical civilisation, and who lobbied the government to found a national gallery for the edification of the public and for the example it could give to the young nation’s artists. If America was to be the new Rome, then it needed the right examples to emulate. To his chagrin, the politicians thought differently: “to think that there is not one member in either house of Congress that takes interest enough in Art… to become its champion, is a sorry circumstance for the age and country”, he later lamented.

Vanderlyn’s conception of how America should graft itself on to the European tradition was shaped by his travels. He was born to an artistic family in Kingston, a town on the Hudson, and after a spell as a print seller in New York, some 90 miles away, spent time in the studio of Gilbert Stuart, the painter of the famous portrait of George Washington. There, Vanderlyn copied Stuart’s portrait of Aaron Burr who, when he saw the picture, sponsored Vanderlyn’s further training, initially with Stuart in Philadelphia and then in 1796, when a broader artistic education was called for, at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris under the history painter François-André Vincent.

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Other American artists of note had crossed the Atlantic to train, notably Benjamin West (who became the second president of the Royal Academy) and John Singleton Copley, but they had made careers in England. Vanderlyn was the first to head for France, where the revolution was still playing out and where the example of the classically inspired history paintings of Jacques-Louis David impressed him most. Although he made several lengthy return visits to America, until 1815 he spent more time in Europe than in his home country.

Vanderlyn adopted a broad range of subjects, from portraits and classical scenes (his Marius Amid the Ruins of Carthage of 1807 won him a gold medal from Napoleon) to his Corregio-esque nude Ariadne Asleep on the Isle of Naxos (1812), and a brutal scene of American border life showing the death of a young woman, Jane McCrea, who was scalped by a Huron warrior during the American Revolutionary War. This last picture transposed Greek warriors in frieze-like action to the forests of upper New York state and showed how Vanderlyn believed the neoclassical style could be adapted to American topics.

[See also: The conscientious painter]

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It was also in Europe that he first encountered the fad for panoramas – vast, elongated paintings of notable sites – when he saw a view of Paris exhibited in a specially erected cylindrical building on the Boulevard Montmartre. Vanderlyn exported the idea to America and lost all his money in doing so. His exhibitions of a topographical view of the gardens at Versailles that was 49.5 metres long (along with scenes by other painters) failed to earn enough money to pay his debts, and despite touring it to Philadelphia, Charleston, Montreal, Washington, and Boston he was forced into insolvency.

***

The germ of a panorama was clearly on his mind when he painted this vista of Niagara Falls, now in the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, in 1801-02. Although it is only a little over a metre wide it belies its scale and captures the epic nature of the view. Vanderlyn made several Niagara pictures to be turned into prints in England for sale. This was partly a commercial exercise and partly to advertise the size and potency of his native land. Pre-dating the Hudson River School, Vanderlyn showed his countrymen and foreigners the inconceivable scope of the American wilderness.

There are no human figures in the picture to give perspective but the thunder of the water is nevertheless tangible, while its breadth shows this is no common scene. To early 19th-century eyes this was a perfect example of the sublime, with its accompanying frisson of terror (the broken tree stump on the far left stands as an indicator of nature’s violence). The momentum of the waters, so adroitly capped with flicked white waves, is unstoppable. And while the rainbow may be an accurate meteorological effect it is also a reference to the Noah story in the Book of Genesis – here too was a land free of corruption and the taint of humanity, a realm wrested by the patriots of the Revolutionary War. 

What Vanderlyn painted was two of the three waterfalls where the river debouches into the Niagara Gorge, with Horseshoe Falls in the foreground and American Falls behind, and he painted the scene from the Canadian side of the river to show America beyond. The forests of the picture have now all gone, replaced by a resort and casino and the town of Niagara Falls.

Vanderlyn’s Niagara engravings proved no more successful than his panorama would. His personality did not help; he had by all accounts a superior and condescending manner and he refused to ingratiate himself with would-be patrons. Such traits exacerbated his money troubles. He was reduced to painting portraits, many of them of low quality despite the fact that in his pomp he had painted a total of seven presidents and vice presidents. He spent his last 30 years in near poverty and felt his fall from grace as much as his impecuniousness: “Alas! How miserably have my fond anticipations been realised,” he railed, “and how ill has my zeal and exertions been rewarded.” 

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This article appears in the 16 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Cold Web