Picturesque America documents the nineteenth century national passion for an aesthetic view of American scenery. With its nine hundred wood engravings and fifty steel engravings, it is considered to have had a lasting effect on both the growth of tourism and the historic preservation movement in the United States. After their publication in 1872 and 1874, the two volume gift set of Picturesque America quickly became a best seller and by 1880, the works were included in some 100,000 American home libraries. Picturesque America had a profound effect on its readers, who considered its contents to be uplifting, a means of self improvement, and essential to self-education. The visual appeal of its scenic reproductions delighted Americans with imagery of their country that they could have only imagined in the past.
The works, many engraved after paintings by famous artists, offered views that were pleasing but not necessarily true to life. Motifs associated with the picturesque tradition, such as craggy and twisted glimpses of nature and humans and animals placed in a rugged landscape, were plentiful. Numerous cityscapes featuring city squares, parks, important architectural landmarks and national monuments were also documented in scenes depicting New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Washington D.C. , among others. In the words of its editor, William Cullen Bryant, “Picturesque America encompassed the entire country while affording a nearly endless variety of sites with superiority over visions of the Old World.”
The Terrace, Central Park, New York, featuring Bethesda Terrace, is among the variety of images in Picturesque America. The work, after a painting by Charles G. Rosenberg, was later engraved by George R. Hall. Central Park was described in the publication as “once a mass of rude rocks, tangled brushwood, and ash heaps, and grounds for deposited city refuse. Now transformed by art, it has become a picturesque triumph and a popular success, with art and nature united by its many bridges and Italian-like terraces.” Central Park also provided activities for the public such as boating, goat-carriage rides, camel riding, and devices for children at play.
Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) and Calvert Vaux (1824-1895) proposed the architectural terrace and promenade just a month after the Lake in Central Park was excavated and filled in December 1858. The artists wanted the structure to blend with the Park’s landscape while incorporating classical references. Thus, Bethesda Terrace effortlessly intermingles with its natural surroundings and reflects the vision of Olmsted and Vaux. Bethesda Terrace, completely restored in the mid-1980s, remains one of the well-designed and grand sites in Central Park and serves as a welcoming place for all New Yorkers and the many tourists that visit the city. Bethesda Fountain (1868), also depicted in Rosenberg’s original work, is adorned with a sculptural centerpiece known as Angel of the Waters. Designed by Emma Stebbins, the sculpture is the only work commissioned as part of the original design of the Park. Stebbins was the first woman to receive a commission for a major work of art in New York City.
An engraving of West Point and the Highlands by S. V. Hunt, after an oil painting by Harry Fenn, first appeared in a “New York Illustrated” art supplement of Appleton’s Journal in 1869. Later that year, when George S. Appleton began to seek an artist for the new Picturesque America series, Harry Fenn was an obvious contender. Scenes such as West Point and the Highlands were popular during the 19th century because they typically captured Revolutionary war sites on canvas for affluent patrons; the engravings after those works made the imagery accessible to the public. Fenn’s perfect river view, with its fresh charm and new point of observation, was only a hint of what northeast Americana offered to lovers of the picturesque.
Approximately ninety-five waterfalls are depicted in Picturesque America, many of which are still considered premier scenic attractions. While a fascination with waterfalls in the east, especially Niagara, may have drawn Harry Fenn from his native England to America, Yosemite and its countless falls in the west became a Mecca for James David Smillie. Smillie was the only contributor who wrote and illustrated, from on-site drawings, a complete section for Picturesque America.
In his chapter entitled “The Yosemite,” Smillie gave a vivid thirty page description of his trip into Yosemite “as seen through the eyes of someone who was both artist and traveler.” Smillie demonstrated exacting skill in his wood engravings, and received compensation well above other artists working in the difficult medium. In the image entitled Yosemite Fall, Smillie rendered an engraving from his original drawing, imbuing the scene with a dramatic use of light and exceptional clarity.
Picturesque America was acclaimed worldwide and facilitated the course of America’s emerging sense of self. More importantly, Picturesque America rivaled European art publications as a symbol of intellectual accomplishment by fostering pride in American art and American books and magazines. Although America continued to look to Europe as a model to emulate, Picturesque America and the similar projects that followed it, offered the nation a reassuring picture of their land until the close of the nineteenth century.
A Hudson River Portfolio, available at http://nypl.org/research/hudson/history/his1.html [accessed 4 June 2007]; J. Dunbar Picturing America: How an 1870’s bestseller captured the look of a nation, Preservation, v.56, 5, pp.35-39, 2004; New York Focus, Central Park 2000, available at http://www.centralpark2000.com/database/bethesda_fountain.html [accessed 7 June 7, 2007]; New York State Department of Parks and Recreation: Bethesda Terrace and Fountain, available at http://www.nycgovparks.org/sub_your park/historical signs/hs_historical_sign.php?id=119 [accessed 7 June 2007]; Creating S. Rainey, Picturesque America: Monuments to the Natural and Cultural Landscape, London, 1994; R. Schneider, The Career of James David Smillie (1833-1909) as Revealed in his Diaries, American Art Journal, v.16,1, pp.4-33, 1984.
List of Illustrations:
New York, “Scene on the East River,” Artist, Harry Fenn, Volume II, p. 548.
Philadelphia, “Scenes in Philadelphia,” Artist, Granville Perkins, Volume II, p. 24.
Boston, “Suburbs,” Artist, J. Douglas Woodwood, Volume II, p. 245.
Washington D.C., “Public Buildings in Washington,” Artist, W. L. Sheppard, Volume II, p. 569.
New York, “The Terrace, Central Park,” after a painting by Charles G. Rosenberg, engraved by George R. Hall, Volume II, p. 557.
“West Point and the Highlands,” after a painting by Harry Fenn, engraved by S.V. Hunt, Volume II, face 9.
“Niagara,” after a painting by Harry Fenn, engraved by S. V. Hunt, Volume I, frontispiece.
Yosemite Fall, original drawing and engraving by James D. Smillie, Volume I, p. 485.