George Catlin painting a Chief

The Spirit of Place
Part I of III

A Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library Exhibition. Organized by William S. Reese and George Miles
Last Revised September 4, 1996

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Travel writers hoped to evoke for their readers a sense of what it was like to be in the places they visited. Illustrations offered rich possibilities for capturing local color and conveying a spirit of place. The choice and composition of landscape could narrate a feeling of the locale; for the painter George Harvey all of America was definable by the peculiar quality of the light. Illustration was used to make the experience of the traveler more immediate to the reader, making the viewer a participant in the traveler's experience.

Unless otherwise noted the author of the work is also the artist of the illustrated plate.

William G. Wall. The Hudson River Portfolio. New York, 1821-25.

Ft. Edward

"Fort Edward." (Colored aquatint)

The Hudson River Portfolio, executed in aquatint by John Hill after the original works of William Guy Wall, is easily the most elegant color plate book produced in the United States in the 19th century. Following the Hudson River from its sources to the sea, the plates evoke the intertwined presence of nature and the works of humans in the landscapes. In this view Wall juxtaposes the peaceful scene of 1820 with a text that recalls the conflicts of empire fought there. "The ploughshare now peacefully turns up the soil moistened by the blood of thousands: the dust of the merciless Indian and the ambitious European repose in awful amity together." In the foreground, a ghost of past times, an Indian woman passes before the fields of civilization.

Fielding Lucas. Lucas' Progressive Drawing Book, in Three Parts . . . Consisting Chiefly of Original Views of American Scenery, and Embracing the Latest and Best Improvements in the Mode of Instruction. Baltimore, 1827.

The Balise

John H.B. Latrobe, "The Balise. Mississippi River." (Colored aquatint)

The wide-reaching interests of the Baltimore publisher Fielding Lucas included numerous efforts to introduce colored illustrations into books and atlases. His most notable achievement in that quest was the present work, with aquatints designed to show stages of illustration executed by John H.B. Latrobe, son of the architect Benjamin Latrobe. This plate of the navigation station at the mouth of the Mississippi Delta under a full moon conveys a dramatic sense of its otherworldly remoteness, halfway between land and water.

William Birch. The Country Seats of the United States of North America.... Springland, Pennsylvania, 1808.

William Birch's residence

"View from the Elysian Bower, Springland, Pennsylva. the Residence of Mr. W. Birch." (Colored engraving)

William Birch produced the first color plate works published in the United States. This work followed his most famous book, The City of Philadelphia It Appeared in the Year 1800.... Here Birch was most concerned with recreating the atmosphere of the elegant country estates which were springing up around Philadelphia as the wealth of its citizens increased. Here nature, as well as the owners of the estates, could be literally recreated, and artificial improvement set off by "the sports of wild unregulated nature."

George Harvey. Harvey's Scenes of the Primitive Forests of America, at the Four Periods of the Year. New York, 1841.

Giant Sycamores

"Autumn. Gigantic Sycamores. An Ox Team Crossing the Ford. Owl Creek, Ohio."
(Colored aquatint)

George Harvey was an accomplished British watercolorist who lived in the United States from 1820 to 1850. From 1833 to 1835 he lived next to his friend, Washington Irving, at "Sunnyside" on the Hudson, where he conceived the idea of producing a large plate book illustrating the climate of different parts of the United States and its effects at different times of the day. These "atmospheric landscapes," as he called them, would show the peculiar American light Harvey found so appealing. In the introduction he says "I purchased a tract of land on the majestic Hudson; built a cottage on my own plan; amused myself laying out grounds, and gained health and strength by the employment. These exercises in the open air, led me more and more to notice and study the ever-varying atmospheric effects of this beautiful climate. I undertook to illustrate them by my pencil, and thus, almost accidentally, commenced a set of Atmospherical Landscapes."

Daniel Thomas Edgerton. Edgerton's Views in Mexico. London, 1840.

Real del Monte

"Real del Monte." (Colored lithograph)

The English artist Daniel Thomas Edgerton worked extensively in Mexico in the 1830's. The published result was the most magnificent series of Mexican views to be published in this era, grand in size and execution. This plate captures the stark, mountainous landscape of central Mexico, showing a town in the valley brightly lit by the sun as a rainstorm sweeps off to the left. In the right foreground a smelter belches smoke, suggesting that the real reason for life in this remote landscape is not its picturesque qualities but the mineral wealth concealed in the landscape.

The Spirit of Place, Part II

Encountering Native Americans
Customs of the Country
Valor and Endurance
An Analytic Eye
The Sublime and the Picturesque

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Send comments to George Miles, William Roberston Coe Curator of Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University

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