Francis Guy, one of the earliest landscape and genre painters in America, arrived in the United States from England in 1795. After an initial stay in New York, Guy moved to Baltimore and established a silk-dying business, a trade in which he had achieved considerable success in London some years earlier. In 1799, when his business was destroyed by a fire, Guy turned full time to painting. William H. Gerdts writes, “by 1800 he was advertising the public display of his frescoes in James Bryden’s popular Exchange Coffee House, a continuous exhibition strategically located for attracting prospective clients. As early as 1803 Guy was a pioneer, not only in Baltimore but nationally, in arranging for exhibitions and auctions of his own works. . . .Guy continued as Baltimore’s principal landscape painter until he moved to Brooklyn in 1817, and even as late as 1819 he held one last exhibition in his former city of residence” (Art Across America, New York, 1990, v. 1, pp. 323-324).
In his studio on Front Street, Guy painted a series of views of the neighborhood surrounding his Brooklyn home. The New York Public Library’s Winter Scene in Brooklyn is most likely Guy’s first picture of the series. According to the historian Henry R. Stiles, the artist’s widow sold sixty-two of Guy’s works at an auction on Wall Street in New York. The auction catalogue notes that Winter Scene in Brooklyn, No. 39, “was undoubtedly the first sketch of the scene, being entirely without figures” (A History of the City of Brooklyn, Brooklyn, New York, 1869, vol. 2, p. 104). Stiles also observed that the scene depicts “the most important and compact portion of Brooklyn as it stood in 1820. [It] will forever be invaluable as exhibiting the architectural character of the village at that period; and, in some degree for half a century previous” ( pp. 99-100). Perhaps the best known composition of the buildings and residences in the artist’s Brooklyn community is in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum (figure 1). An 1853 copy of Guy’s painting hangs in the collection of the Museum of the City of New York: “the scene depicts Front Street from Main Street (on the left) to Fulton (on the right), an area now partially covered by approaches to the Brooklyn Bridge and a section of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. A few blocks inland from the East River and the Fulton Ferry slip, this picturesque neighborhood occupied land that was once part of a farm belonging to a Loyalist family named Rapalje. It was next used as the British Quartermaster’s Yard during the Revolution and then, after the introduction of the Brooklyn-Manhattan ferry service in the second decade of the nineteenth century, became known as the ferry district of the village of Brooklyn. . . . the architectural character exhibited here reveals a place in transition from an eighteenth-century village with an eclectic, irregular arrangement of buildings—including a farm, substantial Federal-style homes, and mix-use buildings providing both living and business—to a more modern, more urbanized town. . . .”
During the early 19th century, many of the most significant buildings in Brooklyn were situated on Front Street. Stiles developed a key (figure 2) for Winter Scene in Brooklyn, which identifies the structures surrounding the artist’s studio. It is likely that Stiles gathered this information from Thomas W. Birdsall, whose residence and store is the yellow two-story structure seen at the far right of the composition (figure 2, no. 1). In the center of the composition is the barn and slaughterhouse of Abiel Titus (figure 2, no. 9); his home is the large structure across the yard to the right (figure 2, no. 2). Across the street to the left of Titus’ barn is the home and carpenter shop belonging to Benjamin Meeker (figure 2, no. 10).
Caption figure 1: Winter Scene in Brooklyn, circa 1819-1820, oil on canvas, 58 3/8 by 74 9/16 in. (148.2 by 189.4 cm) Brooklyn Museum. 97.13. Transferred from the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences to the Brooklyn Museum
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