Walter M. Oddie, New York, by 1838
Julia Austin Meigs, New York, circa 1865 (his wife)
Henry Meigs, New Jersey, circa 1880 (her brother)
Henry Meigs, Jr., New York, circa 1887 (his son)
Austin Graham Meigs, New York, circa 1902 (his son)
By descent in the family to the present owner
In the early 1830s New York City's population had reached a quarter of a million citizens, nearly all of whom lived clustered below Fourteenth Street. On June 26th of 1832 the first case of cholera was reported in the city and in only two months the disease claimed over 3,500 lives. One of Asher B. Durand's assistants described the devastation in the city: "There is no business doing here ... except that done by Cholera, Doctors, Undertakers, Coffinmakers, &c, ... Our bustling city now wears a most gloomy & desolate aspect—one may take a walk up & down Broadway & scarce meet a soul" (in John Noble Wilford, "How Epidemics Helped Shape the Modern Metropolis," The New York Times, April 15, 2008). Anyone with means fled the area, and many took refuge in the clean air and open spaces of Greenwich, a quiet village just north of the city's crowded wards. The Greenwich Boat Club commemorates the pleasant days Robert Weir spent with friends outside the confines of the city during the epidemic. Later in life Weir recalled that The Greenwich Boat Club "was painted after the yellow fever in 1832. To escape the disease a party of us took a boat and lived on the river. It was the best way to escape the pestilence" (in Irene Weir, Robert W. Weir: Artist, 1947, pp. 41-42). Though Weir misstated the disease, his recollection of the days passed "on the river" provides a sobering context for the bucolic scene.
The "Boat Club" refers to a group of friends that included Walter M. Oddie, an artist and informal student of Weir's. When Weir painted the work, Oddie and his wife Julia lived with her parents on the western edge of Greenwich near the Hudson River. On August 25, 1832 Oddie's father-in-law wrote in his diary: "Walter [Oddie], Weir, Le Compte, Martinez, Theodore, Charles, have gone in the barge to Jersey shore, with Guns, Drawing apparatus, Guitar, Meats, & Drinks" (in Susan Larkin, "'A Delicious Day': Robert Weir's Greenwich Boat Club," The American Art Journal, vol. XXXIII, p. 27). While the description bears a remarkable similarity to the scene Weir depicted, it is likely that Weir's inspiration for the painting was derived from several similar outings made by the group. The men depicted likely include artists Oddie, George Miller, doctors William Draper Brincklé and James Ellsworth DeKay, poet Fitz-Greene Halleck, the guitarist known as Martinez, and Henry Meigs, Oddie's brother-in-law. Weir may have included himself in the center of the image, near the pole. Several of the men, including Weir, belonged to the Sketch Club, an informal salon formed in the 1820s. The appearance of the New York coastline in the distance suggests that the party spent the day on the shores of New Jersey. The men have turned the boat, which probably belonged to Oddie, on its side and fashioned a tent out of the sail. The red flag, which usually signals danger, is attached to the boathook, here a useful prop for their makeshift quarters. Details scattered throughout the work hint that the leisurely days were spent hunting, reading, playing and listening to music, in addition to consuming eggs, oysters, shrimp, and liquor.
The Greenwich Boat Club garnered an enthusiastic reception when it was exhibited at the National Academy of Design in 1833. A reviewer in The New-York Mirror asserted: "Here we have Mr. Weir in his best style; and those who remember the pictures by this artist of the preceding exhibitions ...will think this a bold assertion. The lovely female of last year, and compositions from Scott and Shakspeare [sic] of preceding years, make it hazardous to say this is Mr. Weir's best picture, and yet we believe we must say it" ("National Academy of Design," vol. 10, June 8, 1833, p. 387).