Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

Chapter 2: Portraits of the Early Nineteenth Century

Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

Chapter 2: Portraits of the Early Nineteenth Century

Article excerpt

What follows sketches how and why the portrait of the architect in the United States during the nineteenth century evolved from Peak's three-foot tall, half-length figure of William Buckland as draftsman to John Singer Sargent's 1895, nine-foot tall, fulllength likeness of Richard Morris Hunt posturing importantly at Biltmore House in North Carolina (see Figure 3.11, p. 74). We cannot consider this topic without keeping in mind the previous history of the genre, as briefly outlined in Chapter 1, as well as the evolving history of the profession. Early conditions in this country differed greatly from those of contemporary England and the Continent, but developments in the practice of architecture here in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century recall to some extent the gradual emergence of the architect in late-medieval and early-Renaissance Europe. During the period beginning around 1800 there were very few architects as we use the term today and hence no architectural profession in the United States. Benjamin Henry Latrobe, an English immigrant, was the early, glaring exception. However, by the late nineteenth century that profession had been fully formed.1 It is the thesis here that this development can be pictured by looking at a series of architects' portraits from that century, by putting a face, or rather faces in their settings, on that development. On the other hand, it is also the thesis here that the development of the profession accounts for the evolving iconography of the images. In a nutshell: early portraits often intentionally show staffage that normally identifies the sitter as an architect; many later portraits omit staffage in order to show the sitter as indistinguishable from other professionals. Here, so to speak, we come face to face with history.

The changing identification of type is the subject of this study. Drafting instruments and reference books were frequent identifiers of early nineteenth-century American architects, as they visually separated designer from builder, but these items were not the only ones that suggested their users were architects. Before we can turn our attention to portraits that follow (and adapt) the traditional pattern, we must make a detour to look at a few that fall into an alternate iconography. For example, John McComb, Jr. (1761-1853), codesigner (with Joseph François Mangin) of New York's City Hall of 1802-12, in a work attributed to Samuel Lovett Waldo now hanging in City Hall, is shown holding a plan, the product of his draftsmanship, that includes the astonishing rotunda of that building whose exterior appears in the background (Figure 2.1).2 McComb was the leading architect in New York City in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, and sufficiently regarded nationally by 1817 to have been considered along with Boston's Charles Bulfinch as Benjamin Henry Latrobe's successor as supervising architect of the Capitol. The portrait probably dates from the second decade of the century when McComb's career peaked. He had largely retired from practice by 1826.3 Whether this was a private or public commission remains an unanswered question, although most likely it was private as the city acquired the work from his granddaughter in 1916. Waldo (1783-1861), who studied with Benjamin West and at the Royal Academy in London in the early years of the century, was by 1817 established as a studio portraitist in New York, as a member of the American Academy of Fine Arts, and soon to be a founder of the National Academy of Design. We find the format of this portrait-sitter, drawing, building-without visible drafting instruments, repeated through the century. A slight variation of it marks the roughly contemporary portrait of Russell Warren (1783-1860) attributed to Henry Cheever Pratt, now in the collection of the Rhode Island Historical Society.4 When he sat to Pratt, Warren, who assumed the title of "architect" in 1828, would have been an important designer in Rhode Island, the man who created among his many works the remarkable neoclassical, granite, iron, and glass Providence Arcade of 1827-29. …

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