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Meeting of the Waters

Not on view

Meeting of the Waters

Artist: William Winstanley (English, 1775-1806; active United States, c.1793-c.1801)

Date: 1795
Medium: Oil on canvas
Framed: 45 x 59 3/8 x 3 3/4in. (114.3 x 150.8 x 9.5cm)
Overall: 35 x 49 1/4in. (88.9 x 125.1cm)
Signed: Lower right: "W W 1795"
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 63.94
Text Entries

Meeting of the Waters is one of only four major landscapes that can positively be ascribed to William Winstanley, an English artist whose career in America was limited to the last decade of the eighteenth century and the opening years of the nineteenth.(1) According to William Dunlap, Winstanley was a well-educated young man of good family who came to America in the early 1790s on business involving the Episcopal Church.(2)  In 1795, the date of this work, he exhibited in New York a panorama of London, the first of its kind in America. By 1806 he was back in England, where he sent a group of American landscapes to the recently established British institution.

The little that is known of Winstanley’s life and work revolves primarily around his association with George Washington. In April 1793 he was in Philadelphia, then the center of government, when Washington purchased from the artist two views of the Hudson —Morning and Evening—now at Mount Vernon. Two other landscapes were acquired by the President, who wrote a letter of introduction for the young artist, in September 1793, to the Commissioners of the District of Columbia. He referred to Winstanley as “a celebrated Landskip Painter” who intended to take a view of the Federal City. Washington further commented that he had suggested to Winstanley subjects in the vicinity, such as the Great and Little Falls of the Potomac, and the passage of that river through the Blue Ridge Mountains.(3)

Winstanley’s visit to the future capital in late 1793 or early 1794.4 may have been the genesis of this painting, which has been known as The Meeting of the Potomac and the Shenandoah Rivers at Harper’s Ferry since it was acquired by the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute Museum of Art in 1963. The junction of these two rivers was renowned. Thomas Jefferson in Notes on Virginia, first published in 1784, had described the site as “one of the most stupendous scenes in nature” and worth a voyage across the Atlantic.5 Jefferson’s encomium may strike the present visitor to Harper’s Ferry, as it did some of his contemporaries, as hyperbolic, but the union of the two rivers as they “rush together against the mountain, rend it asunder, and pass off to the sea” was and is dramatic. However, even if inspired by the actual merging of these two rivers, Meeting of the Waters, like the artist’s two views of the Hudson, is not a faithful depiction of a specific locale, but rather a poetic evocation. Winstanley would have been aware of the distinction then made between a topographical or imitative view and an imaginative or creative landscape. And this painting, with its air of idyllic tranquility, was clearly conceived as a work of imagination.

Bathed in a diffused yellow light, Meeting of the Waters exudes a sense of repose. It is, in effect, an essay on the beautiful as defined by Edmund Burke in the mid-eighteenth century.6  Delicate tints of greens and blues invest the scene with a clarity and freshness appropriate to thewilderness setting. The hushed stillness is almost palpable. The viewer of the painting moves gradually back into pictorial space, taking in, as do the fishermen on the shore, the picturesque beauty of the spot.

It is also a classical landscape. The balanced composition, framed by foliage, and the crystalline atmospheric effects ultimately derive from Claude Lorrain and Gaspard Dughet, Franco-Italian painters of the seventeenth century who had a far-reaching influence on the development of landscape.7 Winstanley would have had many opportunities to see in England works by these artists, but strong echoes of their style were also present in the paintings of such contemporaries, or predecessors, as George Lambert, Richard Wilson, and Thomas Gainsborough. Yet it is not to British followers of Claude and Gaspard that Winstanley turned for a model, but to the popular French painter Claude-Joseph Vernet.8  Like Vernet, Winstanley populates his landscape with graceful figures that add to the delicacy of the scene and contribute to its poetic tone. For Meeting of the Waters, despite its possible source of inspiration, does not offer a real view of the American wilderness, but rather a vision of a Virgilian idyll that transcends time and place. As such, it is a surprisingly sophisticated and artistically precocious painting for America at the end of the eighteenth century.


1. Two views of the Hudson River, Morning and Evening, are at Mount Vernon. A third painting, Falls of the Genesee, one of two landscapes purchased by George Washington in 1794, is in the collection of the National Museum of American History. Smithsonian Institution. Only two other works are known: a pair of small landscapes in a private collection.

2. The basic information on Winstanley’s life can be found in William Dunlap, History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States (New York: 1834; new ed., New York: Benjamin Blom, Inc., 1965), vol. 1, pp. 164, 234-37; vol. 2, pp. 77-78. See also J. Hall Pleasants, Four Late Eighteenth-Century Anglo-American Landscape Painters Worcester: 1942; repr., Worcester: Ameri- can Antiquarian Society. 1943).

3. Pleasants, p. 119.

4. Winstanley returned to Washington in 1800 when he was befriended by Dr. William Thornton, the architect of the Capitol, and his wife. It is to this period that the infamous story, related in Dunlap, concerning Winstanley’s unauthorized copies after Stuart’s portraits, dates.

5. Thomas Jefferson, The Life and Selected Writings, ed. by Adrienne Koch and William Peden (New York: 1944; repr., New York: Random House, 1972). PP- 192.193-

6. Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, ed. by James T. Boulton (London: 1757; repr., Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968).

7. For a discussion of Claude’s influence on British art and thought, see Elizabeth Wheeler Manwaring, Italian Landscape in Eighteenth Century England (New York: 1925; repr., New York: Russell, 1965). For Gaspard, see Gaspard Dughet called Gaspar Poussin 1625-75, exhibition catalog (London: The Iveagh Bequest, Kenwood, 1980).

8. For a discussion of Vernet and his popularity in England, see Philip Conisbee, Claude-Joseph Vernet 1714-1789, exhibition catalog (London: The Iveagh Bequest, Kenwood, 1976). The Utica painting is particularly close in tone and composition to Calm: Sunset (Conisbee, no. 44), purchased by Lord Clive in 1773 and engraved by Daniel Lerpiniere in 1782 for John Boydell.


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