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View from Long Island, Looking up the East River

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View from Long Island, Looking up the East River

Artist: Alexander Robertson (Scottish, 1772-1841; active United States, after 1792)

Date: 1797
Medium: Black ink on cream-colored, medium-weight laid paper
Dimensions:
Overall: 8 5/8 x 11 3/8in. (21.9 x 28.9cm)
Markings: Watermark, upper center: Fleur-De-Lis (A Shield or the date "1794" are on Other Leaaves of the Robertson Sketchbook at the Albany Institute of History and Art)
Inscribed: Recto, lower center (black ink): "View from Long Island Looking up the East River" Lower right (black ink): "1 July '97" Two illegible graphite inscriptions on the verso.
Credit Line: Museum Purchase, in Part with Funds from an Anonymous Gift, by Exchange
Object number: 91.5.a-b
Label Text
The linear drawing style Robertson used for this landscape view is very similar to the linear style H. Fox Talbot used in his 1833 view of Lago Lecco, Italy (see p. 15 of Beaumont Newhall's History of Photography [1964]). Talbot's image was drawn with a camera lucida, which was invented by William H. Wollastoln about a decade after Robertson made this drawing. However, the formulaic quality of Robertson's image may be due to his use of some other kind of drawing device. A camera obscura was probably too bulky for him to carry around in the countryside but perhaps he used a Claude glass?

Paul D. Schweizer
March 2013
Text Entries

Originally part of a sketchbook now in the collections of the Albany Institute of History and Art,(1) this drawing was one of about thirty sheets that were removed in the 1960s.(2) The drawing is not signed, but an inscription in the sketchbook identifies it as a work by Alexander Robertson rather than by his older brother Archibald, whose drawing style was very similar.(3)

The MWPI drawing relates to several other views of Long Island that remain part of the Albany sketchbook. Robertson made the MWPI drawing from a site on the highlands of western Long Island near Williamsburgh, or perhaps further north.(4) His view is to the northwest, with the East River in the middle distance and the gentle rolling hills of Manhattan Island in the background. The inscription Robertson added at the bottom of the work demonstrates his adherence to one of the key conventions of topographical drawing, that is, that the site represented be identified.

Robertson’s view conforms with the precepts of picturesque scenery as they were codified by the British esthetician William Gilpin, especially in his Essay on Picturesque Travel, published in London in 1792 and reprinted shortly thereafter in New York. According to Gilpin’s esthetic system, a picturesque scene should include contrasts, its composition should be framed at the sides by Claudian devices, the spectators eye should be led in an orderly fashion into the distance, and the artist should generalize nature rather than depict its details. (5) All of these pictorial conventions are apparent in the MWPI sheet. For contrast, Robertson juxtaposed highlight and shadow, near and far, high and low, water and earth. For the Claudian framing devices he contrasted the rough pine tree at the left of the design with the smooth deciduous tree at the right. This contrast is echoed in the small clump of trees in the lower left middle ground, which is the first of several pictorial elements Robertson drew to lure the viewer’s eye deeper into the composition.

William Dunlap noted that Robertson sketched with “great facility.”(6) This ease is apparent in the MWPI drawing, which he made with little apparent hesitancy, no preliminary pencil lines, and few corrections. The outline style he used—with its concentration on large masses at the expense of incidental detail; its generalized leaf, rock, and tree shapes shaded with uniformly spaced diagonal lines; the ink lines that get lighter and thinner toward the back- ground, suggestive of aerial perspective; and the large blank areas of paper—was well suited for a draftsman who did not want to labor too long on any one drawing.(7)

1. This assertion is based on my comparison, in July 1993, of the MWPI sheet with drawings bound in the Albany Institute sketchbook; their paper stock and color, dimensions, and Watermark are similar.

2. Mary Alice Mackay, “Notes on Sketchbook," May 1, 1992, 13, unpublished manuscript in curatorial files, Albany Institute of History and Art. I am grateful to Ms. Mackay for sharing these notes with me. The Albany Institutes sketchbook was discussed in Kenneth Myers, The Catskills: Painters, Writers, and Tourists in the Mountains, 1820-1895 (Yonkers, N.Y.: The Hudson River Museum of Westchester, 1987), 180 n. 6. Norman Rice, former director of the Albany Institute, questioned Myers’s suggestion that Robertson’s loose drawings came from two or possibly more sketch-books in a conversation with the author on July 2, 1993. Rice recollected the existence of only one album.

3. Part of the inscription in the front of the album reads: “Sketches from Nature /Made by Alexander Robertson, 1796-97." For the similarity of the brothers’ drawing styles see Theodore E. Stebbins,]r., American Master Drawings and Watercolors: A History of Works on Paper from Colonial Times to the Present (New York: Harper and Row, 1976), 53.

4. The elevated point of view in topographical landscapes is discussed by Amy R. W Meyers, “Imposing Order on the Wilderness," in Edward J. Nygren et al., Views and Visions: American Landscape before 1830 (Washington, D.C.: The Corcoran Gallery of Art, 1986), 112. The later use of this tradition, and its larger ramifications, are discussed by Albert Boime, The Magisterial Gaze (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991).

5. Edward J. Nygren, “From View to Vision,” and Bruce Robertson, “The Picturesque Traveler in America," in Nygren, Views and Visions, 18-21, 189-90.

6. William Dunlap, A History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States (New York: George P. Scott and Co., 1834; reprint, New York: Dover Publications, 1969), 1: 425.

7. Robertson made at least one other drawing on Long Island the same day he drew the MWPI sheet. See American Drawings, Pastels and Watercolors, 23, fig. 32. The linear tradition to which Robertson's drawings belong is summarized in Robert Rosenblurn, “The International Style of 1800: A Study in Linear Abstraction” (Ph.D. diss., New York University, 1956). Related literature: Archibald Robertson, Elements of the Graphic Arts (New York: David Longworth, 1802).

 

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