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Becoming a city: daily life in 1820, Brooklyn

Francis Guy's 1820 painting of Brooklyn captures the city's transformation from rural to commercial. The artwork showcases social hierarchy, daily life, and the artist's self-portrait, promoting American art. Guy's painting also subtly hints at the city's Dutch roots and the anonymity of African American figures during that era. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(jazzy piano music) - [Voiceover] We're in the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art looking at a painting of Brooklyn by Francis Guy, painted in 1820. - [Voiceover] It is a Brooklyn that maybe doesn't look so recognizable today, but if you're standing under the Brooklyn Bridge, you would be right at this confluence of streets that you see in the painting. - [Voiceover] We think that the artist saw this view from his studio. But it looks to me like he took slightly different views out of his window and combined them. - [Voiceover] So many paintings are not exact replicas of what an artist was seeing, but rather a compendium of images that they put together from their experience. - [Voiceover] We have that brick building, which is clearly the nicest house in town. - [Voiceover] Guy was painting at a time when photography hadn't even been invented. And so here, where he is showing specific houses, which at the time this was painted, were identifiable to people who knew Brooklyn. And so it is that rendering of a real place, even if in many ways he made up the scene. It has all the pieces of what made life in Brooklyn in 1820. - [Voiceover] In the foreground we have a figure sawing wood. On the right another figure, who's obviously selling coal. And we can see that the houses are being kept warm, because we have the smoke rising from the chimneys in this cold winter day. - [Voiceover] And he brings not only in the physical, specifics of what Brooklyn was like in 1820, but also the social heirarchy. - [Voiceover] You see on your right, African American figures who are going about their daily business. And then on the left you see the white figures. But perhaps one of my favorite details in the painting is the man just left of center-- - [Voiceover] Mine too. - where you see a gentleman who is walking with his hat on and his long winter coat. And what's he carrying under his arm? A painting. And so the artist has put himself in the work of art. - [Voiceover] It's an encouraging of the American public to buy more art. - [Voiceover] I think Guy is definitely putting himself in the picture to try and drum up some more patronage. And also to bring to people's mind, the fact that there was a real place for specifically American art. And he reminds us of that Americanness in two details that are among my favorites. One is a woman carrying a water bucket where her clothing in a headscarf and her dress and her shawl are red, white and blue. As is the frozen laundry hanging right in the middle ground. How more American could it be? - [Voiceover] We know that the artist identified all of the figures in the painting. Actually I should say nearly all the figures in the painting. - [Voiceover] He chose, in fact, to only identify those figures that were of Anglo-European descent. And so the African American figures remain anonymous as they did so much in life at this time. - [Voiceover] African American figures often provide some comic relief in American paintings at this time and I see that in the figure who's fallen down and the dog who's barking. - [Voiceover] Humor around African Americans and African American life was something that was very visible, not just in literature, but also in early American theater as well. - [Voiceover] But I wanna also go back to the Dutch tradition that this is drawing on and remind us that Brooklyn was in fact settled by the Dutch and the name Brooklyn is itself a Dutch name. But when I notice the sky with these fabulous clouds that takes up two thirds of the painting, I'm reminded of the landscapes of Ruisdael. And when I look at the little vignettes and the social exchanges, I'm reminded of Dutch genre paintings by artists like Jan Steen. - [Voiceover] And the other thing that so much reminds me of Dutch painting is the way that animals are adding some of the comic relief. I love the little pig who's running and he's being chased. And the exchange between a dog and a cow and the man feeding the chickens. And another vignette that I just absolutely adore, and tells us so much about early American life, is a group of gentleman, and you see one man holding an upright rod, but also a square that speaks to the fact that Brooklyn is growing and that there is building going on. And he is talking to a gentleman who has a coat that seems to be perhaps fur, which puts him in a higher economic status, but even more so is this gigantic pot belly. - [Voiceover] (giggling) Well he's clearly had too much to eat and I wonder if he would have been considered gluttonous. - [Voiceover] In early America, having a lot of flesh on your bones was not something that you worried about, it was something to be proud of, 'cause it meant that you had enough to eat. - [Voiceover] And you get that sense of the transition here, because in the center of the painting you have a farm and the gate of the farm is open and those animals are wandering around the streets just like the people are. But you have what looks like a shop. So you have the sense of a place that's going from rural to more mercantile, more commercial. - [Voiceover] And that's exactly what was happening in this section of Brooklyn around 1820. It was really becoming a city. And the fact that the artist puts himself in the foreground speaks to that for it to be complete there needed to be the cultural arts as well. - [Voiceover] That America wasn't a real country unless it had its own culture. This is such a fun painting and I'm so glad that Francis Guy captured this for us to go back in time, to 1820 in Brooklyn. (jazzy piano music)