Wednesday, August 7, 2019

A Sultry Calm

Our guests, Clare and Doug, stepped off the boat in Fairport on Sunday morning. We motored gently back to our home port of Macedon. They went on to Rochester, where they visited the Memorial Art Gallery. Later that day, Clare texted me a photo of this striking painting.

The English-born artist George Harvey painted “Pittsford on the Erie Canal: A Sultry Calm” in 1837, 12 years after the canal first opened. Just a day earlier, we’d cruised the very same landscape.

A Romantic View of Nature

The painting depicts a packet boat—a special canal boat fitted out to carry passengers rather than cargo. This packet boat is pulled, not by mules, but two rather fine-looking horses. 

This grain silo in Pittsford dates to 1882, but the town was
already a center for grain shipment when Harvey visited in 1836.
And instead of a hogee (mule driver), typically a ragged little boy, a well-dressed man on horseback accompanies the team. The equally well-dressed passengers ride on the roof of the boat, enjoying the fresh air.

In the distance, you can see church spires and perhaps a silo in the prosperous and growing town of Pittsford—already a center for grain shipment. 

As part of our cruise, we had stopped in Pittsford to stroll the main street and admire the old brick buildings, then enjoy a microbrew at a dockside pub, in the shadow of a grain silo now converted to luxury condos.

Pride in Mastering Nature, Too

The art museum’s website includes an essay about this painting, which I found fascinating. American landscape painting of the 19th century did double duty: it was a way for Europeans to see what this expansive new land looked like, but it also reflected a very American attitude: that our land’s extraordinary beauty was “a sign of God’s special providence.”

Later in the essay, the writer makes this point:

“The successful completion and dramatic results of the Erie Canal were seen by Americans—and even by the Europeans—as proof of America’s exceptionalism.” 

He cites the Erie Canal’s “Great Embankment,” a tall earth berm that carries the canal safely over Irondequoit Creek--and which we had also cruised along as part of our journey--as one of the great engineering challenges successfully achieved by the canal’s architects.

Then the writer continues:
Romantic Landscape, Masterful Technology, check!

“Harvey shared with many Hudson River School artists the view of American wilderness as a ‘second creation.’ 

"In this view the canal boat becomes a symbol of Adam in the new Eden, securely protected between the steeples of Christian churches with the divine light of Providence shining upon the scene.”

Whew! And here we thought we were just out for a leisurely cruise.

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