American Prospects: Nineteenth-Century City Views by William James Bennett

William James Bennett, City of Charleston, S. Carolina, Looking Across Cooper's River, 1838, after a painting by George Cooke. Lent by Leonard L. Milberg, Class of 1953. Photo: Bruce M. White

Between 1831 and 1842, the English painter and engraver William James Bennett (1784–1844) produced an informal series of eighteen aquatint views of American cities, ranging from Boston in the North to Mobile, Alabama, on the Gulf of Mexico. Based on originals executed on site by Bennett and other artists, these masterful images present an optimistic vision of a young nation bustling with growth and activity yet simultaneously pristine and ordered—an appealing amalgam of Enlightenment rationality with more dramatic Romantic pictorial effects.

Bennett arrived in America in 1826, steeped in the topographical watercolor tradition established in eighteenth-century England, where increased domestic and foreign travel fostered an appreciation of the scenic world and a demand for images depicting it both accurately and attractively. Aquatint, a form of etching in which the application of powdered rosin allows the creation of tonal areas similar to ink wash, was ideally suited to translate watercolor’s delicate atmospheric effects into the print medium, enabling broad distribution.

William James Bennett, New Orleans, Taken from the Opposite Side a Short Distance above the Middle or Picayune Ferry, 1841, after a sketch by Antoine Mondelli. Lent by Leonard L. Milberg, Class of 1953. Photo: Bruce M. WhiteAs portrayed in Bennett’s aquatints, America’s cities in the 1830s revolved around the coasts and waterways—conduits of trade—on which they were invariably situated, an indication that commerce at this time was still largely a matter of the transportation of goods, with large-scale industry in its infancy. Individually, the prints offer detailed renderings of specific sites significant in the nation’s development; collectively, they compose the finest group of early views of American cities, their expansive, buoyant character serving as a visual metaphor for the country’s future promise.

One of only two known complete sets of Bennett’s views, the images on display are drawn from the collection of Leonard L. Milberg, Class of 1953. It is believed that this installation constitutes only the third time that the works have been exhibited together since their creation approximately 175 years ago.William James Bennett, City of Washington from beyond the Navy Yard, 1834. Lent by Leonard L. Milberg, Class of 1953. Photo: Bruce M. White

Karl Kusserow
Curator of American Art