THOMAS DOUGHTY (1791–1856)
View at Harper’s Ferry, from Below, about 1825–27
Oil on canvas, 17 x 24 in.
EXHIBITED: Hirschl & Adler Galleries, New York, 1998, The American Vasari: William Dunlap and his World, p. 26 no. 17 illus. in color as "River Landscape with Mill Buildings and Figures"
EX COLL.: [Hirschl & Adler Galleries, New York, 1998–2001]; private collection, 2005 until the present
The present work dates to the years when Doughty was arguably America’s premier landscape painter. In View at Harper’s Ferry, from Below, Doughty found a subject recommended both by spectacular topography and patriotic considerations. The lower town sits on a spit of flat land that marks the point where the Shenandoah River joins the Potomac as it runs its course on to Washington, D.C. and ultimately Chesapeake Bay. The towering heights that rise precipitously above the shorelines testify to the eons- ago power of the waters that flow together here. It was this evidence of geologic grandeur that so struck Jefferson. In 1794, George Washington designated Harper’s Ferry as the site for the second United States Armory. Washington knew the location from his work as a surveyor and also because he had family nearby. (Charlestown, West Virginia, is named for its founder, Charles Washington, Washington’s youngest full brother.) The armory was constructed beginning in 1799, and by 1825, was located in three small buildings facing the Potomac just north of the tributary Shenandoah. Thus, by the time that Doughty arrived to sketch in 1825, the area was recommended both for its dramatic scenery and its associations with Jefferson and Washington. The armory, barely visible in the distance of Doughty’s view, was a relatively small undertaking, but a focus of national pride, proof of the ability and intention of a new nation to defend itself. In the present oil painting, Doughty’s inclusion of the two fishermen in the foreground is a signature touch. Lines cast, one stands and one sits on a boulder just off shore in the midst of a rocky rapids.
Doughty painted a number of views of Harper’s Ferry. (Unfortunately, contemporary descriptions lack sufficient detail to distinguish among them.) He exhibited one such view at the Pennsylvania Academy in 1826. He produced another view for the steamboat Albany. That work, which is lost, was presumably painted on panel, as were the other works commissioned for this Hudson River boat that traveled between New York City and Albany. A watercolor by Doughty, Harper’s Ferry from Below, shows a view similar to the present painting, though without the two figures, and was acquired by the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. in 1964.
Thomas Doughty was a pioneer figure in 19th-century American landscape painting. Nonetheless, he struggled his whole life for the recognition and acclaim that came so readily to his colleagues Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand, and Frederic Edwin Church. The present work makes clear the source of Doughty's enduring appeal. He was a romantic artist who painted without pretension or bombast. Committed to producing lyrical and lovely depictions of American scenery, his works speak strongly to his uncompromising devotion to the American countryside and to the pleasures to be found there, near enough to urban areas to be readily accessible, but offering pastoral retreats for hiking, hunting, fishing, picnicking, riding to the hounds, or simply enjoying peaceful contemplation surrounded by natural beauty. Doughty found evidence of American energy and initiative in the buildings that dotted local riverbanks, Josiah and Thomas Gilpin’s paper mill on the Brandywine River, the Fairmount Waterworks on the Schuylkill, and here, the armory at Harper’s Ferry.