New York City: it’s often labeled the capital of the world. With its bustling and no-nonsense nature, the city gets all the recognition it deserves.
But how many New Yorkers are actually familiar with their city’s roots?
A silly question, perhaps. Just because people live and work in a city, doesn’t equate to the responsibility of knowing their city’s history. But any true civilian, any truly devoted resident of their city, must be somewhat familiar with their city’s history to call themselves a native of said city.
In essence, what kind of New Yorker am I if I don’t know a bit about my borough’s history? What kind of Brooklynite am I if I don’t know about Gravesend, the neighborhood in which I originate and still call home?
Not a very good one, perhaps. But a New Yorker nonetheless.
Speaking of Brooklyn, there’s a fairly-hidden gem that most Brooklynites aren’t aware of. Its popularity has increased during this past decade, and it is a destination for the knowledgable, for the intelligent and well-reformed.
With its replica Statue of Liberty in the parking lot, and diverse exhibits ranging from ancient Egyptian art to feministic works of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, this destination is none other than the Brooklyn Museum.
As I was browsing the bowels of this museum, I came across a painting situated on the east wall of a gallery on the fourth floor. As soon as my eyes laid upon the canvas, I became engulfed with this painting. Fascinated.
The painting in question was Winter Scene in Brooklyn, by Francis Guy.
New York City has been the subject of a substantial amount of depictions in various works of art throughout its history. Before the invention of the camera, the only way to visually depict the city (or anything, really) was via painting.
Winter Scene in Brooklyn, painted by Francis Guy, remains a relatively unknown gem that allows modern-day New Yorkers to peer into their city’s history. Via this painting, Guy presents the difference between pre-modern ‘old fashioned’ society and the inevitable development of modernization that took place in the late 19th century.
The painting shows us what our city, our borough of Brooklyn, looked like exactly two hundred years ago, in the period circa 1819–1820. After a fire destroyed his business in 1799, Francis Guy resorted to painting, and after moving to Brooklyn in 1817, he painted Winter Scene in Brooklyn, which he completed in 1820, the year of his death.
The oil painting depicts the intersection of Fulton, James and Front Streets in modern-day Downtown Brooklyn, the intersection where Guy lived — in fact, the painting was based on his view from his second-floor apartment, which was where he painted it from. It is said that each individual represented in the painting was one of Guy’s neighbors or friends, and the buildings and storefronts were historically accurate.
Background aside, the painting indirectly argues that the simplicity of pre-modern society shan’t be overtaken by modernization, and if it is, it shall remain valued. By capturing the beauty and elegance of this pre-modern Brooklyn, Guy is emphasizing the beauty of the ‘old-fashioned’, and no matter what the future holds, it could never replicate this beauty.
Guy took into consideration the interactivity between the townsfolk, carefully making them engage in a variety of activities, from feeding their livestock to carrying materials to and fro, to merely chit-chatting on the street. By showing them all as hard-working, generous and courageous, Guy is implying that the city does not need to change, to modernize, because it is fine as is.
Similarly, emphasized in the painting is the pre-modern Dutch style, which was prominent in the New York City area, since it was founded by the Dutch some two hundred years earlier. By drawing attention to this specific Dutch style, Guy is once again placing emphasis on the pre-modern ‘old fashioned’ style that existed during this period, and would one day cease to exist.
Inevitably, by the time the painting was acquired in 1846, some twenty-six years after the completion of the painting, the scene depicted by Guy had advanced drastically, and looked entirely different. Modernization had occurred, and the painting became that much more valuable since it now highlighted the drastic divide between what once was, and what now was.
Known for painting picturesque cityscapes, Guy ensured that his depiction of Brooklyn was not devoid of detail such that its future historical value would be retained. The fact that the painting includes a substantial amount of detail allows the pre-modern to be emphasized, which makes the presentation of the old and the new to be much more apparent, supporting the original thesis.
Overall, Winter Scene in Brooklyn is of monumental importance as it ensures that the viewer realizes the difference between the pre-modern society and the modern. The difference between ‘old fashioned’ society and the eventual modernization of Brooklyn is being clearly represented and depicted in this painting.
In an ever-advancing and modernizing society, especially in the aforementioned ‘capital of the world’, a city that’s always rapidly advancing, a blast from the past is a true treasure. And this painting is that blast from the past, that treasure. So head to the Brooklyn Museum now, and cherish it.
Treasures never last forever. But this one is 200 years and still going strong.
Chris is a writer and publisher who travels America, and loves doing it. He also loves pizza, video games, and sports, and can tell you a thing or two about each. Follow him on Medium to be informed of new articles.