William Chappel’s 19th-century paintings of New York City recall an era when a lamplighter made evening rounds to illuminate the streets with whale oil, and Sunday mornings were enlivened by revivalist group baptisms in the water off the Corlear’s Hook beach. Any romanticism for this past is rudely interrupted by the violent presence of the dog killer holding a bloody canine, a paid and legalized brutality allowed by an 1811 law aimed at curtailing the thousands of feral dogs roaming the streets, or the unventilated sewer festering at the 1807 intersection of Roosevelt and Oak streets. Lurking constantly was the threat of fire to the mostly wooden architecture, as well as the scarcity of fresh water in a pre-Croton Aqueduct city.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art is exhibiting 27 of Chappel’s paintings in City of Memory: William Chappel’s Views of Early 19th-Century New York. (You can also see the paintings online at the Met’s site.) The small exhibition, organized by Amy Bogansky, a research associate in the museum’s American Wing, is installed just outside the visible storage of the Luce Center. Although the works themselves are diminutive, they’re incredibly detailed. (I recommend you grab one of the available magnifying glasses.) In one painting, a magnificent bull is being led with a golden bridle past Bull’s Head Tavern in the Bowery livestock district, and in a snowy night scene a city watchman, part of the law enforcement infrastructure before the police force was established in the 1840s, patrols for robbers of homes or graves. And then there are the numerous peddlers when much of the economy and commercial enterprise was out on the streets, including the strawberry seller who may have foraged his wares or bought them at market if he was more flush; the young hot-corn girl hawking her street food on a corner; and the black woman balancing a dish of syrup-drenched pears on her head alongside Duane Street Park. The label text (which is especially well researched) notes that many of these vendors were likely impoverished, the mobile workforce made up predominantly of white women and children, and black men and women.
By the time he painted these views on slate paper they were decades in the past and New York was a rapidly developing city. While it’s not recorded whether Chappel, who lived from 1801 to 1878 and earned his living as a tinsmith, painted them from memory or sketches, the latter seems more likely. His geographic orientations are meticulous, so much so that the Met has plotted almost all of them on an 1808 map of Lower Manhattan. For instance, in one painting where a group of ladies is walking down Second Street (today’s Forsyth), presumably to a tea party, the label text identifies David and Jabez Fowler’s smith’s shop, Thomas Foster’s grocery, and the corner of Pump Street (today’s Canal).
Chappel was an amateur painter, his blurred faces of people sometimes slipping into stereotype — such as his representations of the black men and women, who may have been enslaved before New York abolished slavery in 1827 — and this series of streetscapes representing his only known major body of work. (His son, painter Alonzo Chappel, would gain greater fame.) Yet from the competitive fire brigades on the Bowery showing off their fortitude in their “washing day” for their pump engines, to a somber funeral for a child with the escorting young women all dressed in white, there is a rare and engaging perspective on what everyday life was like in the early 1800s of New York.
City of Memory: William Chappel’s Views of Early 19th-Century New York continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through June 25.