Francis Guy, Winter Scene in Brooklyn

Francis Guy, Winter Scene in Brooklyn, 1820, oil on canvas, 147.3 x 260.2 cm (Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art). Speakers:  Dr. Margaret C. Conrads and Dr. Beth Harris.

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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:10] We’re in the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, looking at a painting of Brooklyn by Francis Guy, painted in 1820.

Dr. Margaret C. Conrads: [0:12] It is a Brooklyn that maybe doesn’t look so recognizable today, but if you’re standing under the Brooklyn Bridge, you would be right at this confluence of streets that you see in the painting.

Dr. Harris: [0:23] We think that the artist saw this view from his studio, but it looks to me like he took slightly different views out of his window and combined them.

Dr. Conrads: [0:31] So many paintings are not exact replicas of what an artist was seeing but rather a compendium of images that they put together from their experience.

Dr. Harris: [0:42] We have that brick building, which is clearly the nicest house in town.

Dr. Conrads: [0:47] Guy was painting at a time when photography hadn’t even been invented. Here, where he is showing specific houses, which at the time this was painted were identifiable to people who knew Brooklyn. It is that rendering of a real place, even if in many ways he made up the scene. It has all the pieces of what made life in Brooklyn in 1820.

Dr. Harris: [1:14] In the foreground, we have a figure sawing wood. On the right, another figure who’s obviously selling coal. We can see that the houses are being kept warm because we have the smoke rising from the chimneys on this cold winter day.

Dr. Conrads: [1:35] He brings not only in the physical specifics of what Brooklyn was like in 1820 but also the social hierarchy. You see on your right African American figures who are going about their daily business. Then on the left, you see the white figures. But perhaps one of my favorite details in the painting is the man just left of center.

Dr. Harris: [1:53] Mine too.

Dr. Conrads: [1:54] Where you see a gentleman who is walking with his hat on and his long winter coat and what’s he carrying under his arm? A painting. The artist has put himself in the work of art.

Dr. Harris: [2:07] It’s encouraging the American public to buy more art.

Dr. Conrads: [2:11] I think Guy is definitely putting himself in the picture to try and drum up some more patronage. Also to bring to people’s mind the fact that there was a real place for specifically American art. He reminds us of that Americanness in two details that are among my favorites.

[2:31] One is a woman carrying a water bucket, where her clothing — in a headscarf, and her dress, and her shawl — are red, white, and blue. As is the frozen laundry hanging right in the middle ground. How more American could it be?

Dr. Harris: [2:49] We know that the artist identified all of the figures in the painting. Actually, I should say nearly all the figures in the painting.

Dr. Conrads: [2:56] He chose, in fact, to only identify those figures that were of Anglo-European descent. The African American figures remain anonymous as they did so much in life at this time.

Dr. Harris: [3:12] African American figures often provide some comic relief in American paintings at this time. I see that in the figure who’s fallen down and the dog who’s barking.

Dr. Conrads: [3:23] Humor around African Americans and African American life was something that was very visible, not just in literature but also in early American theater as well.

Dr. Harris: [3:40] I want to also go back to the Dutch tradition that this is drawing on and remind us that Brooklyn was in fact settled by the Dutch. The name Brooklyn is itself a Dutch name. When I notice the sky with these fabulous clouds that takes up two-thirds of the painting, I’m reminded of the landscapes of Ruisdael.

[4:02] When I look at the little vignettes and the social exchanges, I’m reminded of Dutch genre paintings by artists like Jan Steen.

Dr. Conrads: [4:11] The other thing that so much reminds me of Dutch painting is the way that animals are adding some of the comic relief. I love the little pig who’s running. He’s being chased. The exchange between a dog and a cow and the man feeding the chickens.

[4:29] Another vignette that I just absolutely adore and tells us so much about early American life is a group of gentlemen. You see one man holding an upright rod but also a square — that speaks to the fact that Brooklyn is growing and that there is building going on. He is talking to a gentleman who has a coat that seems to be perhaps fur, which puts him in a higher economic status.

[0:00] Even more so is this gigantic pot belly.

[0:00] [laughs]

Dr. Harris: [4:56] Well, he’s clearly had too much to eat. I wonder if he would have been considered gluttonous.

Dr. Conrads: [5:02] In early America, having a lot of flesh on your bones was not something that you worried about. It was something to be proud of because it meant that you had enough to eat.

Dr. Harris: [5:18] You get that sense of the transition here because in the center of the painting you have a farm. The gate of the farm is open. Those animals are wandering around the streets just like the people are. You have what looks like a shop. You have the sense of a place that’s going from rural to more mercantile, more commercial.

Dr. Conrads: [5:38] That’s exactly what was happening in this section of Brooklyn around 1820. It was really becoming a city. The fact that the artist puts himself in the foreground speaks to that. For it to be complete, there needed to be the cultural arts as well.

Dr. Harris: [5:52] That America wasn’t a real country unless it had its own culture. This is such a fun painting, and I’m so glad that Francis Guy captured this for us to go back in time to 1820 in Brooklyn.

[0:00] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Margaret C. Conrads and Dr. Beth Harris, "Francis Guy, Winter Scene in Brooklyn," in Smarthistory, February 20, 2016, accessed April 19, 2024,