Daily life in 1820 Brooklyn

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.

Key points

  • While this painting looks spontaneous and like it is capturing a frozen moment, it is a composite of views from the artist’s studio windows. It does however give an accurate image of this location. Francis Guy has taken pains to carefully render the buildings, and they would have been identifiable to people who knew this part of Brooklyn.
  • The scene shows the physical specifics of the neighborhood but also its social hierarchy. We see the fancy houses and shops of those higher on the social scale, and a carpenter speaking with a man who wears a fur coat and is obviously well-fed. There are also figures caring for farm animals and possibly enslaved African-American men who are sawing wood and selling coal.
  • As a further indication of social hierarchy, Guy identified all of the white figures in his painting, but not any of the African-American ones. He also includes a comic scene at the expense of one African-American man who has slipped on the icy ground. This kind of making fun of African-Americans was also found in the literature and theater of the time.
  • Guy has also placed himself in the painting, walking in the foreground with a painting under his arm. His attention to detail, social situations, and the broad expanse of the sky harken to the Dutch landscape and genre painting traditions, a reminder that Brooklyn was originally a Dutch colony.

Go deeper

This painting at the Crystal Bridges Museum

Exhibition materials for Picturing Place: Francis Guy’s Brooklyn, 1820 at the Brooklyn Museum

A biography of Francis Guy at the Dallas Museum of Art

Brooklyn abolitionism at the Brooklyn Historical Society

More to think about

Francis Guy’s representation of the people of Brooklyn — from the elites and lower classes, whites and African Americans — shows us specific stereotypes that shaped and were shaped by the way society thought about these groups. What media examples can you think of from modern life that present similar kinds of social stereotypes? What media have the most influence, and how might they be used for positive change?

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

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Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.