News Articles Library Event Photos Contact Search

Thursday, 03 May 2012 16:19

Courtship in New Amsterdam Rediscovered

Discoveries from the Field
William Edmonds (1806–1863), Courtship in New Amsterdam, 1850. Oil on canvas, 25 x 30 inches. Signed “EW Edmonds/1850” and retains the mid-nineteenth century gilt, molded, and carved frame.
William Edmonds (1806–1863), Courtship in New Amsterdam, 1850. Oil on canvas, 25 x 30 inches. Signed “EW Edmonds/1850” and retains the mid-nineteenth century gilt, molded, and carved frame.

Courtship in New Amsterdam Rediscovered by James L. Kochan
by James L. Kochan

At the twenty-fifth annual exhibition of the National Academy of Design in 1850, Francis William Edmonds (1806–1863) exhibited two paintings, Courtship in New Amsterdam and The Two Culprits, his first submissions since 1848. Horace Greeley visited the exhibition on May 1st and restricted himself to commentary on but “a few pictures that pleased me” in his editorial of the following day. Greeley thought that Edmonds’ entry, Courtship in New Amsterdam, was “full of quaint, deep humor” and admitted to initially mistaking it as from the hand of William Sidney Mount.1 Four days later, however, a review appeared that included a criticism of the work:
“‘Courtship in New Amsterdam,’ turns the laugh upon a Knickerbocker swain of the old school. This picture is not, however, in the best style of the artist—it wants finish and greater attention to the drawing. But the inside of the tin kettle turned up against the door is in the highest style of copper. It is burnished to almost California brightness, and reflects the house-wifery of New Amsterdam to the great credit of the young vrow who sits in the doorway beside it.”2

This rather lukewarm response to Courtship is not too surprising, coming as it did from the pages of the short-lived Literary World (1847–1853). Evidence suggests that the anonymous critic was probably Henry Theodore Tuckerman, a Boston-born literary critic, essayist, and biographer who relocated to New York in 1845. Edmonds was then at the height of his popularity and perhaps the apex of his artistic career, but Tuckerman felt that the humorous subject matter of his paintings was trivial and could (or should) only appeal to only those of “average taste.”3

We owe a debt to this critic, however, for it is the description he relayed in the review that provides the primary clues in establishing the identity of this long-lost major work by Edmonds that surfaced in western Connecticut in 2011. Signed in the lower left corner and similarly inscribed on the verso, the underside of the commercially primed canvas also bears the stencil: PREPARED BY/ THEO’ KELLEY/ 35 1/2 WOOSTER ST/ NEW-YORK; artists’ supplier Theodore Kelley occupied these premises on Wooster Street in lower Manhattan during 1848–1852.4 Within the scene of the painting are found all of the elements noted in the Literary World review and, coupled with the signature and date, the work is without question that which had long been presumed lost: Courtship in New Amsterdam.

Detail of William Edmonds (1806–1863), Courtship in New Amsterdam, 1850. Oil on canvas, 25 x 30 inches. Signed “EW Edmonds/1850” and retains the mid-nineteenth century gilt, molded, and carved frame.
Courtship revisits a theme popular in antebellum American genre painting: rustic “sparking” and romance, which Edmonds had previously explored in Sparking (1839), The City and the Country Beaux (1839), and The Bashful Cousin (1842). Like these earlier works, Courtship is influenced by the genre work of seventeenth-century Dutch masters and the early nineteenth-century Scottish artist, Sir David Wilkie (1785–1841), but instilled with Edmonds’ whimsical, American humor and sense of place. It is also a departure in that it (along with Gil Blas, his only major work exhibited the previous year) is a “costume piece,” featuring the clothing, furnishings, and architecture (real and imagined) of an earlier epoch; something he had not attempted before in his visualizations derived from literary sources.

As with The Bashful Cousin, this 1850 work takes its inspiration from a story by a member of “the Knickerbocker group,” a circle of New York writers that included Washington Irving, James Kirke Paulding, and Williams Cullen Bryant. The painting borrows descriptive elements from Irving’s farcical A History of Dietrich Knickerbocker (1809) and shares Irving’s comic exploration of romance, fashion, and society in Manhattan of bygone days. In Courtship, the suitor has just spied the object of his affection, a young maiden who coyly ignores the would-be suitor. She knits away on a pair of stockings, with freshly burnished utensils at her side—public displays of the industry and cleanliness that was “the universal test of an able housewife.”5

The rediscovery of Courtship also brings with it further new insights into Edmonds’ knowledge of seventeenth-century Dutch painting. The pose of the young maiden is derived from the knitter pictured in Maternal Duty by Pieter de Hooch (1629–1684), an artist whose composition and coloring Edmonds particularly admired and emulated. It had been believed that Edmonds’ use of a similar sitter in other works had been inspired by a figure from a de Hooch variant known as The Bedroom (Maternal Duty was then in Amsterdam, a city Edmonds did not visit when he traveled in Europe during 1840, and was not engraved until 1880).6 However, the near-identical pose of the knitter in Courtship with that found in Maternal Duty would seemingly suggest that Edmonds had access to an earlier study of this de Hooch work or a copy thereafter. A final device observed in Courtship, that of a sapling tree intertwined with a vine and juxtaposed between the two lovers, is a Dutch love emblem of the seventeenth century signifying the merging of two into one.

Courtship in New Amsterdam returned to New York City for the first time since being exhibited at the National Academy of Design annual exhibition of 1850, when it was part of Portraits and Prospects: American and British Art, 1750–1850, on view at the Arader Gallery, 1016 Madison Avenue, January 17–24, 2011. Please visit for schedule and special events.

James L. Kochan is an independent scholar and proprietor of James Kochan Fine Art & Antiques in Frederick, Maryland.

1. Horace Greeley, “A Glance at the National Academy,” The New-York Daily Tribune, 2 May 1850, 1.

2. Anonymous review, dated 4 May 1850, published in The Literary World (New York), vol. 6, no. 170 (6 May 1850), 448.

3. From a careful review of Tuckerman’s writings concerning Edmonds and Mount, it is clear that he had but little regard for their humorous genre paintings, although recognizing the importance of such in developing patronage of the arts in the infant United States; contrary to the premise put forth in a recent article, his use of the phrase “average taste” was indeed intended as a slight to Edmonds’ patrons and admirers [re: Barbara D. Gallati, “American genre painting and the rise of ‘average taste,’” Antiques (October 2011)].

4. Doggett’s New-York City Directory. Editions of 1844–1854.

5. Washington Irving, A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dietrich Knickerbocker. 2 vols. (Philadelphia: Carey & Lea, 1832), I: 168–179.

6. H. Nichols B. Clark, “A Fresh Look at the Art of Francis W. Edmonds: Dutch Sources and American Meanings,” American Art Journal 14, no. 3 (Summer 1992): 73–94; Maternal Duty is discussed and illustrated on 89–92.