Bell Rang A In One Hour

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It was a cold winter’s evening in old New York. A pleasant fire burned in the grate of the council room of the National Academy of Design at Leonard Street and Broadway. Around the big table a dozen artists, all members of the Academy, sat at their ease, a sketch pad and an array of drawing pencils before each. Yet there was an air of alertness, almost of tension, in the room, for the group was about to plunge into a friendly but difficult competitive game. When everyone was ready, the chairman announced the subject for the evening: “Raising the Wind.” There were chuckles, a few joking remarks—but within minutes everyone was hard at work. In exactly one hour a bell would ring, and each artist would then hand in what was expected to be a well-finished picture illustrating the given subject.

Four of the sketches made that night a century and a quarter ago, and ten others done on later occasions by the same group, appear on these and the following pages. The group was the Artists’ Sketching Club of New York, formed in 1844, which during its three years of existence was responsible for some charming ad-lib drawings from several of the most famous painters in the nation. Among those who illustrated “Raising the Wind,” for example, were Asher B. Durand, John G. Chapman, and William Sidney Mount, all highly admired in their own time and still respected today. Other members, like Henry P. Gray, Charles C. Ingham, and Alfred Jones, although much regarded by their contemporaries, have now been largely forgotten. Two or three, thoroughly ignored today, were far from eminent even at the height of their careers, and perhaps were elected to the little club—it numbered only fifteen—as much for their enthusiasm as anything else. For, while the Sketching Club may have been mildly convivial, its attitude toward art was essentially serious. It replaced, as a matter of fact, an earlier Sketch Club that had gradually succumbed to the attractions of conversation and what were politely called “refreshments.”

Asher Durand, one of the older members of the Sketching Club—he was born in 1796—first earned a name as a superb steel engraver. His version of TrumbulPs The Signing of the Declaration of Independence was enormously popular, and he frequently engraved designs for the ornate bank notes of the time. After 1845 (during which year he became president of the National Academy) Durand was known chiefly as a landscape painter; a leader, indeed, of the Hudson River school. The pre-eminent painter of that school, however, was Thomas Cole, also a member of the Sketching Club. With men like William Cullen Bryant as patrons, Cole was famous by 1836, when he was thirty-five. In addition to scenes from nature, he was adept at allegorical landscapes in the style of his Course of Empire (a series of five paintings, all reproduced in the October, 1957, issue of A MERICAN H ERITAGE ).

Chapman and Mount, both in their thirties when the club was launched, are typical of American artists of the period who, never quite so famous as Durand and Cole, were still very well known indeed. Both were skillful at depicting the everyday life of early America. Today Mount is perhaps better remembered: his scenes of rural life are much admired (see “Painter to the People,” A MERICAN H ERITAGE , August, 1960). Chapman’s name is now likely to be connected principally with his Baptism of Pocahontas , which adorns the Rotunda of the national Capitol.

It would have painfully surprised Henry P. Gray if he had known, in 1844, that a century later his name would hardly be recognized except by art historians. Something of a prodigy, he exhibited five paintings at the National Academy in 1839, when he was twenty. His contemporaries considered his work almost flawless, and both his portraits and his “classical genre” paintings like Cleopatra Dissolving the Pearl met huge acclaim. Yet today the vagaries of taste have swept him nearly into oblivion.

Gray’s fate was matched by that of Ingham and Jones. Ingham, solidly successful by 1844, had a great reputation as a portrait painter—but it was to die bit by bit, along with his many subjects. Jones, too, is in eclipse today, but at least his work has been widely distributed. A highly talented line engraver, he did the engravings for several of the Columbian series of U.S. postage stamps, issued in 1893. Jones lived until 1900 when, almost symbolically, he was run down by a New York cab.

The other two members of the Sketching Club whose work appears here, Francis W. Edmonds and James Shegogue, were amateurs. Edmonds, a successful businessman, exhibited under a pseudonym—evidently so as not to upset his business colleagues. Shegogue, independently wealthy, was corresponding secretary of the National Academy from 1849 to 1852; not much else is known about him today.

Such was the Artists’ Sketching Club of New York—“one of the most agreeable and instructive little clubs,” said one founder, “that ever took share in art matters in the city.”

The fourteen drawings on these and the following pages are from the M. and M. Karolik Collection of American Water Colors and Drawings in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. A MERICAN H ERITAGE is indebted to Anne Blake Smith, of the Museum’s Department of Prints and Drawings, for information about the club and the artists represented.