The Primitive and the Park

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In the summer of the year 1864, a white-haired man of 69, gentle in appearance and reflective in manner, spent many days on the benches of Central Park in New York, a penny notebook and a box of water-color paints spread out on his lap. Far to the south Atlanta smoked in ruins, but in the mind of the artist, a retired Pennsylvania German carpenter named Lewis Miller, destruction was part of another world. For before him glistened a magic sight: the bridges, ponds and statuary, the shaded paths and rustic summer-houses of America’s first great park. Then still building under the wise hands of its designers, Olmstead and Vaux, Central Park had only recently been a tangle of rock and swamp and squatter shacks. Miller himself had seen the area in this earlier guise, and now it struck him as a “Paradise” which “would bear comparison with the boasted scenery of the old world.” Unlike many who make statements like this, Miller had been abroad; remarkably well traveled for one so humble, he occupied a long life of 87 years in making a naive but charming record of his world of ordinary people.

This notebook, never published before—it has been loaned to this magazine by the owners, the F.A.R. Gallery in New York—emphasizes the importance of the primitive as an historical chronicler. Miller filled his notebooks, most of them now preserved at the Historical Society in his native York, Pennsylvania, with detailed sketches of taverns and kitchens, artisans and tradesmen, subjects generally ignored by the trained artist. In Central Park, very little escaped him. He listed all the varieties of tree and showed both sides of each bridge. If a parade, a policeman, or merely a tame rabbit passed, Miller sketched it in, not even omitting the rococo iron exterior of the public conveniences. No man to waste good white paper, he surrounded his sketches with commentary, often awkward in grammar, sometimes in old German script, generally in English, and with poetry, borrowed or original, in the slightly melancholy, “all is vanity” strain of the age. But the pen which Miller “dipped in the ink of the heart” seems to have traced only happiness.