February/march 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 2
The Smaller, Greener Baltimore of Francis Guy
Sometime in 1799 a luckless British-born artisan “boldly undertook,” in the words of the portraitist Rembrandt Peale, “to be an artist, although he did not know how to draw.” The result of this unprovoked commitment is a delightful series of portraits of the seedtime of a great city.
Francis Guy was born in 1760 and trained as a tailor and silk dyer. Indeed, he claimed to have been “calender and dyer to Her Majesty” before massive debts forced him to flee to America in 1795. He established a silk dyeing factory in Brooklyn, New York, failed there, moved to Philadelphia, failed again, and finally set himself up in Baltimore. There it was fire rather than creditors that put him out of business in 1799. This time he stayed put, however, and decided to take up painting. From whom he took lessons is not known, but within a year of his audacious decision he had begun to advertise his skills in the local newspapers, and in 1803 he held his first public exhibition at Bryden’s Coffee House. Six landscapes were displayed, including the vast overview of the city shown on the preceding pages.
Guy was never content with one career; he continued to describe himself as both artist and silk dyer, patented a way of making “paper carpets,” served from time to time as a minister, and delighted in waging theological battles in the local newspapers. He also once announced plans to write a book that would combine practical instruction in both painting and dyeing with an autobiography, an attack on deism, and a satirical poem, “The Devil and Tom Paine.”
His bold eccentricities carried over into his methods of painting. Writing in 1856, Rembrandt Peale recalled his curious way of doing things. Guy’s wife, wrote Peale, encouraged him to become an artist, “and by her industry and frugality maintained themselves, whilst he prosecuted his studies, which he accomplished in a novel and ingenious manner. He constructed a tent, which he could erect at pleasure, wherever a scene of interest offered itself to his fancy. A window was contrived, the size of his intended pictures—this was filled up with a frame, having stretched on it a piece of black gauze. Regulating his eyesight by a fixed notch, a little distance from the gauze, he drew with chalk all the objects as seen through the medium, with perfect perspective accuracy. This drawing being conveyed to his canvas, by simple pressure from the back of his hand, he painted the scene from Nature, with a rapidly-improving eye, so that in a few days his landscape was finished, and his tent conveyed in a cart to some other inviting locality. … Whilst he continued this mode of study, his pictures were really good—but, excited by the reputation he was gaining, he afterwards manufactured landscapes with such vigor that I have known him to display in the sunshine , on a log contiguous to his residence near the city, forty large landscapes, which were promptly disposed of by raffle. He painted standing, stepping frequently back to study the general effect, and taking a huge pinch of snuff from a large open jar—perhaps in emulation of Mr. Stuart—then advancing with dramatic energy to his picture, first flourishing his pencil in the air, executed the leaves of his trees, with flat brushes and cut quill-feathers, as he imagined no one had ever done before.”
For some seventeen years Guy took his painting tent up and down the East: surviving handbills list works painted at Harper’s Ferry, in the Alleghenies, in New Jersey, as far north as Lake George in upper New York State.
But most of his painting was done in and around Baltimore, especially among the great estates which then lined the Jones Falls, the meandering stream that formed the young city’s eastern and northern boundaries. (The falls is now best remembered as the bed of an expressway that whisks suburban commuters to and from their jobs, and the green pastoral world which Guy captured on canvas has vanished utterly.)
Guy’s works did not win universal admiration: one Baltimore critic urged him to go back to his “soul-inspiring avocation of making pantaloons. ” But he continued to receive commissions from local landowners until, in 1816, he pulled up stakes and moved back to Brooklyn.
There he lived out the rest of his days in poor health, drinking too much brandy, quoting scraps of Shakespeare, and painting the same street scene again and again from his second-story window. He died in August, 1820, and his work was largely forgotten for a century until reidentified by the art historian J. H Pleasants. All the works shown in this portfolio, plus more than a dozen others, will be featured in an exhibition of the artist’s work at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore from March 20 to June 30, 1981.