The Dunlap benefit

Thomas Cole, The Present (1838)

THE home of the Stuyvesant Institute, its stately façade aligned with Broadway, admitted within its walls a wide range of organizations, activities and initiatives, all in some way justified by a founding commitment to “the diffusion of useful knowledge.” Barely a year old in November 1838 when William A. Whitehead first passed through its doors, the Institute gave rent-free space to the New-York Historical Society and hosted meetings of scientific, legal and medical associations, together with popular lectures “upon subjects of general interest and utility.”1

Dr. John Wakefield Francis, a later co-founder of the New York Academy of Medicine but better known at this period for pseudoscientific ideas and interests then much in vogue, addressed a New York Phrenological Society meeting at the Institute on 20 December.  Of his public discourse on cranial measurements and their significance the next day’s Evening Star reported fawningly that “the numbers who went away for the want of accommodation, was equal to those who gained admittance,” and that within the latter group the Doctor had won “approving smiles from the ladies.” Meanwhile Christopher Dunkin, whose treatment of the same subject was well received during the previous winter, gave a series of lectures on “popular education” that proved decidedly less popular.2

We can only guess whether, as the fall of 1838 hardened into winter, Whitehead availed himself of any such offerings. But leaving the Historical Society’s rooms on the 7th of November he would have been sure to notice evidence elsewhere in the building of considerable activity, even disarray. In the large exhibition space workers were busy uncrating, numbering and carefully hanging some 170 paintings. This trove of pictures, on loan from all over the city, would form an exhibition that grew, from its opening less than a fortnight later, to almost 250 works of art. The exhibition came to be known as the “Dunlap benefit” after the New York painter, dramatist, impresario and chronicler whose “great and lasting services to the arts, history and literature of our state and country” it sought to honor, and whose introduction to the Historical Society had so recently given Whitehead access to its collections.3

Charles C. Ingham, William Dunlap

In 1838 William Dunlap was 72 years of age, 44 years older than Whitehead to the day, living some distance from the bustle of Broadway in Greenwich Lane (today Greenwich Avenue), a few blocks from Whitehead’s Barrow Street address. The program for the Stuyvesant Institute event promised an “exhibition of select paintings, by modern artists, principally American, and living,” but organizers earmarked the proceeds of its four-week run for a cause other than promotion of the visual arts: the profits would subsidize publication of a much anticipated history of the colony and state of New York that Dunlap, “harassed by ill-health and straitened circumstances,” lacked the means to bring to press.4

While financing Dunlap’s New York history was the exhibition’s pretext, its context went far deeper. In many ways this assemblage of predominantly American paintings, produced by mainly living artists, was the visible incarnation of opinions Dunlap had propounded much earlier. His views had helped to inspire the secession of young artists from the American Academy of the Fine Arts, creating the National Academy of Design in 1826, and they subsequently took shape in his monumental History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States, published in 1834. Here, through a series of biographical sketches of artists famous and obscure, Dunlap traced what he saw as the emergence of a distinctly national school of art.

Advertisement for the Dunlap benefit, November 1838.

Now in poor health, Dunlap left the details of the 1838 exhibition to others, but remained a force in its development: painters he considered preeminent, such as Charles C. Ingham, Asher B. Durand and Thomas Cole, were given corresponding attention in the exhibit, and biographical details in the printed catalogue relied heavily on the lives of the artists as narrated in his History.5

The impressive display at the Stuyvesant Institute led a correspondent for the weekly New-York Mirror to express the seemingly “remote and problematical” hope that, one day, America would have its own National Gallery. After a month, however, the benefit had produced scant returns; it was decided to rearrange and expand the exhibition, and extend its run to the first Saturday of the new year. Organizers ordered a standing screen to be erected in the center of the room, a novelty allowing the installation of more paintings. Their decisions were rewarded with a surge in attendance: the gallery on Christmas Day was “literally thronged all day and evening” and, without raising the price of admission, the sponsors at the close had reaped about a thousand dollars’ profit for William Dunlap’s history of New York.6

The general public thus seemed to respond to open invitations like those in the Mirror: “To all, then–yes, we say to all–go and visit it. To the merchant, the professional man, the mechanick, to our academies and schools, we say go…” The vaunted quality of the many works on view, “such as probably can never be brought together again,” must also have had its effect.7 But by characterizing the Dunlap benefit as a once-in-a-lifetime event its promoters only emphasized a sobering reality, one borne out by the exhibition’s fashionable audiences, elaborate picture frames, and the relative conservatism of much that was displayed within them. A few paintings entered the show direct from the ateliers of their creators, but like Cole’s twin landscapes The Past and The Present, noteworthy late additions, even these represented commissions from well-off patrons. Most were on loan from “the parlours of our most respectable and opulent citizens.”8 Thus the arts in America, as democratic as Dunlap’s vision had been, remained largely dependent on, and the preserve of, private wealth and privilege.

William Whitehead, freshly arrived in the Empire City and not at first very comfortably settled, had scant connection to its upper classes. His strongest bond with the Dunlap benefit was his friendship for William Dunlap himself, an affinity based on their shared New Jersey origins and their fellowship as antiquarians. From far-off Key West, Whitehead had communicated extensively with Dunlap and subscribed for six copies of his 1834 history of American art:9 now a resident of New York, he couldn’t fail to patronize the exhibition, which he did within the first two weeks of its opening. He advised readers of the Newark Daily Advertiser who might come to the city that two or three hours in New York could not be better spent.10 However, of the scores of works Whitehead saw there, only one is known to have elicited a comment, and that the result of a quaint, inconspicuous detail.

C. R. Leslie, Slender, with the assistance of Shallow, courting Anne Page (1825)

Dunlap had inserted in his 1834 History a catalogue of works in the possession of one of New York’s leading citizens, merchant and former mayor Philip Hone. The list had been provided by the owner himself. Dunlap identified two paintings in Hone’s rich collection as superior to anything else he had seen by their respective artists: Gilbert Stuart Newton’s canvas The Dull Lecture, and Charles Robert Leslie’s rendering of a scene from The Merry Wives of Windsor.11 Four years later, Hone lent fifteen of his paintings to the Dunlap benefit, including the Newton and the Leslie which, in the printed catalogue, appeared one after the other as numbers 81 and 82, and may well have hung side by side in the exhibit hall.

Whitehead, noticing in the background of Leslie’s work a massive doorway with verses inscribed on the lintel, made this detail the basis of a Daily Advertiser column tellingly entitled “The Antique in America.”12 The verses reminded him of the unusual decoration inside an ancient home on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where eight years earlier he had been a “purely accidental” visitor.13 Such ornamentation of a room “with pictorial panels and mottoes,” which seemed to him customary in England, “was not so generally adopted in the colonies,” and he was compelled to inquire whether readers knew of “any such remnant” elsewhere.

The query came with something of an apology: Whitehead confessed to “a great fondness for things which have withstood the ravages of time,–a fondness which Phrenologists assert is an abuse of the organ of veneration.”14 He may have smiled, then, once his words appeared in print, to see yet another sympton of this imagined disorder: in his passion for “the Antique” it seems he produced a muddle of the Modern, confusing Leslie’s scene with Newton’s, and ascribing the former artist’s work to the latter.

Copyright © 2020-2023 Gregory J. Guderian

[1] “An act to incorporate the Stuyvesant institute of the city of New-York.” Laws of the State of New-York, passed at the fifty-ninth session, of the legislature, begun and held at the city of Albany, the fifth day of January, 1836 (Albany 1836) 705. “Philosophical lectures and tuition,” New York (N.Y.) American for the country 6 November 1838 3:2.

[2] The evening post (New York, N.Y.) 12 December 1838 2:3; “Lecture before the New York Phrenological Society,” The evening star (New York, N.Y.) 21 December 1838 2:4; B., “Mr. Dunkin’s Lectures at Stuyvesant Institute,” The evening post 21 December 1838 2:2.

[3] For Whitehead’s maiden visit to the New-York Historical Society, see my previous post “Barrow Street.” Prefacing the exhibition catalogue (for which see the next note) was the text of a letter from the organizers dated 1 November and signed by Gulian C. Verplanck, chairman of a “committee of amateurs,” setting out its charitable goal.

[4] “William Dunlap, Esq.” New-York mirror, a weekly journal, devoted to literature and the fine arts 16:17 (20 October 1838) 134; “The Dunlap exhibition of paintings,” New-York mirror 16:22 (24 November 1838) 175. The exhibition program was first printed, in advance of the November opening, with the title Catalogue descriptive, biographical and historical, of the exhibition of select paintings, by modern artists, principally American, and living, under the direction of a committee of amateurs. The paintings borrowed for this particular purpose from friends to the arts. At the Stuyvesant Institute, for four weeks only from the day of opening, Nov. 19, 1838 (New-York: printed by G. P. Scott, 1838). With the decision to expand and extend the exhibition a revised program was printed: after the name of the Stuyvesant Institute, the new title page read Open until the fifth of January, 1839, and four pages of new paintings were added.

[5] For a thorough treatment of Dunlap’s pivotal role in the formation of an American artistic tradition see Maura Lyons, William Dunlap and the construction of an American art history (Amherst, Mass., and Boston 2005). The epilogue to this work, pages 147-166, reproduces more than a dozen of the paintings shown at the Dunlap benefit.

[6] “Dunlap exhibition,” New-York mirror (1 December 1838) 182; “The Dunlap gallery,” New-York (N.Y.) commercial advertiser 14 December 1838 2:6; “Dunlap gallery of paintings,” The evening post 18 December 1838 2:5; The evening star 19 December 1838 2:3; The evening post 22 December 1838 2:1; The evening post 27 December 1838 2:4; “Mr. Dunlap’s exhibition of paintings,” New-York mirror 16:29 (12 January 1839) 231.

[7] “Dunlap exhibition,” New-York mirror 16:23 (1 December 1838) 182; The Albion or British, colonial, and foreign weekly gazette (New York, N.Y.) 17 November 1838 367:3. Cf. “Dunlap Gallery of Paintings,” The evening post 18 December 1838 2:5.

[8] “Dunlap gallery,” New-York mirror 16:27 (29 December 1838) 215.

[9] See the mentions of their correspondence in Diary of William Dunlap (1766-1839). The memoirs of a dramatist, theatrical manager, painter, critic, novelist, and historian, 3 vols. (Collections of the New-York Historical Society 62-64. New York 1930) 3:686-844 passim, 3:851. Whitehead had alerted Dunlap to some materials for early New York history: cf. William Dunlap, History of the New Netherlands, province of New York, and state of New York, to the adoption of the federal constitution, 2 vols. (New York 1839-1840) 1:266n, 280. Information from Dunlap’s letters was in turn vital to Whitehead’s work on early Perth Amboy; see William A. Whitehead, Contributions to the early history of Perth Amboy and adjoining country, with sketches of men and events in New Jersey during the provincial era (New York 1856) 74, 95 n60, 109 n78, 128 n100, 139, 261 n8, 292 n3, 305, 317 n31, 328 n8. During Dunlap’s last illness, Whitehead read him the names of his fellow pupils at a Perth Amboy school in 1774: “as the name of each remembered schoolmate met the old man’s ear, his countenance brightened, and the infirmities of age seemed for the time forgotten in the vivid recollections of the scenes and companions of his youth.” Ibid. 294 n6.

[10] G. P., “The antique in America,” Newark (N.J.) daily advertiser 7 December 1838 2:5.

[11] William Dunlap, History of the rise and progress of the arts of design in the United States, 2 vols. (New York 1834) 2:462-463. A review of the Dunlap benefit also singled out these two artists: “The works of Leslie and Newton in particular cannot be too frequently examined by those who wish to form a correct taste in painting.” “Stuyvesant Institute,” New-York commercial advertiser 26 December 1838 2:3.

[12] Used also as the epigraph for Whitehead’s article, the lines “Wouldst haue a friend, wouldst knowe what friend is best? / Haue God thy friend, who passeth all the rest,” were from sixteenth-century poet Thomas Tusser’s Fiue hundred pointes of good husbandrie: see the edition published for the English Dialect Society (London 1878) 191.

[13] Whitehead described his December 1830 visit to the Harrison family home at greater length in volume 2 of his unpublished Memorandums of peregrinations by land & water, held by the Key West Art & Historical Society. I have so far been unable to learn more about this house, which stood near the Chester River within a few miles of Chestertown, possibly at an anchorage known as Harrison’s Landing.

[14] Phrenologists situated the “organ of veneration” in the crown of the skull. George Combe wrote of this faculty: “Veneration, like other powers, is liable to abuse. When not subjected to the guidance of Reflection and Conscientiousness, it produces a bigotted respect for old customs and absurd institutions, if only sanctified by time; and a blind tendency to admire the wisdom of our ancestors, beyond the extent of their deserts.” A system of phrenology (Edinburgh 1825) 201.

Images: 1) Thomas Cole, The Present,  Mead Art Museum, Amherst College (AC 1951.190) via Wikimedia Commons.  2) Charles C. Ingham, William Dunlap, National Academy of Design, New York, via  3) Advertisement. The Albion or British, colonial, and foreign weekly gazette 17 November 1838 367:3. 4) Charles Robert Leslie, Slender, with the assistance of Shallow, courting Anne Page, courtesy Yale Center for British Art.

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