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Summer Selections

Scenes and Citizens of the Early Republic in Watercolor

June 4–September 8, 2002

Early nineteenth-century America is the focus of this year's Summer Selections, the second-annual installation drawn from the Metropolitan Museum's collection of works on paper created by American artists between 1710 and 1920. This summer's exhibition—which coincides with the Metropolitan's presentation of the landmark traveling exhibition Thomas Eakins—features the work of two artists active in Philadelphia, Eakins's hometown, in the 1810s. Some fifty watercolors—including genre scenes, landscapes, and portraits—primarily by the Russian diplomat Pavel Petrovich Svinin (1787/88–1839), along with several works recently attributed to the German émigré John Lewis Krimmel (1786–1821), are being shown. Many of the works document street life in Philadelphia, where Krimmel lived and where Svinin was headquartered for two-and-a-half years.

In 1811, when Svinin was posted to Philadelphia, the city was more prominent than either Boston or New York. One of the first Russians to visit the United States, he traveled widely along the East Coast, taking notes and sketching for a travelogue, several articles, and a substantial group of watercolors that constitute an important body of information about the period. The watercolor sketch Two Indians and a White Man (Probably the Artist) (1811–ca. 1813) presents an idealized view of the American wilderness, which is shown as sublime, but accessible. In the canoe, the white man is not a prisoner, but a traveler whom the Indians conduct on a tour of their primeval neighborhood.

Born and raised in Germany, John Lewis Krimmel arrived in America at about the same time as Svinin, but took up permanent residence here. In a career that spanned barely ten years, Krimmel—the first American artist to specialize in genre painting—produced a small, but significant, body of sketches, watercolors, and oil paintings depicting public life in Philadelphia. The works—many of which were originally attributed to Svinin—show an evolution from sparsely populated urban scenes to complex street scenes in which the civic rituals and customs of the new republic are represented in a moralizing manner, reminiscent of the British artist William Hogarth. The holdings at the Metropolitan represent Krimmel's early style.

The watercolor Nightlife in Philadelphia—an Oyster Barrow in Front of the Chestnut Street Theatre (1811–ca. 1813) documents a quick evening repast enjoyed by three dandies out for the evening. The food vendor's cart—a wheelbarrow full of oysters—has a shelf and a ledge for plates, condiments, utensils, and a lantern. The stand is staffed by a black man, shown shucking an oyster, and a white woman, who holds a plate at the ready in one hand while the candle in her other hand illuminates the scene.