Bartlett’s Harper’s Ferry art… in the style of the Hudson River School?

Posted on May 9, 2016 by


Among the earliest (and perhaps my favorite) pieces portraying Harper’s Ferry is by William Henry Bartlett, looking toward the Shenandoah River from Jefferson’s Rock.


From Jefferson Rock, looking south down the Shenandoah River

I’ve mentioned the piece once before in a post from 2012, and having used the image several times in my personal Facebook background, commenters twice remarked on how the print is remarkably reminiscent of the “Hudson River School“. But… was Bartlett actually producing works in the style of the Hudson River School?

While Bartlett produced works at the same time (mid-1820s) as the originator (Thomas Cole) of the Hudson River School, Bartlett’s art education was grounded in a different sort of “school”. The following is from the biography of Bartlett, found within the Dictionary of Canadian Biography:


William Henry Bartlett, the son of middle-class parents, attended a boarding-school in London from 1816 to 1821 and in 1822 was apprenticed to the architect and antiquarian, John Britton, whose establishment in the parish of St Pancras (London) offered the boy an education that was both theoretical and practical. Bartlett studied and copied architectural drawings of the past and present and, with Britton, visited noted ruins in England from which he made detailed sketches to be engraved for some of Britton’s own publications. At first these sketches were purely architectural, as drawings in the last volume of Britton’s five-volume The architectural antiquities of Great Britain (London, 1807–26) attest. Later, the quality of Bartlett’s sketches and his interest in landscape, especially obvious in some of the water-colours which he did about 1825 of Thomas Hope’s home at Deepdene, Surrey, led Britton to undertake publication of Picturesque antiquities of the English cities (London, 1836).

Bartlett continued to work for Britton as a journeyman after his apprenticeship ended in 1829, although he also provided sketches for other London publishers… One of his first major assignments was to supply illustrations for Dr. William Beattie’s Switzerland illustrated (London, 1836), published by George Virtue. He sent 108 sketches in pen, pencil, and sepia wash to engravers who had been trained by the artist Turner, and they etched them on steel plates for Virtue. The thousands of prints made from these plates are proof of Bartlett’s success in catering to the popular taste for picturesque landscape and the sublimity of mountain scenery. For the rest of his life Bartlett’s travels were extensive and continuous, and they led to illustrations for works on Syria, the Holy Land and Asia Minor, the Mediterranean coast, northern Italy, the Netherlands and Belgium, Scotland, Ireland, the coastal areas of Britain, the Bosphorus, the Danube, the United States, and Canada. Bartlett became an accomplished traveller.

In the years that followed, Bartlett visited North America four times: 1836–37, 1838, 1841, and 1852, and completed a significant number of steel engravings, many of which were used in Nathaniel Parker Willis’s American Scenery (1840).

So, was he, or wasn’t he producing works in the style of the Hudson River School?

In fact, while Bartlett’s works were not in the style of the Hudson River School. they served to inspire others who created works in that style. In The Panoramic River: The Hudson and the Thames, by Hudson River Museum, for example, on p. 153, there’s an image of Bartlett’s “View of New York, from Weehawken”, followed by the commentary,

Bartlett’s illustrations include many of the vistas that inspired painters of the Hudson River School and encouraged the growth of tourism to the sites shown. Bartlett’s picturesque vistas were meant to be exact depictions, so those traveling with the book would have a visual guide.

An online page from the Albany Institute of History and Art reinforces this, noting,

 Even though few Americans could afford paintings by the Hudson River School’s most acclaimed artists, many could purchase landscapes from lesser-known painters, or they could purchase painted copies or prints. Several French artists including Victor de Grailly and Hippolyte-Louis Garnier contributed to the American market for landscapes by painting views derived from print sources, such as William Bartlett’s American Scenery, or fellow Frenchman Jacques-Gérard Milbert’s Itinéraires Pittoresque du Fleuve Hudson. Their works were shipped to America and sold in several cities at public auctions.

On that same page, Hippolyte-Louis Garnier’s (1802-1855) “Entrance to the Highlands of the Hudson (ca. 1845), is compared to Bartlett’s “View from Anthony’s Nose”.

It’s a minor detail, but hearing from two commenters and what they saw in Bartlett’s style, I thought I might do a little research to see if there was something more to it. While I had a difficult time believing Bartlett was creating works in the style of the Hudson River School (because of the timeline of his works and the art education I believe he had… which I now understand more clearly because of the research behind writing this post), in the end I’m intrigued that it was actually Bartlett who inspired future painters in that style.