1823 - 1892

Walt Whitman and the Arts in Brooklyn

Brooklyn Museum

A look back at Walt Whitman and his contribution to the artistic and intellectual life of Brooklyn from 1823 to the 1860s. By Deirdre E. Lawrence, Principal Librarian, Brooklyn Museum

“There will come a time here in Brooklyn and all over America, when nothing will be of more interest than authentic reminiscences of the past.”

—Walt Whitman

Quoted in ”Brooklyn's Green-Wood Cemetery: New York's Buried Treasure”

Walt Whitman (1819–1892), one of America's most influential poets, lived and worked in Brooklyn part of his life and had a lifelong interest in the independent city of Brooklyn. In honor of the publication of “Leaves of Grass,” his landmark book that was published in Brooklyn, this essay explores Whitman's involvement with Brooklyn's cultural institutions, including the Brooklyn Apprentices' Library Association (the predecessor to the Brooklyn Museum). Whitman's reminiscences provide a vivid account of artistic activity in Brooklyn and Manhattan in the nineteenth century. 

The art objects and research materials illustrated here are in the collections of the Brooklyn Museum.

Early Years in Brooklyn

In 1823, Walt Whitman's family moved from Long Island to downtown Brooklyn, the same area that is depicted in Francis Guy's painting “Winter Scene in Brooklyn.“ Years later, Whitman wrote about the painting in the newspaper the ”Brooklyn Standard”:

Winter Scene in Brooklyn, by Francis Guy, 1817–20

“Among the few relics left to remind the present inhabitants of Brooklyn of the days and scenes of their grandfathers, few are more valuable than the large, somewhat time-stained picture known as “Guy's Brooklyn.” This work is to be seen at the Brooklyn Institute. .. . Soon after the painting was made, in the earliest part of the present century, it was exhibited here and in New York, under the title of “A Snow Scene in Brooklyn,” by F. Guy, of Baltimore. . . This picture of Guy's . . . was . . . a literal portrait of the scene as it appeared from his window there in Front Street, looking south. The houses and ground are thickly covered with snow. The villagers are around, in the performance of work, travel, conversation, etc. Some of the figures are likenesses. We have heard that the full-length portraits of Mr. Sands, Mr. Graham, Judge Garrison, Messrs. Titus Birdsall, Hicks, Meeker and Patchen, then leading townspeople here, are some of the principal ones in the  composition. . . We have thus attempted to give a sketch of the spot and persons commemorated in the print from Guy's composition, which, though perhaps not of superior excellence in art, is still of great value as a reminiscence to all Brooklynites.”[1]

Whitman's reminiscences of Brooklyn include vivid recollections of the Brooklyn Apprentices' Library, which later evolved into the Brooklyn Institute and eventually into the Brooklyn Museum. One of his early memories, later recounted in the "Brooklyn Standard," was of the Revolutionary War hero General Lafayette laying the cornerstone of the Library building:

General Marquis de Lafayette

“The corner stone of the building was laid in 1825. The writer of these sketches, who was at that time a lad in his seventh year, remembers the occasion perfectly well, having been present at it. It was on the Fourth of July. The famous Lafayette was then on his last visit to America—the fourth, we believe. . . . Lafayette, with his hat off, rode slowly through the lines of children and the crowd that was gathered. . . . After he had passed along ahead, to where Market Street now is, the carriage stopped, and the children, officers, citizens, etc., formed behind in procession, and followed him up to the corner of Henry and Cranberry streets, where the operation of laying the corner stone was to be performed by Lafayette himself. . . Everything was more informal than it would be now, and as the children arrived, there was a little delay in getting them into safe and eligible places . . . so that they might have a fair share in the view and hearing of the exercises. As most of the group around Lafayette were assisting in this work, the old companion of Washington . . . pleasantly took it into his head to aid the same work himself. . . . As good luck would have it, the writer of this series was one of those whom Lafayette took in his arms, and lifted down to be provided with a standing place; and proud enough as he was of it at the time, it may well be imagined with what feelings the venerable gentleman recollects it now.” [2]

Corner of Henry and Cranberry Streets, engraving

Founded in 1823, the Apprentices' Library was chartered to provide “a repository of books, maps, drawing apparatus, models of machinery, tools and implements generally, for enlarging the knowledge, and thereby improving the condition of mechanics, manufacturers, artisans and others.” [3] The Library offered lectures, exhibits, and a collection of books devoted to a wide array of cultural and scientific topics. According to the Minutes of the Apprentices' Library from January 31, 1835: “Walter Whitman acting librarian presented a Report this evening, in which it is stated that there are now about 1200 volumes in the Library in a proper state for being drawn out; and that the number of Readers is 172.” [4] 

Although no written record has verified that the Walter Whitman mentioned in these minutes was indeed the poet, other connections link him to the Apprentices' Library. The Brooklyn printers and publishers Erastus Worthington and Alden Spooner, who were both very involved with the administration of the Library, had each previously employed the young Whitman. [5]

Whitman and American Art

By 1842, the Brooklyn Institute had opened its first art exhibition and had developed plans to establish a permanent gallery showcasing the work of American and European artists. In 1846, Walt Whitman became editor of the “Brooklyn Daily Eagle,” Brooklyn's main daily newspaper covering national and international affairs as well as local events. Whitman expanded the scope of the newspaper by publishing frequent reviews of art exhibitions, including the following description of a visit to the Brooklyn Institute:

“We went into the Institute rooms . . . to take 'a last fond look' at the pictures—(which we blame ourselves much for not having noticed more fully before.) If we may flatter ourself that our readers remember any length of time what sentiments we advance in these columns, they must be aware that we 'go' heartily for all the rational refinements and rose-colorings of life—such as music, mirth, works of art, genial kindness, and so forth. We wish every mechanic and laboring man and woman in Brooklyn would have some such adornment to his or her abode—however humble that abode may be—a print hung on the wall. . . We commend these Exhibitions—and hope the spirit which prompts them will increase and multiply in Brooklyn. We wish some plan could be formed which would result in a perpetual free exhibition of works of art here, which would be open to all classes.” [6]

The Brooklyn Institute, 1840s–1850s

A year later, Whitman spoke highly of the Institute's work:

“This truly valuable institution is now about to commence its usual career of usefulness during the winter months. Being decidedly the most interesting feature of Brooklyn life, it has so insinuated itself in the affections of a large class of our citizens that its absence would create a blank much to be deplored. For this, thanks to the assiduity and unselfishness of a comparatively small number of gentlemen, of whom Brooklyn ought to be proud. . . Though we do not value highly the specimens to be exhibited as a collection, there are in it nevertheless some pieces which are perfect gems of art. Doughty, the prince of landscapists, has two of his exquisite productions; one of which was exhibited a year or two since in the Louvre at Paris.” [7]

While probably not the exact work mentioned by Whitman in the previous excerpt, this painting is an example of Thomas Doughty's work from the time. In another article, Whitman again mentioned the Brooklyn Institute's efforts:

Landscape after Ruisdael, by Thomas Doughty, 1846. 

“The directors of the Brooklyn Institute have presented the public a  very rational treat in the shape of an exhibition of paintings, and have culled from various sources some highly creditable specimens of the limning art. Our Brooklyn artists are well represented as they ought to be, and we find on the catalogue the names of Frothingham, Oddie, Havel, Powers, Gignouox. . . In addition we find three splendid pictures by the best of American landscape painters—we allude to Doughty, whose name is as high abroad as it is at home.” [8]

Whitman believed art could be a source of moral and spiritual inspiration for the masses, as well as a powerful force to reform American society. He viewed American art in particular as a way to present a democratic society, as opposed to the more aristocratic world depicted in European painting. Whitman was interested in both genre painting—such as the work of his friend William Sydney Mount—and the landscapes painted by the artists of the Hudson River School. In “Leaves of Grass,”  he referred to natural phenomena such as light and space and the geography of America, a common subject among the Hudson River School of painters. Whitman also appreciated American historical portraiture, as evidenced by an article that appeared in the “Brooklyn Daily Eagle”  on July 22, 1846. Whitman was concerned that a series of paintings by George Catlin then on view at the Louvre Museum in Paris would be sold to a European institution or collector:

The Author Painting a Chief at the Base of the Rocky Mountains, by George Catlin

“More than forty of our Indian tribes are represented in this collection; and the extraordinary genius and enthusiasm of Mr. Catlin impelled him . . . to devote eight years . . . to secure faithful and spirited representations of their persons, costumes, manners, ceremonies and the scenes in which they live. His chief ambition now is to see his works protected by the government, and to enlarge and complete them, in memory of a powerful race, who once owned the soil we cultivate, in honor to his country, and to the art that he has cultivated with such eminent success . . . we fear unless Government act promptly, we shall never again have the opportunity of restoring to our country these paintings and memorials, so emphatically American, and of such decided importance to Art and to our national History.” [9]

Whitman frequently wrote in support of the Brooklyn Art Union, an organization modeled after the New York American Art Union whose goal was to stimulate interest in American subjects produced by American artists. In an 1851 address to the organization, entitled “Art and Artists,” Whitman demonstrated his faith in the power of art:

“It is the glorious province of Art, and of all Artists worthy the name, to disentangle from whatever obstructs it, and nourish in the heart of man, the germ of the perception of the truly great, the beautiful and the simple. . . To the artist, I say, has been given the command to go forth into all the world and preach the gospel of beauty. . . As there can be no true Artist, without a glowing thought for freedom, so freedom pays the artist back again many fold, and under her umbrage Art must sooner or later tower to its loftiest and most perfect proportions.” [10]

By the 1850s, Brooklyn was a thriving independent city with many cultural institutions. In addition to the Brooklyn Art Union, organizations such as the Brooklyn Sketch Club (1857), the Graham Art School (circa 1858), and the Brooklyn Art Association (1861) were dedicated to the creation and presentation of art. Whitman wrote about numerous exhibitions and artworks that he saw at these institutions.

William Cullen Bryant, by Daniel Huntington, 1866. 

Whitman's many friendships with artists and other writers enhanced his interest in the visual arts. One notable friend was William Cullen Bryant, who published articles by Whitman in his newspaper the “New York Evening Post. Bryant,” also a poet, served as president of New York's American Art Union in the 1840s.

Whitman also encouraged young artists, including Walter Libbey (1827–1852), a portrait painter in Brooklyn. The following passage illustrates Whitman's support:

Self-Portrait, by Walter Libbey, circa 1850

“Though the collection of paintings of the Brooklyn Art Union, now open, includes none approaching the highest order of merit, it is nevertheless a very agreeable collection, and contains some works of taste and talent. The association is composed mostly of young artists. . . . This thing of encouragement, 'specially of encouragement to the younger race of artists, commends the Brooklyn Art Union to the good will and patronage of the public. . . . One of the most promising of these is Walter Libbey: the reader may have noticed some of his pictures in the exhibitions of the Academy or the New York Art Union.” [11]

Whitman compared a work by Libbey to a painting by his friend William Sydney Mount:

Caught Napping (Boys Caught Napping in a Field), by William Sydney Mount, 1848

“I returned, the other day, after looking at Mount's last work . . . and though it certainly is a fine and spirited thing, if I were to choose between the two, the one to hang up in my room for my own gratification, I should take the boy with his flute (by Walter Libbey). This, too, to my notion, has a character of Americanism about it. Abroad, a similar subject would show the boy as handsome, perhaps, but he would be a young boor, and nothing more. The stamp of class is, in this way, upon all the fine scenes of the European painters, where the subjects are of a proper kind; while in this boy of Walter Libbey's, there is nothing to prevent his becoming a President, or even an editor of a leading newspaper.” [12]

In addition to galleries and institutions, Whitman attended popular events such as the Crystal Palace Exhibition (1853–4), held in New York at what is now Bryant Park. Whitman wrote several articles about the exhibition, which showcased art and products manufactured in America and Europe. One such article, entitled “Grand Buildings in New York City,” appeared in the “Brooklyn Daily Times” on June 5, 1857, and included the following commentary:

Candelabrum, designed by Cornelius & Co. of Philadelphia, circa 1853

“The Crystal Palace . . . certainly unsurpassed anywhere for beauty and all the other requisites of a perfect edifice . . . an original, esthetic, perfectly proportioned American edifice.” [13]

Whitman's artistic circle included the photographer Gabriel Harrison, who worked to raise the status of photography as an art form. Harrison wrote for the “Photographic Art Journal” and opened a studio on Fulton Street in Brooklyn in 1852. He was also an actor, a curator, and a painter who taught at the Brooklyn Art Association. Harrison took the photograph of Whitman that was used to produce the engraving for the frontispiece of the first edition of “Leaves of Grass.” The photograph, in the form of a daguerreotype, served as an analog to the self-presentation and self-portraiture that were key themes in Whitman's writings.

Engraving of Walt Whitman from "Leaves of Grass"

Interest in Ancient Egypt

Henry Abbott, M.D., by Thomas Hicks, 1863

Along with many nineteenth-century New Yorkers, Walt Whitman was enthralled with the civilization of ancient Egypt, as evidenced by several references in his writings. In “Leaves of Grass,” for example, he mentions Osiris, the ancient Egyptian god of the dead. Whitman wrote about Dr. Abbott's Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in New York in 1853. The exhibition, held at the Stuyvesant Institute, located on Broadway near Bleecker Street, drew Whitman back for repeated visits. He became friendly with Dr. Henry Abbott (1812–1859), an English physician who had assembled an antiquities collection while living in Cairo and had brought it to New York to sell. The collection was purchased and deposited at the New–York Historical Society and eventually transferred to the Brooklyn Museum in 1937. In an article entitled “One of the Lessons Bordering Broadway: The Egyptian Museum,” written for “Life Illustrated” in 1855, Whitman described some of the objects he saw:

Poster from 1853 advertising the Egyptian Museum

"The great 'Egyptian Collection' was well up in Broadway, and I got quite acquainted with Dr. Abbott, the proprietor—paid many visits there, and had long talks with him, in connection with my readings of many books and reports on Egypt—its antiquities, history, and how things and the scenes really look, and what the old relics stand for, as near we can now get. . . As said, I went to the Egyptian Museum many, many times; sometimes had it all to myself—delved at the formidable catalogue—and on several occasions had the invaluable personal talk, correction, illustration and guidance of Dr. A. himself. He was very kind and helpful to me in those studies and examinations; once, by appointment, he appear'd in full and exact Turkish [Cairo] costume, which long usage there had made habitual to him.  . . [14]

Cat Mummy, 305 B.C.E.–1st century C.E.

. . . Around the walls of the rooms are slabs of limestone, some of them very large, each containing its spread of chiseled hieroglyphics. . . . Then there are great mummy cases. . . There are also mummied cats, lizards, ibises, and crocodiles. . . [15]

. . .This is a figure in bronze of an Egyptian deity of subordinate character. The theology of Egypt was vast and profound. It respected the principle of life in all things—even in animals.

Figure of a God, from "New York Dissected"

It respected truth and justice above all other attributes of men. It recognized immortality. This figure is supposed to be Horus, the son of Osiris. . . [16]

Statue of a Kneeling Falcon—One of the Bau of Buto, from the Late Period, Dynasty 26
Head of an Early Eighteenth Dynasty King, from the New Kingdom, Dynasty 18.

. . . There is a colossal head in limestone, the face painted red; the eyes are almond-shaped, and have a calm expression—the whole face evidently of some great ruling person. . . [17]

In the same article, Whitman reveals his captivation by the publication entitled “Description de l'Egypte,” a multivolume set documenting what Napoleon and his troops saw in Egypt:

Title page from the "Description de l'Egypte"

“When Napoleon took his army into Egypt, he took a battalion of savans [savants] also. Paleography (deciphering ancient inscriptions or signs) became the rage. . . . They sent home specimens—they made literal copies of long strings of hieroglyphics, and had them engraved, and printed, and circulated, and offered prizes for translations and keys.” [18]

Other texts also made an impression on Whitman, including a multivolume publication entitled “Monumenti Dell'Egitto e Della Nubia” by Ippolito Rosellini (1800–1843), who is sometimes called the father of Italian Egyptology. Several images in Rosellini's volumes—such as the depiction of Osiris with stalks of grain growing out of his body—paralleled ideas of rebirth that Whitman put forward in “Leaves of Grass.” He referred to Rosellini directly:

Plate 23 from “Monumenti Dell'Egitto e Della Nubia“

“Rosellini, of Tuscany, has issued a complete civil, military, religious, and monumental account of the Egyptians, with magnificent plates. This work is of such cost that only wealthy libraries can possess it. There is a copy in the Astor Library in New York. [19]”

Art and Industry

Walt Whitman's interests embraced a wide spectrum, including painting, photography, ancient Egypt, and the decorative arts. In an 1857 editorial for the “Brooklyn Daily Times,” he wrote about visiting porcelain manufacturing factories in Greenpoint, Brooklyn:

Pitcher, attributed to Charles Cartlidge & Co., 1850

“In due time a Mr. Cartlidge, an Englishman we believe, and still a resident of this Island, conceived that great things would yet be accomplished with the mixture of clay, bone and feldspar, now so extensively used in so many different shapes, under the name of Porcelain. Through his exertions, a stock company was formed, and commenced operations in Greenpoint, under the name of the “American Porcelain Works”. . . We found it to be a large, rambling, three-story building, covering with its kiln-yards and surroundings, a large space of ground. . . 

The tables all around, we found loaded with articles in a state of completion. There were some half dozen costly and richly ornamented “presentation pitchers” intended for various societies, the least of which was capable of holding a pail of water, and these were among the most conspicuous objects.” [20]

Although Whitman had since moved elsewhere, he visited Brooklyn several times in the 1860s and 1870s and continued to follow the Brooklyn art scene. Based on his documented interest in the Civil War, it is fairly certain that Whitman visited the United States Sanitary Commission Fair held at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1864, then located on Montague Street. The fair raised money to provide goods and services to the Civil War soldiers in the field and in the hospital. Whitman, whose brother George served in the war, wrote often about the conflict and its soldiers.

Brooklyn Sanitary Fair, 1864

Walt Whitman felt such a strong connection to the visual arts that in one poem, entitled “Pictures,” he compared his mind to an exhibition space:

Portrait of Walt Whitman from "Leaves of Grass," 1900

In a little house pictures I keep, 

Many pictures hang suspended—

It is not a fixed house, 

It is round—it is but a few inches from one side of it to the other side, . . . 

And there, on the walls hanging, portraits of 

women and men, carefully kept . . . 

This is a beautiful statue, long lost, dark buried, 

but never destroyed—now found by me, 

and restored to the light; . . . 

For all those have I in a round house hanging—such pictures have I—and they are but little, 

For wherever I have been, has afforded me superb pictures, 

And whatever I have heard has given me perfect pictures,  

And every hour of the day and night has given with me copious pictures, 

And every rod of land or sea affords me, 

as long as I live, inimitable pictures. [21]

Notes

Early Years in Brooklyn 

[1] Henry Christman, ed., “Walt Whitman's New York from Manhattan to Montauk” (Lanham, MD: New Amsterdam Books, 1963), 19-20. 

[2] Ibid., 121-23.  

[3] “Legislative Acts Relating to the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences and its Predecessors or Constituents, namely Brooklyn Apprentices' Library Association, the Brooklyn Institute and Brooklyn Academy of Music,” from “Laws of New York,” 344, An act to incorporate the Brooklyn Apprentices' Library Association passed November 20, 1824. Copy in the Brooklyn Museum Archives.

[4] Minutes of the Brooklyn Apprentices' Library Association, 1:84. Brooklyn Museum Archives. 

[5] Further indications that he could have served as acting librarian are found in: Walt Whitman, “Specimen Days” (Boston: David R. Godine, 1971), 8.

“My father all these years pursuing his trade as carpenter and builder. . . I develop'd (1833-4-5) into a healthy, strong youth (grew too fast, though, was nearly as big a man at 15 or 16.). . . . At 16, 17, and so on, was fond of debating societies, and had an active membership with them, off and on, in Brooklyn and one or two country towns on the island. A most omnivorous novel-reader, these and later years, devour'd everything I could get.”

Whitman and American Art 

[6] Walt Whitman, “About Pictures, &c,” “Brooklyn Daily Eagle,” November 21, 1846. 

[7] Walt Whitman, “Brooklyn Institute—Exhibition of Paintings—Lectures—Concerts,” “Brooklyn Daily Eagle,” November 6, 1847. 

[8] Walt Whitman, “Local Intelligence: &c,” “Brooklyn Daily Eagle,” November 18, 1847. 

[9] Walt Whitman, “That Indian Gallery,” “Brooklyn Daily Eagle,” July 22, 1846.

[10] Emory Holloway, ed., “The Uncollected Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman” (Gloucester, MA.: Peter Smith, 1972). 1: 241, 243. 

[11] Ibid., 1: 236-7. Originally published as “Something About Art and Brooklyn Artists,” “New York Evening Post,” February 1, 1851. 

[12] Ibid, 1: 238. 

[13] Walt Whitman, “I Sit and Look Out: Editorials from the Brooklyn Daily Times,” (New York: Columbia University Press, 1932), 129. 

Interest in Ancient Egypt

[14] Walt Whitman, “New York Dissected: A Sheaf of Recently Discovered Newspaper Articles by the Author of Leaves of Grass,” (New York: Rufus Rockwell Wilson, 1936), 28. 

[15] Ibid., 38. 

[16] Ibid., 38.

[17] Ibid., 39. 

[18] Ibid., 36. 

[19] Ibid., 37. 

Art and Industry 

[20] Walt Whitman, “I Sit and Look Out: Editorials from the Brooklyn Daily Times,” (New York: Columbia University Press), 134, 136. 

[21] Walt Whitman, “Pictures: An Unpublished Poem of Walt Whitman”, (New York: June House; London: Faber and Guyer, 1927), 13, 27-28.

Sources Used

In addition to the specific sources listed in the Notes, the following works were also consulted.

- Brasher, Thomas. “Whitman as Editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.” (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1970) 

- Brooklyn Directory for 1833–34 (Brooklyn: Nichols & Delaree, 1833) 

- Brooklyn Directory for 1834–35 (Brooklyn: Spooner & Bigelow, 1834) 

- Brooklyn Directory for 1835–36 (Brooklyn: Lewis Nichols, 1835) 

- Catlin, George. “Illustrations of the Manners, Customs, & Condition of the North American Indians. . . ,” vol. 1. (London: Chatto & Windus, Piccadilly, 1876). 

- “Description de l'égypte; ou, Recueil des observations et des recherches qui ont ete faites en Egypte pendant l'expédition de l'armée francaise. . . ,” 2nd ed., vol. 1. (Paris: Imprimerie de C. L. F. Panckoucke, 1821-1830). 

- Greenspan, Ezra. “Walt Whitman and the American Reader.” (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990) 

- “History of the Brooklyn and Long Island Fair,” February 22, 1864. (Brooklyn: The Union Steam Presses, 1864) 

- Kaplan, Justin. “Walt Whitman: A Life.” (New York: Bantam, 1980) 

- Krieg, Joann P. “A Whitman Chronology.” (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1998) 

- Littlejohn, Duncan. “Records of the Brooklyn Institute, 1823 to 1873; with occasional explanatory remarks, list of directors and officers, and some reminiscences of prominent individuals in connection therewith. . .“ (Brooklyn: Typescript, 1879) 

- Miller, James E. Jr. ”Complete Poetry and Selected Prose by Walt Whitman.“ (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1959) 

- Reynolds, David S. ”Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography.“ (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1995) 

- Richman, Jeffrey. ”Brooklyn's Green-Wood Cemetery: New York's Buried Treasure.“ (Brooklyn: Green-Wood Cemetery, 1998) 

- Rosellini, Ippolito. ”Monumenti Dell'Egitto e Della Nubia. . . ,“ vol. 3. (Pisa: Presso N. Capurro, 1832–1844). 

- Sill, Geoffrey M. and Roberta K. Tarbell, eds. ”Walt Whitman and the Visual Arts.“ (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1992) 

- Whitman, ”Walt. Leaves of Grass: including a Fac-simile autobiography, variorum readings of the poems and a department of Gathered Leaves." (Philadelphia: David McKay, 1900)

Credits: Story

Principal Librarian — Deirdre Lawrence
Associate Editor — Anya Szykitka
Editorial Assistant — Cindy Choung

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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