A recently-discovered watercolor of New York City, contemporary with the Stamp Act Riots and one of only a handful of manuscript views of the city from before the Revolution.
Artist Pieter Idsertsz depicts New York as seen from the southwest, from a vantage point across the East River in Brooklyn, possibly at Red Hook. The city is shown from the southern tip of Manhattan Island to just above the site of the present Brooklyn Bridge, with many fine residences against a backdrop of a large windmill and impressive churches. At far left two fine vessels sail down the East River toward New York Bay, men fish from a small boat in the foreground, and a crane and a gallows-complete with hanging victim-lend a jarring note at center right.
Idsertsz’ is one of a tiny handful of manuscript views of New York extant from the 18th century, and the only one of which we are aware not held by an institution. No two views of the city from the period-manuscript or print-quite agree in their depiction of the city, its topography or its architecture. To this mix must now be added Idsertsz’ watercolor, which varies from all others. In this regard it can be considered a significant source for further study of the iconography of New York in the Colonial era.
Idsertsz (also known as Pieter Idsertsz Portier) was born in 1698 in the town of Franeker in Friesland, one of the northern provinces of the Dutch Republic. When he married in 1727 his occupation was gatekeeper (“portier”) of one of the city gates, hence his epithet. He was also active as a tile painter, a skill that may have contributed to his appointment in 1744 as teacher of landscape painting and map making at the University of Franeker at a yearly salary of 150 guilders. He died there in 1781.
Many drawings in Idsertsz’ hand exist, including for example more than 100 at the Fries Museum in Leeuwarden, 29 at the National Maritime Museum in Amsterdam, and 6 in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The majority of these are topographical views of villages and towns in the Netherlands, maritime views, or a combination of the two. They are generally valued as reliable renderings of topography and shipping, drawn from life. Some manuscript maps in his hand survive, all of them of subjects in Friesland, as well as drawings of the 1761 transit of Venus. It seems that he only worked as a draughtsman, as no paintings or prints by him are known.
There is no doubt that the drawing is by Idsertsz, as both the technique and composition are typical for his work. His drawings are usually executed in pen and ink with gray wash (“en grisaille”), and many depict a town or village seen from some distance with anecdotal details in the foreground, such as cattle, human activity or vessels. The signature and title in the lower margin are consistent with other examples of his handwriting.
Drawn from life?
The caption under the drawing reads: “de Stadt. Nieû Amsterdam in Oosteinden,” literally “the city of New Amsterdam in the East Indies.” The choice of words is odd to say the least: The region was first explored in 1609 by Henry Hudson on behalf of the Dutch East India Company, but New Amsterdam was founded in 1624 and administered by the West India Company. Further, it was surrendered to the British in 1674, some 90 years prior to the date on the drawing.
The idiosyncrasies of the title raise the question of whether the drawing was made on the basis of personal observation. Indeed, its features appear to be a composite from different periods of the city’s history. The most obvious telltales are the signal pole and gallows, carefully copied from the Nieuw Amsterdam view first published by Blaeu around 1650 and as an inset on Visscher‘s 1655 Novi Belgii map. Idsertsz has however shifted their location from the shore of Manhattan Island to the foreground on the Brooklyn shore. The windmill at the southern end of the island is also borrowed from the Blaeu view, though by the 1760s it had long since been dismantled.
But there the resemblance to the Dutch period ends, as the skyline shows no other resemblance to 17th-century New York. At a general level the rest of the town resembles other images of the city in the mid-18th century, with the bulkhead defining the shoreline and the many fine homes lining the river backed by a series of impressive steeples. The most prominent of these, at center left, bears a reasonable resemblance to that of Trinity Church as depicted for example on William Burgis’ South Prospect of ye Flourishing City of New York (1719-21). The large steeple just to the right could be construed as a loose rendition of the “French Church” (Eglise du St. Esprit, on Pine Street) depicted by Burgis. On closer inspection, however, the number, shape and location of the steeples does not match that on the Burgis view, or any other 18th-century view of the city. Further the view is laterally compressed, with the churches located too far south of their actual location.
Even if this is an inexact rendition of 18th-century New York, it is hypothetically possible that Idsertsz had sailed to America and later made the drawing from memory and with the help of an earlier print. Such a visit is highly unlikely, however, as there is no known documentary or artistic record of such a voyage. Indeed his body of artistic work strongly suggests that he never traveled farther afield from Friesland than the neighboring province of Holland. Though we will likely never know for certain, it seems plausible that Idsertsz based the drawing on a loose sketch by someone who had recently been to America but enlivened it with details taken from the Blaeu-Visscher view of the previous century.
Provenance, acknowledgements and references
The drawing was offered at auction twice in 2013 and 2014 by Bubb Kuyper in Haarlem, as part of a lot of 21 drawings by “Idserts Portier, P.” No information about the consigner is available, nor about the art dealer who purchased the drawing from Bubb Kuyper, while The Netherlands Institute for Art History in The Hague has no records of earlier owners. We obtained the drawing through an intermediary dealer based in New York City.
Biographical details for Idsertsz from: A.J. van der Aa, Biographisch woordenboek der Nederlanden, Vol. 9 (1867) and Nieuw Nederlands Biografisch Woordenboek, Vol. 10 (1937), 754-5. Background on the Blaeu-Visscher view from Joep M.J. de Koning, “From Van der Donck to Visscher: A 1648 View of New Amsterdam,” Mercator`s World, July/August 2000, pp. 28-33. Volume I of Stokes’ Iconography of Manhattan Island, with its wealth of plates of 17th-18th century views of New York, provided an invaluable reference.
This view is owned in partnership with HS Rare Books of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Much of the research for this description was provided by Remmelt Daalder, retired Senior Curator of Maritime Art at the National Maritime Museum in Amsterdam.
A few spots in image and minor soiling in margins, else excellent