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by N.F. Karlins
There’s one surprise after another in the show "Drawn by New York: Six Centuries of Watercolors and Drawings at the New-York Historical Society," now on view at the society, Sept. 19, 2008-Jan. 7, 2009. Many of the almost 200 pieces have not been seen before, so even those familiar with this extraordinary collection, now totaling about 8,500 works on paper, will find unexpected pleasures in this, the very first show devoted to the Society’s drawings.

John James Audubon’s drawings and prints are among the Society’s finest and best-known holdings, but I had never seen Audubon’s vivid drawing of "Carolina Parakeets," one of his 435 original watercolors for "The Birds of America," until now. Its fresh colors and looping composition with seven birds in different poses is dazzling. Their iridescent feathers are the result of overlaying watercolor and pastels with the edges outlined in graphite. It’s terrific.

But that’s just the beginning. A rare image of "Novum Amsterodamum," or New York before the British got it, attributed to Laurens Block in 1650 is a coastal view that was used for ship navigation. What it shows is a lot of water and a very small settlement, flag flying, with a high wall around it.

Not far away is a potent reminder of just how fast things change, Scottish-born New Yorker Archibald Robertson’s View up Wall Street with City Hall (Federal Hall) and Trinity Church, New York City from around 1798. In this serene picture, the wall in "Novum Amsterodamum" has been torn down and replaced with Wall Street. The building with fashionably dressed pedestrians nearby, once New York’s second City Hall, has became Federal Hall, the first capitol of the United States of America. (It was the first home of the New-York Historical Society, too.)

And just 14 years later, in 1812, this Federal Hall would be demolished, the Capitol moved, and the scene again vastly different, a process which can be traced in other drawings. (Today’s Federal Hall National Memorial was actually built as the United State Customs House in 1842.)

The most frightening of later drawings is a genre scene by Naples-born Nicolino Calyo, The Great Fire of 1835: View of New York City Taken from Brooklyn Heights on the Same Evening as the Fire. A dry-goods store caught fire on the coldest day in 36 years, Dec. 16, 1835. It was 17 degrees below zero, and all water sources froze. The fire destroyed the business district and most of the remaining colonial buildings in the city. Approximately $20,000,000 in commercial property went up in smoke.

One place not far away from New York, however, has remained much the same and still fascinates. And that is Niagara Falls. There are many representations of the Falls in the show, but the Englishman Thomas Davies’ is breath-taking. He puts you above the Falls where you hang as eagles glide overhead and repeated waves of water energize the scene with so much buzz that you feel you might plunge right in. A pair of Native Americans admire the view to the right.

Other portraits of Indians abound. The most interesting, perhaps, is attributed to David Cusick, a Tuscarora himself, who with his brother founded the Early Iroquois Realist watercolor style. Admired by their fellow-Indians and settlers alike, their works document rituals and regalia that rapidly disappeared. His drawing, Three Iroquois, from around 1827, represents the founding myth of the Iroquois League around 1500. The central figure is wrapped in snakes that are protective. One of the other figures holds wampum, a belt of shell beads, which served as currency among Indians, with his bow and arrows.

American landscape artists from Thomas Cole to Albert Bierstadt contribute sketches, but William Sidney Mount, our first internationally known genre painter, turns in an even more impressive Study for a Figure in ’After Dinner’. Based on Dutch prototypes, the painting is of men in a tavern listening to a violin. Having read the thick and lively catalogue by Dr. Roberta J. M. Olson, curator of drawings at the Society and curator of the exhibition, I learned that Mount, a musician, also invented and patented a "hollow-back" violin.

A set of Civil War drawings, some by unknown hands, is very moving. A series of drawings of the artist John Singer Sargent by James Carroll Beckwith in their student days is a recent find, the earliest portraits of Sargent. A selection of the society’s folk art is charming. And then there’s a wonderful drawing by Jean-Louis Ernest Meissonier, the French military painter and one of the most famous artists of his time.

Meissonier? One might ask how come one of his works is here. Surprise. His technically flashy Cavalier, Self-Portrait in Period Costume (ca. 1866-70) was donated by the artist for the relief of victims of the Chicago Fire, one of many foreign artists who responded to that tragedy. A New Yorker, whose collection eventually came to the New-York Historical Society, purchased it.

Works from the mid-20th century forward are less numerous. Dr. Olson would probably welcome additions from this time period. However, Richard John Haas’ View of St. Patrick’s Cathedral from Inside Rockefeller Center (2002) is a witty study for one of his illusionistic paintings that any New Yorker or visitor will enjoy -- along with many others.

N.F. KARLINS is a New York critic and art historian.