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April 2nd, 2004, 09:11 PM
April 2, 2004

When Cities Looked Limitless


"Novum Amsterodamum," a pen-and-ink drawing (about 1642-43) in "Cities in the Americas" at the New York Public Library.

For almost a century the beautifully detailed lithographs known as city views were as sure a seller as the American art market has probably ever known.

In many ways they were the 19th-century equivalent of the art of Thomas Kinkade, the wildly popular painter whose mist-soaked renderings of grottos and cottages sell in shopping malls and hang in hundreds of thousands of well-kept living rooms. In fact, Mr. Kinkade's description of his work — as part of a "populist movement that takes images people understand and creates an iconography for our era" — could apply just as well to city views, though for different reasons.

From 1825 to 1925, when aerial photography made the lithographs essentially obsolete, it is estimated that artists created more than 4,000 different lush images of more than 2,400 American towns and cities. From about 1850 on, these views assumed a kind of patented form — a bird's-eye drawing or engraving of a proud, growing city, made from an often imagined high vantage point, seemingly a mountain or a tower.

The cities spread out below were not exactly made of alabaster. But as "Cities in the Americas," a print exhibition now at the New York Public Library, shows, the images were often as much a projection of a city's pride and hopes (and land-promotion campaigns) as a reflection of its actual topography.

The show, of 76 prints from the collection of Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes, a New York architect, writer and obsessive print collector, presents a relentlessly gleaming sweep of a century's worth of urban ambition and idealism.

It takes a viewer on what sometimes feels like an anachronistic helicopter ride above the behemoths of New York, Boston and Philadelphia and also shows fledgling cities like Seattle, Dubuque and even Oklahoma City, whose modest street grid looks something like an air-conditioner grille plunked down on the arid plains of Indian territory. (The artist who created that view, Thaddeus Mortimer Fowler, was the most prolific of his time but eventually met with an on-the-job accident; he fell to his death from a scaffold while working on one view.)

During a recent tour of the show, its curators, Nicole Simpson and Elizabeth Wyckoff, explained that while the tradition of city-view printmaking stretched back almost to the beginning of printing in Europe, it became a typically American mania in 19th-century cities in the United States that were obsessed with their own image and reputation. The popularity of these prints was a reflection of America during an age of unapologetic expansionism, the era of Manifest Destiny.

The views, sometimes called a "prospect," were displayed in countless hotels, banks and city offices and in the parlors of civic-minded, art-loving citizens.

Artists like Fowler, and others with equally impressive-sounding names, like William James Bennett and Cephas Grier Childs, would often travel city to city in developing areas, drumming up advance press attention for their skills and appealing to a municipality's mandarins to ensure that they commissioned a city view before a neighboring town beat them to it. Subscriptions would sometimes be established to pay for a vista, and its creation would become the talk of the town, a little like Prof. Harold Hill's coming to River City to start up the boys' marching band.

An 1830's notice in an Ithaca, N.Y., newspaper gives an idea of the type of aggressive salesmanship that was often associated with the city-view craze:

"The view is most graphick, superbly painted, and is to be lithographed in the best manner, colored to correspond with the original, and furnished to subscribers for $1.50 per copy. As no copies are to be published, except for subscribers, we would recommend for those who wish to procure a copy, to enter their names without delay."

For the most part, the views are architecturally and historically accurate, and, in fact, today they can serve as invaluable resources for historians. An 1851 print of Chicago sketched by August Hermann Bosse and included in the show is a rare record of some of the city's architecture before the great fire of 1871. And a famous 1866 print of New York City as seen from across the Hudson shows a baseball game being played in the foreground at Elysian Fields in Hoboken, N.J., where the first organized baseball game is believed to have been played in 1846.

But occasionally the artist could get away with imagined or hoped-for embellishments. The Washington Monument, for example, is shown in one view with a pantheon base that was never built. Sometimes even wholesale fraud was perpetrated, creating incidents like something out of a Borges short story.

One early print in the show, titled "Nowel Amsterdam en l'Amérique," by a French artist named François Jollain, purported to show a very young New York City, except that the city depicted was not an island and looked strangely like Lisbon. This was because the view was of Lisbon, based on a print from a century earlier and passed off to European collectors who had never seen depictions of New York before. (In a 1984 book about city views, "Lithographs of Towns and Cities in the United States and Canada," by John W. Reps, a story is told of a print made in 1838 of the "metropolis" of Cairo, Ill., the Mississippi River town that was certainly no metropolis. The print was used as a kind of prephotographic documentation, to secure a million-dollar loan from England. The money was not, however, used to help transform Cairo.)

The library's show is encyclopedic in scope. It ranges from Canada through the United States and into Latin America and the Caribbean. And it includes what is thought to be the earliest engraving of a United States city — St. Augustine, Fla. — from a 1588 account of Sir Francis Drake's explorations. The print shows not only the tiny settlement of St. Augustine at the time but also even addresses its aquatic life: a dolphin is shown along with the helpful notation that "he is excellent sweete to be eaten."

As with many such exhibitions of ephemera, this one is the result of the work of just one especially zealous collector, whose determination seems to emanate from the prints themselves. Stokes — a patrician architect who often disguised himself as a vagrant in Paris and New York to experience better the life of the poor — became consumed with collecting New York City maps, prints and drawings after the turn of the century.

His obsession eventually grew into what many experts regard as the greatest historical record of the development of the city: "The Iconography of Manhattan Island," six thick volumes that he and a small army of assistants published over a 13-year period that includes not only rare prints and views of the city but also exhaustive day-to-day chronologies of the life of New York over hundreds of years.

In some ways, Stokes seemed to embody the very mania that he himself described as having led to the explosion of city prints over a century. In one introduction to his print collection, which he donated to the library in 1930, Stokes asks, with complete sincerity: "Can there be anyone so callous, and so lacking in romance, as not to feel a thrill of emotion before such contemporary pictures as the crudely drawn Labadist view of New York in 1679?" And then he goes on to list several other prints that probably only he and handful of other collectors would ever become so excited about.

As a viewer traverses the hallways at the library filled with the prints, it is hard not to feel that Stokes and many of the 19th-century fans of the lithographs loved them partly because they presented a happy, hermetic, well-polished version of a country whose cities were beginning to tarnish considerably by the time Stokes died in 1944, having been almost bankrupted by the Depression.

Stokes himself seems to have preferred to live inside the more hopeful world that existed in his prints. At one point in the early 1930's he complained that American cities and even the countryside were beginning to show a "raw, often a slovenly appearance."

He added, sounding as if he did not really believe the trend would reverse itself: "Let us pray that long before the dawn of another century we may have become conscious of these unsatisfactory conditions, which at present seem to cause the average American but little concern, and that we may have set ourselves resolutely to overcome them — both as individuals and as a nation."

"Cities in the Americas: A Celebration of the Phelps Stokes Collection" remains at the New York Public Library, Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, through June 26. Admission is free. Hours: Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 11 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.; Thursdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; closed Sundays, Mondays and holidays. Exhibition information: (212) 869-8089.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company