Thursday, May 30, 2013

Close to Home in San Francisco

I recently had the pleasure of visiting San Francisco to give a lecture on William Matthew Prior to the American Decorative Arts Forum. This is a great group of collectors and enthusiasts who invite scholars from across the country to come and speak to their members once a month. It really was an honor to be invited, especially given the calibre of the speakers who have presented there over the years.

While in San Francisco, I took the opportunity to visit the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. What a fantastic place! They have a great collection of American art, which is where I spent quite a bit of time. They also have a very good folk art collection, which included one piece that struck me as being very close to home.

It is James Bard's portrait of the Steamship Syracuse, representing the city just about two hours west of Cooperstown. A great Bard, like our own Steamship Niagara. The Syracuse, of course, celebrated the rise of a new industrial city in the wake of the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825. America was changing rapidly when this painting was completed in 1857. In a few short years a major war would be fought to resolve issues that had divided the country for decades.

Which is why the history behind this painting intrigued me. It turns out that the Syracuse was owned by the Schuyler Steam Towboat Company, which was founded in 1825 by the sons of Samuel Schuyler (1781-1842). You can read more about the company and this boat here. Why is this so interesting? Schuyler, despite his famous last name (from one of New York's oldest Dutch colonial families) was African American, listed in the census as a "free man of color." There is more detail on his life here. He went from dock worker to towboat operator to real estate developer and businessman, all while New York was debating whether to abolish slavery within its borders (which it did for those born before 1799 in 1827).

Quite a story, and quite a boat.


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