Throughout the academic and memorial buildings at the Academy is an outstanding collection of historic artwork and artifacts culled from the collection of the West Point Museum. The USMA Library currently houses wonderful examples of artwork and sculpture depicting famous graduates, distinguished professors and well-known battles fought throughout history. A recent addition to the artwork on view at the Library is a reproduction of View from West Point by Victor de Grailly circa 1840.1
While the work appears to be a typical landscape scene from the Hudson River School, it was actually created by a French landscape artist who never came to America. Victor de Grailly (1804 – 1889) specialized in painting American views that he copied from prints by a British engraver, William Henry Bartlett (1809 – 1854). Bartlett was an avid traveler. He spent his life visiting and illustrating a variety of locales throughout the world. His illustrations were then translated into engravings and published in travel books. This particular engraving first appeared in the book American Scenery; or, Land, Lake, and River Illustrations of Transatlantic Nature by Nathaniel P. Willis (1840).2 It was one of the most popular of such publications, and, most likely, the source for de Grailly’s painting. Willis’ poetic description of West Point in American Scenery gives his readers a vivid idea of the vibrancy of the landscape:
Of the river scenery of America, the Hudson, at West Point, is doubtless the boldest and most beautiful. This powerful river writhes through the highlands in abrupt curves, reminding one, when the tide runs strongly down, of Laocoon in the enlacing folds of the serpent. The different spurs of mountain ranges which meet here, abut upon the river in bold precipices from five to fifteen hundred feet from the water’s edge; the foliage hangs to them, from the base to summit, with the tenacity and bright verdure of moss; and the stream below, deprived of the slant lights which brighten its depths elsewhere, flows on with a somber and dark green shadow in its bosom, as if frowning at the narrow gorge into which its broad-breasted waters are driven.3
This description would have certainly helped Victor de Grailly as the engravings in the book were only printed in black and white. The colors in the painting are de Grailly’s interpretation of what he believed the West Point landscape might have looked like.
This piece is one of four paintings by Victor de Grailly in the Museum’s collection. In addition to being visually spectacular, the paintings, prints and drawings in the Museum’s collection serve to document the visual history and artistic interpretation of West Point and the surrounding landscape.
1 The original painting is currently on view at the West Point Museum in the West Point Gallery.
2 This two-volume publication is available in the Special Collections department of the USMA Library. http://library.usma.edu/record=b1773207~S0
3 Nathaniel P. Willis, American Scenery; Or, Land, Lake, and River Illustrations of Transatlantic Nature (London: George Virtue, 1840), I, p. 6
Contents contributed by Marlana Cook, Curator of Art, West Point Museum