Generous members of the New-York Historical Society’s Library Committee made possible our recent acquisition of John Bachmann’s lithograph, View of Central Park, New York, printed around 1875. It joins the twenty-two other works by Bachmann in our Department of Prints, Photographs, and Architectural Collections (click here to read more about them).
Swiss born and trained in Paris, John Bachmann (1814-1896) was a highly respected artist and lithographer who was especially known for his mid-nineteenth century bird’s-eye views of American cities. In fact it is claimed that Bachmann was one of the first artists to depict city views in this manner.
Central Park lies between Fifth and Eighth avenues and stretches from 59th to 110th Streets. It covers 843 acres and is the pride of New York City. Competition for design of the designated area was held in 1857 and the plan submitted by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux was selected as the winner. Rather than layout parks based on a formal and symmetrical European style, Olmsted and Vaux preferred more romantic plans that followed the contours of any given space and were more pastoral. Central Park welcomed its first visitors in 1859.
A close reading of Bachmann’s bird’s-eye view of Central Park reveals a myriad of anomalies. The lush vegetation with luxuriant gardens looks almost tropical and even if the plantings represented indigenous species, the park certainly would not be this plush a mere sixteen years after it had opened. Other factors that seem fanciful include Belvedere Castle which is far larger in this image than it actually is, the incongruous spatial relationships of buildings within the park, as well as is the placement of the park in relation to Fifth Avenue which, in this image, stretches across the picture plane two-thirds of the way up in the composition. These deviations are especially odd within the context of John Bachmann’s typical panoramic views of cities which are normally quite particular about factual details.
The discrepancies can be explained when one places this important and delightful print into historical context. Although the park opened in 1859, it was not completed until 1873—the Civil War was certainly one reason for this delay. After the war, attention was turned to making New York a world class city which would need great art galleries, grand places of music, and imposing parks. The Metropolitan Museum of Art was founded in 1870—it would move to Central Park in 1880. The Metropolitan Opera House opened in 1883. Bachmann’s 1873 bird’s-eye view of Central Park can be seen as a splendid celebration of a new urban oasis that accentuated the grand architecture within it and the sumptuous landscapes where New Yorkers could find a peaceful escape from the demands of a burgeoning municipality. The park was where one might take a quiet stroll, enjoy the silence of nature, or the tranquility of a boat ride on the park’s waterways.
Within this context, we must excuse the artist’s flight from fact and rather see it as artistic license that makes an exuberant statement about one’s pride in a city that was taking its place among the great metropolises of the world.
This post is by Marilyn S. Kushner, Curator and Head, Department of Prints, Photographs, and Architectural Collections.