“Fairmount Water Works,” 1821 by Thomas Birch. (Bequest of Charles Graff)
Art and architecture critic

Let’s imagine that Washington, D.C., never existed and that the permanent capital of the United States had been established in Philadelphia, a far more sensible place for it. Perhaps the country would have come of age under the influence of that city’s artists and intellectuals, who might have chastened the ignorance and opportunism of our elected representatives. Art and culture might have been more fundamentally woven into the narrative of American life, and perhaps we would speak today of the Schuylkill River School of artists, precursors to the Hudson River School that is often cited as the first coherent aesthetic movement in the history of American painting.

“From the Schuylkill to the Hudson: Landscapes of the Early American Republic” comes with a provocative and fascinating thesis: that there was indeed a Schuylkill River School, centered in Philadelphia, exploring themes and ideas that would be taken up by far more famous figures, including Thomas Cole in the 1830s and Albert Bierstadt and Frederic Edwin Church a generation later. But the exhibition also focuses on rivers in general, and their essential importance to American life, first as sources of water and means of transportation, later as political boundaries and dividing lines, and throughout our history, and up until our current moment, as symbols of man’s dominion over nature and his tendency to ruin it.

Philadelphia, the most populous city when the colonies declared independence in 1776, had served as the seat of government in the late 18th century, and might have become our national capital but for the machinations of southern political leaders. Fearing the influence of anti-slavery sentiments in the North, and the forces of cosmopolitanism and urban enlightenment, the slaveholding faction successfully removed the government from the North and placed it on the muddy flats of the Potomac.

If the capital had remained in Philadelphia, the paintings on view in an exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts would certainly be far better known. And they might be seen as exemplars of a school of national painting that fused ideas about landscape with ideals of governance, a body of work that not only delighted the eyes, but engaged the mind in utopian speculation.

The painters on view, a loose group of artists with a wide range of talent, were centered in Philadelphia, in part because of its wealth and urban energy, and because it was home to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, founded in 1805 as the first art school and museum in the new nation. Although the city’s rivers are now hemmed in by crumbling concrete, they still define the geography of the central Philadelphia tourists know, bounded to the west by the smaller Schuylkill River and to the east by the larger shipping channel of the Delaware River.


“Virtue and Vice, Sobriety and Drunkenness,” 1815-1830 by Thomas Birch. (Winterthur Museum/Museum Purchase)

Some of the earliest of the Schuylkill artists recorded the landscape and its “improvements” with a journalistic eye, documenting the emergence of a colonial overlay on the lands native to the Lenape people. A later artist, William Russell Birch, working in the first decade of the 19th century, created an album of the not-so-stately homes of local elites, making them seem only slightly more rustic than modest English country houses. The Peale family, art stars of the nascent Republic, also contributed a few early landscapes, including one seen in the background of a family portrait by James Peale and a rather clumsy view of a cabbage patch, made around 1815, by Charles Willson Peale, a prolific portraitist of the Founding Fathers.

But the claims for a Schuylkill River School become more compelling in the second and third decades of the 19th century, when artists began to focus on the taming of the Schuylkill, and the relation of the river to the people who depended on it. By the last decades of the 18th century, there was increasing alarm about the environmental state of the river, the city’s primary water source, and a yellow fever epidemic in 1793 focused attention on its cleanliness. Although yellow fever, which killed thousands of the city’s inhabitants and forced tens of thousands to flee, is transmitted by a mosquito-borne virus, disease was in general correlated with the status of local water sources.

In 1799, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, one of the architects of the U.S. Capitol, submitted designs for a municipal water system, with a central pumping station sited where City Hall is now located. About a decade later, the city created an even more elaborate waterworks with a pumping facility on the banks of the Schuylkill, beneath what is now the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Both Latrobe’s Centre Square building (long since demolished) and the neoclassical waterworks on the river banks became icons of the city and its river, and were reproduced not just in multiple paintings but in engravings and on dishware and other promotional items.

The city’s investment in a functional and aesthetically pleasing public works project gave Philadelphia a progressive identity. In 1811, Latrobe dreamed that, “The days of Greece may be revived in the woods of America, and Philadelphia become the Athens of the Western World.” Clean water was associated not just with good health, but with good morals. A tea service, made in China for import to the U.S. market, featured the waterworks, and thus made an association between drinking tea — the preferred beverage of teetotalers who advocated against the consumption of alcohol — and the city’s abundant source of fresh water.


“Cup and saucer showing the Philadelphia Waterworks,” 1825 by unknown maker. (Philadelphia Museum of Art)

The artworks focused on this chapter in the Schuylkill’s history make the best case for a distinct local river school of art. Here we see nature and human society in a state of detente, the river not entirely domesticated and the human encroachment on it tempered by ideals of good design. There is a realism to the works of Thomas Doughty and Thomas Birch, who depicted the river during this period, that isn’t meticulous or slavish to details, but sensible and clearsighted, a view of the river full of possibility but not yet inflated into the sublime spectacle favored by some of the later Hudson River School painters.

Cole, who was declared the founder of the Hudson River School later in the 19th century, spent time in Philadelphia, and he is the primary connection point between the artists of Philadelphia in the 1820s and the far-better-known Hudson River artists based mainly in New York (by then a terminus of a far more ambitious water scheme, the Erie Canal). The Schuylkill River School doesn’t have much coherence after this point, and the exhibition becomes more generally an overview of American landscape painting with a focus on rivers rather than a sustained argument for the existence of a unique Philadelphia subset of the genera. Works in the exhibition include views of the Italian countryside, South America, generic landscapes that could be anywhere, and a magnificent set of etchings and engravings by James Smillie based on Cole’s “The Voyage of Life” cycle, held by the National Gallery of Art.

But the focus on rivers is worth more attention. They were not just sources of drinking water, or avenues for transportation. They were also political dividers. An 1867 view of the Ohio River by Alexander Wyant depicts a geographical feature that divided the North and South during the Civil War, and was an essential escape route for slaves, and an 1870 view of emigrant wagons crossing a placid Western river hints at the role they would play in the nation’s next ambitious project, the dispossession of the West from native people and its development by colonial settlers.

The exhibition would be stronger with more focus on its main thesis. But if it doesn’t quite convince skeptics there was a coherent Schuylkill River School, it will at least cast larger doubt on the coherence of the so-called Hudson River School. Rivers, it seems, are too complex, too multivalent in their meanings and emotional associations, to give shape to an artistic movement. There were many rivers, artists and agendas essential to the development of American landscape painting. The Schuylkill painters made a modest, worthy and interesting contribution.

The larger power of the exhibition is purely speculative, a chance to consider might-have-beens. Latrobe’s dream of a sylvan Athens, a city defined as much by its art and culture as its tumultuous politics, is made real in several of these paintings. But instead of sylvan Athens, we got muddy Rome, a city no one particularly loved until long after the Civil War, a city that is still a lazy symbol for everything dysfunctional in the Republic.

From the Schuylkill River to the Hudson: Landscapes of the Early American Republic Through Dec. 29 at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. pafa.org.