Exhibit reveals bird’s-eye artworks promoted 19th century Vermont

Photo by J. David Bohl
A.F. Poole’s “Montpelier, County Seat of Washington County & Capital of Vermont,” 1884. Hand-colored lithograph.


What could we do to encourage more people to come to live in Vermont, and more business and industry to come here? If that sounds like something you’ve heard very recently, you might be surprised to know that Vermonters were asking the very same question in the mid-1800s.

It was a time of economic growth and ambition, and “bird’s-eye” or “perspective” views of the landscape were frequently designed to boost commercial and investment interest, often commissioned by or purchased to decorate the homes of wealthy potential investors in far-off Boston and New York City.

Photo courtesy Shelburne Museum
“View of Burlington, Vermont,” 1852-1860. Pastel on paper, unknown artist.

The newly opened exhibition titled “Mapping an Uneven Country: Bird’s Eye Views of Vermont” at Shelburne Museum’s Colgate Gallery features prints and paintings from as early as 1846. Their purpose was to spread the word to the people in other parts of the country that Vermont was a place they should be looking to as their new home, and/or the site of their new business or industry.

Looking at the 36 drawn, painted and printed panoramic views of 40 Vermont towns and their surrounding mountains, valleys, rivers and lakes, one might wonder how artists of more than 150 years ago, without airplanes, balloons or drones, could have captured such amazing images.

Katie Wood Kirchhoff, curator of the exhibition, explains that these depictions were created by itinerant painters or “map men” who visited key towns such as Burlington, St. Albans, Bennington, Brattleboro, Rutland and Newport, making careful measurements, consulting insurance maps, making sketches, then making prints that captured (and often enhanced) the view. 

The exhibition includes bird’s eye views from the museum’s collection, many of which have never seen the light of day, according to Kirchhoff, as well as many pieces from private collectors including Shelburne residents Jim and Judy Pizzagalli.

The display also features works by contemporary cartographers, installed alongside the historic works, to explore the ways that we continue to make sense of Vermont’s evolving landscape – and economy.

Along with the map presentations, the exhibition includes a number of spectacular landscape paintings by artists such as James Hope, who were influenced by the “map men.”

The exhibition is also an opportunity to delve into topics that are as alive today as they were in the early days of bird’s eye landscape making.

“The questions these views provoke,” Kirchoff said, “from ambivalence about burgeoning technologies to border relations between Vermont and Canada to changing perceptions of Vermont identity – are especially timely and remind exhibition visitors that the tensions we feel today surrounding the development of our state are not so different from the issues that 19th century Vermonters attempted to grapple with.”

The exhibit will be on view in the Colgate Gallery of the Pizzagalli Center for Art and Education at the Museum through March 3. More information at shelburnemuseum.org.

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