Take a close look at the 1884 “bird’s eye” map of Montpelier and you see a tiny black steam engine, just emerged from a covered rail bridge over the Winooski, heading north. Another engine, three cars in tow, chugs south, just past the Montpelier Carriage Company, Fisher and Cotton Nickel Plating Works and Sabin Manufacturing Company’s door springs factory.
The State House, churches, and many businesses and civic buildings stand prominently at their addresses as scores of tidy houses line neighborhood streets. There are also tiny boaters on the river and horses, carriages and pedestrians going about their business. Montpelier is clearly a bright and prospering city.
This appealing image of Montpelier is among the 19th century prints in the exhibition “Mapping an Uneven Country: Bird’s Eye Views of Vermont” that opened last week in the Colgate Gallery of the Pizzagalli Center for Art and Education at Shelburne Museum.
With over three dozen drawn, painted and printed views, the show explores the “perspective” or “bird’s eye” prints and paintings that found widespread popularity in the late 1800s. The show features Vermont towns — Bennington to St. Albans, Brattleboro to St. Johnsbury.
From the earliest, an 1845 lithograph of Bellows Falls drawn by a Mrs. Webber, to several from the 1890s — Barre, Williamstown and Hardwick among them — these panoramic images offer views of the layout of Vermont cities and towns and a sense of the spirit of the era.
“We wanted to take a closer look at a component of the Shelburne Museum’s collection that had not seen the light of day for a little while,” said exhibition curator Katie Wood Kirchhoff.
Shelburne Museum has an especially rich collection of these “bird’s eye” images. This broad selection offers viewers not only the experience of seeing them, but also of exploring connections between them and Vermont’s growth and development. The museum’s works are supplemented by 13 pieces from the private collection of John and Judy Pizzagalli. Along with the 20 or so “bird’s eye” prints are paintings and drawings of Vermont communities with similar perspective.
“We wanted to think about ways that people see that landscape and how, over the course of the second half of the 19th century, the way we view Vermont’s landscape changed,” Kirchhoff said.
The printed panoramic views were usually created by itinerant illustrators, sometimes referred to as “map men.” Most of the earlier ones have a perspective as though seen from a nearby hilltop. Some of the latest ones seem downright aerial.
Printed mostly out of state — Burleigh Lithograph Co. of Troy, New York, published many — the prints were hand colored. They were widely displayed in homes and businesses. Highlighting local businesses, industries, rail lines and civic buildings and organizations, they could be used to boost interest in investment as well as evoke local pride.
Developing these perspectives, map men reportedly traveled through their subject towns with a kind of pedometer, measuring and confirming layout and noting building design. There’s a great deal of charm in these views. In the earlier ones in particular, there are delightful details conveying joys of town life in Vermont in the 1800s.
In Frank Childs’ 1865 view of Rutland, a couple strolls by a split rail fence, waving to a pair rowing in a pond as smokestacks, steeples and the density of urban Rutland are clustered behind them.
Two decades later, Lucien Rinaldo Burleigh’s “Rutland, Vermont,” printed in Cleveland, Ohio, instead focuses on development and industry. Seen from a more elevated perspective, this is a bustling city with over 53 landmark buildings and businesses in the key. In Rutland, as in almost all of the prints, viewers see the rail line and trains of an up-to-date city connected to the world beyond.
“There are a lot of areas where 19th century printed maps crossed with 19th century American landscape painting,” Kirchhoff said. “It was no coincidence how these came together as it turned out. A lot of the map men may have also had side gigs as painters, or 19th century painters had side gigs as map men.”
Charles Lewis Heyde’s oil painting “Bird’s Eye View of Burlington, Vermont 1860-1870” includes the same distinctive landmarks — notably church steeples — as an unidentified artist’s pastel and an 1846 lithograph by Thomas Waterman Wood. Showing off the innovations of the times, all three feature steam-powered vessels on Lake Champlain.