July 04: in Centre Square

2012/07/04 § 1 Comment

This is the day in 1812 portrayed in John Lewis Krimmel’s painting, Fourth of July in Centre Square.

In case you skipped Genre Day in Art History 101: genre paintings are images of everyday life (rather than portraits of important people, inspiring images of saints or history scenes of big significant one-time events); they show normal people doing normal things.  But they’re not laborious versions of snapshots.  A good genre artist draws you in with an ostensibly familiar scene, but then surprises or engages with the particular handling of details to communicate a more significant idea than you might first expect.

Krimmel (1786-1821) was a pretty great painter of genre subjects, as revealed by this view of the square that is  smack-dab in the center of the grid that William Penn devised as his great town in the seventeenth century.  Although all the patriotic Philadelphians (and their dogs) (the cats stay home; cats are Fascist) portrayed here provide ample provision for the dissertation writer of American art/history/material culture/life, the Muse of course looks to the painting’s architectural background.  Rarely is any part of a genre scene is left ambiguous (unless the whole point is ambiguity).  This one is pretty clear.

Of the five squares that Penn laid out, only this one was to be built upon, with some kind of public building (it’s the site where that ponderous pile they call “City Hall” now stands).  During Krimmel’s short life, Centre Square was the setting of a small marble Neo-Classical gem designed by American architecture’s own Founding Father, B. Henry Latrobe (he of the great Oration and lots of super buildings).

What is this structure that is so significant that it earns a place amidst a lively celebration of American independence?  A house of government?  A church?  Thomas Jefferson’s tea lodge?  No.  It’s a pump house.  It held the steam-powered equipment that propelled water through the city, and it may be the perfect monument of the early National period.  Built in 1801, demolished in 1829 (again we say: Well done, Philly), the neat white marble prism was topped by a cylinder, ideal forms in which Classical quotations appear in the form of a pair of Greek Doric columns and a saucer dome.  Here, the oculus of the Pantheon is not used so much to let light in as to allow steam to escape.  This was, after all, an elegant case for rugged industrial equipment that pumped water from the Schuylkill River (on the west edge of town) into the homes, businesses and institutions of the growing city (clustered on the east side).  No mere technological necessity, the Pump House was a tool of Republican virtue (as such it is one of a long, long line of technological innovations that have been used as the means to tell the “American story”; ‘Merca loves its gizmos)–one that made fresh water available to residents across the city, an amenity enjoyed in neither London nor Paris.  As such, it was rightly celebrated in Latrobe’s rich architecture and by Krimmel as the proper backdrop for patriotic celebration of citizens.

Image: Fourth of July in Centre Square (John Lewis Krimmel, 1812)

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§ One Response to July 04: in Centre Square

  • Susan Barsy says:

    Plus the fountain in the middle ground suggests that utilitarian “infrastructure” is a necessary foundation from which the arts and refinement will spring; a common 19th preoccupation, in the US, at least.

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