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View of Harper's Ferry, Circa 1858
Joachim Ferdinand Richardt (1819-1895)

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Oil on canvas
28 1/2 x 48 1/2 inches
Signature Details: Ferd. Richardt
Status: Private Collection, Virginia

Danish artist Ferdinand Richardt was attracted to the scenic and historic wonders of the United States in the middle years of the nineteenth century. He was born at Brede bei Lyngby in 1819 and studied at the Royal Academy, Copenhagen. The best known of his American paintings were the many views of Niagara Falls that he painted in the mid-1850s. These he placed on exhibit in New York City along with Swedish and Danish landscapes in the autumn of 1856. Three years later, in January 1859, he mounted his "Exhibition of American Scenery" in the galleries of the National Academy of Design. Included in this display were views of Lake George, Grace Church in New York City, the Catskill Mountains, and, among southern scenes, the Mississippi River, Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, and Virginia's Natural Bridge.

Richardt's Southern travels also found him on the Potomac River, where he painted Mount Vernon and the town of Harper's Ferry at the confluence of the Potomac and the Shenandoah. By 1873 Richardt was living in Oakland, California. He subsequently moved to San Francisco, where he died on October 29, 1895.

Richardt painted a smaller version of this painting, titled Harper's Ferry (15 x 20 inches; IBM Collection, Stamford, Connecticut), which is inscribed, "[Harper's] Ferry 2 27 1858 F. Richardt." The differences between the two paintings are minor: the number and arrangement of the figures on the hillside at left are slightly different in each, for example. Since the smaller version is as highly finished as the present example, it cannot be interpreted as a preparatory study; rather, we may assume that such was the popularity of Richardt's rendering of Harper's Ferry that at least two collectors wished to own it, necessitating the making of a copy.

The view is from Jefferson Rock looking down on the town nestled at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers. The Shenandoah is on the right, and the Potomac comes from between the hills at left to join with it and flow east, at center. St. Peter's Roman Catholic (erected 1833) is the brick building with pointed steeple, left of center. The building behind it, with a smaller belfry, is St. Peter's School. Just to the right of the school may be seen the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, which was built as far west as Harper's Ferry in 1833. The two small, white houses at lower right were erected between 1811 and 1834. The brick building just above them and facing the river is the Market House, used as an armory, among other purposes, and erected between June 1846 and June 1847.

View of Harper's Ferry is a sophisticated painting that bears witness to Richardt's fine academic training. Its artistic background is the northern European tradition of landscape painting, which placed an emphasis upon clear, concise rendering of detail as Richardt has so carefully done in each of the buildings. From them, the viewer's eye is taken back into a seemingly infinite space, following the winding path of the Potomac to the farthest hills that are softened by a sfumato haze. Richardt's clear love of detail and his total mastery of his medium combine in View of Harper's Ferry, resulting in one of the finest of Southern landscapes made in the middle of the last century.  Cynthia Seibels

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This essay is copyrighted by Robert M. Hicklin Jr., Inc. and may not be reproduced or transmitted without written permission.

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