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Wooding Up, Rodney, Mississippi, circa 1842-1853
Robert Brammer (1811-1853)

View Artist Bio
Oil on canvas
28 7/9 x 36 inches
Status: Private Collection, Louisiana

Few of Robert Brammer’s paintings are known to have survived to the present day but those that do have a thematic unity in that they explore connections between human enterprise and the natural world.  His landscapes and river views depict people engaged in interesting activities, and his scenes of busy people are set within attractive natural surroundings.  The latter sort of painting is Oakland House and Race Course, Louisville (1840), which he painted in cooperation with Augustus A. Von Smith (1816‒59).  Oakland House depicts a busy race day at the Oakland Race Course adjacent to the Oakland House hotel and clubhouse.  Built in 1832 the Oakland racetrack played an important role during the 1830s and 1840s in shifting the nation’s unofficial capital of horseracing away from Virginia and to the Kentucky bluegrass.  Brammer and Von Smith filled the canvas with people but also paid attention to the racecourse’s then-renowned natural setting.    

Wooding Up, Rodney, Mississippi depicts human activity within lush natural surroundings.  It may be considered a form of narrative landscape.  The painting depicts an essential forest industry of the Steamboat Era.  The adaptation of the steam engine to land and water navigation has rightly been called the Transportation Revolution.  Steamboats and railroads liberated locomotion from the uncertain, expensive, and exhausting means of propulsion—wind, currents, animal and human muscle power—that proceeded the invention of the steam engine.  However, steam propulsion had its limitations: it was dependent upon ready supplies of fuel to create the active steam that drove the engines.  So, the fuel business emerged as a complement to the Age of Steam. 

Steamboats consumed great quantities of wood fuel in their travels up and down the Mississippi.  Historians of technology have determined that a steamboat might consume as many as twelve to seventy five cords of wood per day, depending on the boat’s size and the direction of its voyage.  Vessels might stop twice a day to take on fuel.  The timber business of “wooding up”—providing wood to refuel steamboats—grew quickly along the major navigable rivers.  On the upper reaches of the Ohio, Tennessee, and Missouri Rivers, steamboats stopped at docks to take on wood but loading delays affected travel times.  Enterprising wood-yard owners devised a better method of refueling on the lower Mississippi which flowed wide and slow through swamps and bayous.  Flatboats rowed out to meet the steamboats; tied onto their sides; and unloaded their fuel while the vessels were in motion. “Wooding up” was often described in the literature of the times, and some aspects of it were depicted in artworks.  George Caleb Bingham (1811‒79) depicted three “woodhawks”, or firewood suppliers, in his Boatmen on the Missouri (1846).  However, Bingham concentrated more on depicting the characters of the men in his painting than in their enterprise.  Bingham’s flatboat is an accurate rendition, but the load of fuel—the stuff of trade—is subordinate to issues of volume and perspective.  British-born Frances (Fanny) F. Palmer (1812‒76) was probably the most prolific artist-lithographers employed by the Currier & Ives Company in the mid-nineteenth century.  Her 1863 lithograph “Wooding Up” on the Mississippi depicts a stern-wheeler moored at night to a dock at a wood-yard being loaded with logs.  A second steamboat waiting its turn to be refueled reveals the importance and profitability of the business.   

Brammer’s Wooding Up depicts the business as it was conducted on the wide expanses of the lower Mississippi River and in a way that greatly improved its efficiency.  Three African Americans, probably enslaved by the owner or manager of an unseen wood-yard, are transporting by flatboat a load of wood to provide fuel for the distant steamboat set midstream in the river.  Brammer’s flatboat is identical to the thousands of flatboats that navigated American rivers before, during, and after the steamboats became the stuff of history. An orderly pile of logs on the riverbank awaits loading and subsequent transportation to another passive riverboat.

A person possessing knowledge of the geography and topography of the lower Mississippi River has identified the locale depicted in Wooding Up as the former town of Rodney, Mississippi.  First settled by the French in 1763 and called Petite Gouffre, the struggling townsite was sold to an American in 1798 and in 1828 was renamed Rodney in honor of Judge Thomas Rodney of Delaware and Natchez, Mississippi.  Situated on the east bank of the Mississippi, fifty miles downriver from Vicksburg and thirty two miles upriver from Natchez, Rodney in 1840 had a post office, eight stores, and a population of five hundred.  The transportation revolution that made Rodney a wooding-up site eventually made the town superfluous by the end of the nineteenth century.  Nearly destroyed by fire on two occasions and inundated by the Great Flood of 1927, the town was abandoned by the 1930s.  Today it is described by local tourism organizations and rural development companies as a ghost town.  The former town site and several buildings that survive are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Steamboats were stupendous engines of change and industrial progress, but they still depended upon times, tides, and physiography of rivers.  However, by painting his steamboat as a small object in the distant background Brammer “put it in its place” and gave it less significance than the hand-powered flatboat with its African American crew and its vital load of fuel. 

George Byron Merrick in his Old Times on the Mississippi: Recollections of a

Steamboat Pilot from 1854 to 1863 (1909) published a first-hand description of the scene Brammer painted:

Flatboats, or scows, capable of carrying twenty cords of wood, and even forty, were loaded at the woodyards in readiness for the expected steamer.  As the wood was worth more loaded in the scow, a higher price was given by the steamboatmen, and contracts were made ahead; the date of arrival of the boat was determined, and the wood-boat was in readiness, day or night, with two men on board.  It was the work of a few minutes only to run alongside, make fast the towlines, and while the steamer was on her way upriver, thirty or forty men pitched or carried the wood aboard.  Ordinarily the wood-boat was not in tow more than half an hour, which would take her five or six miles upriver.  When the wood was out, the towlines were cast off, a large sweep or steering oar was shipped out at each end of the scow, and it drifted back . . . . (62-3).

Robert Brammer was born in Waterford, Ireland, in 1811.  He immigrated to the United States and resided in Wheeling, Virginia, prior to 1837 when he advertised himself as a “professor of drawing and landscape painting.”  By 1840 he resided in Louisville, Kentucky, and collaborated with the immigrant German painter Augustus A. Von Smith (1816‒59) to create Oakland House and Race Course, Louisville.  By 1842 they had relocated to New Orleans, and Brammer worked in that city until his death in 1853.  Although a few works are known to be solely by his hand, he apparently worked well as a collaborator with other New Orleans artists.  When his name appeared in local newspapers, it was generally in connection with works by Theodore Sidney Moise (1808‒85), James Henry Beard (1814‒93), and Trevor Thomas Fowler (1800‒71).  Closer examination and deeper research into the careers of these and other Louisiana painters may reveal more about Brammer and his career.  After living and working in America for at least fourteen years, he became a United States citizen on December 16, 1851.  He spent time in Biloxi, Mississippi, during the early years of the 1850s, possibly living there during the sickly season in New Orleans.  Robert Brammer died at his Biloxi home in June 1853, leaving no evidence that he had a family.



Carter, Kate. “Robert Brammer (1811‒1853).” Know Louisiana, The Digital encyclopedia of

Louisiana and Home of Cultural Vistaswww.knowlouisiana.org/entry/rpbert-brammer, accessed April 10, 2017.

Haskel, Daniel and Smith, J. Calvin. Complete Description and Statistical Gazetteer of the

United States of America . . . . New York: Sherman & Smith, 1840. 

Hicklin, Robert M. Jr. Calm in the Shadow of the Palmetto & Magnolia: Southern Art from the

Charleston Renaissance Gallery.  Charleston:  Charleston Renaissance Gallery, 2003.

Pennington, Estill Curtis.  Downriver: Currents of Style in Louisiana Painting, 1800‒1950.

Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing, 1991.

Schob, David E.  “woodhawks and Cordwood: Steamboat Fuel on the Ohio and Mississippi

Rivers.” Forest and Conservation History 23, no. 3 (July1977): 124‒32.

United States Naturalization Records Indexes, 1791‒1992. Card Index to Naturalizations in

Louisiana (P2087).  Civil District Court Building Minutes Book, 1851‒1852, p. 278.    

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