No matter how much research I do or visits to historic sites I make, there's always a point in which my imagination has to put all the pieces together to create the environment in which my characters live. For I, ELIZA HAMILTON, I had to imagine late 18thc Philadelphia, New York, and Albany in as much detail as I could muster: not just the houses and other buildings, but the smells, the light, and the weather, the wagons and horses and carriages crowding the streets, and the sounds of the churchbells and the cries of street vendors.
The fancy modern word for all this is "world-building", and though it's most often used in relation to fantasy and sci-fi novels, it certainly applies to recreating an 18thc world, too. Perhaps that's why I've always been drawn to the late 19thc and 20thc illustrators like N.C.Wyeth and Howard Pyle who brought this same early America so dramatically to life in their artwork.
This painting is by another Pennsylvania artist who's not as well-known today, but in the 1890s was called "one of America's best artists." Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1850-1936) became a highly successful artist in an era when few women made a full-time career in art. The daughter of a farmer, Browscombe was encouraged to draw and paint by her mother, and in time she studied art in New York, Paris, and Rome. Her work appeared in magazines and greeting cards, and in museums and private collections. A member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, she was especially known for her paintings of subjects drawn from early American history.
The painting shown here is an excellent example of her work as well as her devotion to researching her subjects. It's also a scene that could have taken place in I, ELIZA HAMILTON. Called "Wall Street, 1790" (or "Wall Street, West from Hanover"), the painting shows the famous and fashionable street in New York City during the Federal era - when New York was not only the largest city in the new country, but also its capital. The Wall Street romantically imagined here is probably cleaner and tidier than it really was, with neat little sidewalks, no horse manure or other rubbish, and as for that sedan chair - well, that may be an exaggeration for 1790s NY, too.
Ms. Brownscombe has added a few important people to her city-scene, people who in fact maintained houses in the neighborhood. The gentleman crossing the street is Aaron Burr with his beloved daughter Theodosia, more interested in the pigeons. The two gentlemen in conversation are familiar, too: the older man is Gen. Philip Schuyler, Eliza's father, and the man beside him is none other than Alexander Hamilton. I haven't discovered any further information about the other pedestrians, but I wouldn't be surprised if the dark-haired woman in green is supposed to be Eliza, with one of the Hamilton sons - Philip? - beside her.
Don't know about you, but I'd love the chance to step back in time to join them....
"Wall Street, 1790" (or "Wall Street, West from Hanover") by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, Published in the year 1913 by C. Klackner, New York. Museum of the City of New York.
Read more about Eliza Schuyler and Alexander Hamilton (and their son Philip) in my latest historical novel, I, Eliza Hamilton, now available everywhere.