Beck, George Jacob (1748-1812). Georgetown and City of Washington, c. 1795.
Gouche on paper in gold-leaf Frame, Circa 1795, Provenance: Dr. and Mrs. Irving Levitt, Detroit, Michigan, Kennedy Galleries, Inc., New York, 1795.
This incredibly rare watercolor by George Jacob Beck is the first view of Washington, DC and Georgetown. Beck completed this work at approximately the same time as his views of the Potomac River, commissioned by President George Washington in 1796 for his home in Mount Vernon. Washington was impressed by the artist’s ability to capture the beauty of his boyhood home and the site of his many land surveys, and purchased two companion views of Beck's Great Falls of the Potomac.
As evidenced in his views of the Potomac and Georgetown, Beck’s careful attention to light lends an ethereal quality to his landscapes. The figures in this view are bathed in the last light of dusk while the creeping shadows blot out the trees in the foreground. This work served served as the original drawing for the aquatint Georgetown and Federal City, or City of Washington published in 1801 by Atkins and Nightengale, as well as for the decoration on Staffordshire china. Lauded as one of the greatest predecessors of the Hudson River School and a favorite artist of President Washington, George Jacob Beck’s artwork continues to be highly sought after today.
Though listed in the 1806 Lexington directory as a "Portrait Painter," Beck is most famous for his landscape work, which unquestionably contributed to the popularity of American views during the late eighteenth and nineteenth century. He was the most experienced, if not the first of the early landscape painters to work in the United States. Six of his American views, engraved and published by T. Cartwright of London, have been collector's items for some time. This quote, taken from Virgil Barker of American Painting in 1950, demonstrates Beck’s enduring influence within the art world: "Among all the foreign-trained who came here in the Federal era, George Beck had the most substantial and the best mastered landscape style. Beck's superiority in craft enabled him to render the rocks with a strength sufficient to withstand the turbulent rush and falling weight of water.[and] to construct the forms of rock and tree, to give the solidity of earth, and even.to modulate values toward a distant horizon."
Beck’s early philosophy is accessible in the captions he wrote for two of his views published in the European Magazine and London Review in 1785. In these captions he expressed his lifelong interest in science and mathematics. "Portraits of men, things and places," according to Beck, serve the same purpose in the mimetic arts as experiments do in science. He added that the usefulness of drawing is linked to its ability to provide insight into nature’s secrets. A transitional figure, Beck was caught between eighteenth-century rational thought and nineteenth-century Romanticism. With his pioneering depictions of the American wilderness, he formed a stylistic bridge to Cole’s romantic landscapes. He leaned toward the aesthetic of the picturesque, sacrificing accuracy for pleasing effects and celebrating ruggedness over smoothness.
This view is taken from above Georgetown on the district side, and shows Analostan Island (the former designation for Theodore Roosevelt Island) in the Potomac River, with the Georgetown in the background on the left. In the far distance are the new boundaries of the city of Washington, founded just several years before Beck painted this view. In 1791, President Washington selected the location for the new capital, establishing the new federal city several miles away from Georgetown on the opposite bank of the Potomac.
Georgetown, which had been established in 1751 when the Maryland Legislature purchased sixty acres of land for the town during the reign of George II of Great Britain, was situated on the fall line- the farthest point upstream to which oceangoing boats could navigate the Potomac River. Georgetown eventually became a thriving port, facilitating trade and shipments of tobacco and other goods from colonial Maryland. Georgetown was frequented by President Washington, who worked out many deals there to acquire land for the Federal City. It was also home to Thomas Jefferson while he served as United States Secretary of State under Washington.