Watercolor over graphite on wove paper
Purchased through the Katharine T. and Merrill G. Beede 1929 Fund; W.999.6
This watercolor features an especially early depiction of the elevated conduit High Bridge, which formed a key component of the Croton aqueduct that conveyed upstate water across the Harlem River to Manhattan. Under construction from 1839 to 1848, High Bridge represented an enormously ambitious and costly engineering project within a much larger, state-of-the-art aqueduct system. Engineer John B. Jervis designed High Bridge in the form of a Roman aqueduct, with stone arches spanning the Harlem River from the Westchester mainland (now the Bronx) to Manhattan at what is now 173rd Street. Stylistically reminiscent of a Roman aqueduct, High Bridge suggested continuity with great civilizations of the past as well as American technological innovation. John William Hill nestles the aqueduct into a picturesque landscape that also features two figures—one European American and one African American— engaged in quotidian rural labor. It is not clear what the relationship between the figures is or whether their inclusion was intended as a commentary during this period of regional tensions regarding slavery. Given Hill’s background as a topographic artist, he may well have based this vignette on personal observation of an actual scene. The agrarian regions surrounding New York City had supported an especially large African American population dating back to the eighteenth century, when New York State had been the heaviest user of slave labor north of the Mason-Dixon Line. John William Hill’s extensive work in watercolor made him a pioneer amid the growing interest in the medium. This is most likely the watercolor titled High Bridge that he featured alongside oil paintings in the 1848 exhibition of the American Art-Union. Its large size signals the growing ambitions for the medium, which previously had been associated with either amateur or scientifically inclined illustrators.
Last Updated: 4/29/09