Eureka moments are rare indeed. For nearly 70 years the Fenimore Art Museum has had a painting of Poestenkill, New York (near Albany) by Joseph Henry Hidley in its collection. Hidley, a house painter, carpenter, taxidermist, and handyman, painted a number of bird’s-eye views of his home town from different angles and at different times of the year. There are several of these works in the collection of the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum in Williamsburg, Virginia. I have always felt (no surprise here) that ours was the best, owing to the dynamic sweep of the diagonal lines in the landscape that add vitality to the composition.
Primary among those strong diagonals is the mass of dark clouds on the horizon. This is somewhat of a convention in American landscape art, and we see it often in the works of Thomas Cole, who uses the passing storm as a kind of symbol of nature’s cleansing power. In the Hidley painting it seemed a more distant, and perhaps not so symbolic, point of interest.
The truth should not have been a surprise, but it was. Folk artists were much more literal than symbolic in their works, especially in the 19th century. They tended to paint exactly what they saw, because they were often painting for local patrons who knew the subject as well as they did. Rest assured that the buildings depicted in this painting were actually there on May 10, 1862, when Hidley signed and dated this work.
Something else was lurking there too, which he dutifully recorded, perhaps without even knowing what it was. In the early afternoon of May 10, 1862, sparks from a locomotive set a covered railroad bridge on fire in Troy, New York, eight miles west of Poestenkill. Winds spread the fire throughout the city, and by evening it had claimed more than 500 buildings and five lives. No one had ever connected the fire to the Hidley painting until about two years ago, when staff at the Rensselaer County Historical Society brought it to our attention. They correctly noted that from Hidley’s perspective, Troy sits directly under that ominous black cloud.
As he sat on that hillside on a spring afternoon, it is entirely possible that Hidley did not realize that, in the course of documenting the beauty of his town, he was recording the destruction of another.
Poestenkill, New York, 1862, by Joseph Henry Hidley (1830-1872), oil on wood panel, 19" x 31 1/4"
Engraving, Ruins of the Great Fire of Troy, New York, May 10, 1862.