Reading the Skyline: Havell and The View of Manhattan From (near) Brooklyn Heights

By Margaret Fisher

Robert Havell Jr.’s View of New York from the East River offers an important perspective on the New York skyline during the 19th century.

On first glance, the viewer notes the composition of the image. The water is filled with ships, some under full sail and others resting. Towards the foreground in the far right corner, we see a larger ship, possibly a clipper, flying the American flag (the majority of the ships depicted fly the American flag as well). This particular ship’s sails are tanned, as though for camouflage during a long, perhaps dangerous journey. One or two other ships in the panorama have tanned sails, though the majority of the other ships’ sails are depicted white. The viewer observes a variety of sailing vessels, from large-masted cargo ships to small sailboats, and two steamboats are visible near the center of the image. The viewer does not see any human figures, for none appear in the image, causing the ships to appear as though sailing themselves. The exclusion of human figures may be intended to give the image a symbolic quality rather than a purely realistic feel.


We see dark shading in patches across the water (below), representing shadows on the water as clouds pass overhead. Dark shading surrounds the foreground, suggesting that the viewer’s position may be beneath a cloud. The lack of land in the foreground, combined with this shadow surrounding the bottom of the image, draws the viewer into participation with the panorama.

We find elements of kinetic movement in Robert Havell’s panorama as well. Signs of movement are detectable in the clouds, how they streak across the left and middle of the engraving and then collect and billow off to the right, as though directed by the wind. The ripples on the water, the full, billowing sails of ships, and the ships themselves angled as though “traveling” in different directions reinforce this feeling of movement and energy.

Similar indications of movement are also visible in both George Hall’s engraving, City of New York from Brooklyn Heights (1872), and in Raoul Varin’s aquatint engraving, New-York from Brooklyn Heights 1873 (1873) (from left to right below).

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In each of these three panoramic views, there seems to be a tension between the naturalistic and composite panoramic style. Naturalistic style tended to be more concerned with capturing the “ideal view”, or a single temporal and spatial situation. Composite panoramic style, on the other hand, included discrete details of an incident, something specific occurring within the view.36 Granted, these two styles (and the conflict between them) were typically the concern of circular panoramic artists (creators of 360 degree panoramic scenes), but there does seem to be a narrative aspect to Havell’s panorama in particular. However, even if, through the movement and kinetic elements we observe, a narrative quality can be detected in the panorama, can the panorama as a whole be described as depicting an “incident”?


To answer this question, a further comparison must be made between the Hall and Varin panoramas and Havell’s. Notable in Havell’s Panoramic View of New York is the absence of Brooklyn Heights or any kind of land in the engraving’s foreground. The shoreline of Brooklyn appears in the foreground of both Hall and Varin’s engravings, but Havell’s depicts the East River and the Skyline of Manhattan. This absence is significant because the visual inclusion of the vantage point’s surroundings was considered a means of establishing the verisimilitude of the view. Unless some aspect of the vantage point was visible, the realism of the panorama became less believable. Usually, panoramas included chimneys and houses in the foreground, even ones that blocked the overall panoramic view, because establishing the verisimilitude of the panorama required the certainty of an established vantage point. 37


Havell includes this vantage point “evidence” in other panoramas, such as his oil on canvas, View of the Bay and City of New York from Weehawken (1840), and his View of Hudson River from Near Sing Sing (1850) (from left to right below).

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Also, he would have been exposed to the technique through his father’s Natuorama; or Endless transposition of views on the Thames (1825), which features a substantial portion of the Thames nearest shore running along the entire bottom of the panorama. Here, however, any evidence for the exact vantage point is absent. Such evidence is also notably absent in his Costa Scena: or a cruise along the Southern Coast of Kent (1823) (below).38

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The Costa Scena panorama does not include this quality of verisimilitude because its focus is more composite. Meaning, the narrative of the King’s ship procession is the most important aspect of the image, over and above the visual realism of the scene. It can be argued, then, that the reason the vantage point evidence is absent in Havell’s New York Panorama is because it depicts some narrative, even if subtle, that is the true focus of the image. Assuming that a subtle narrative exists, it therefore benefits Havell’s viewer to feel as though on the water, without any distractions in the engraving’s foreground and an unobstructed view of the action. But what is the action here?


The ships seem to be the most obtrusive subjects of Havell’s panorama, which makes perfect sense given the extensive activity of South Street Seaport during this period. It can be suggested, therefore, that the “incident” occurring within this scene is the minute-by-minute growth of New York City, represented by the many ships traveling to and from the east side of Manhattan Island.

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In his 1844 New York panorama, Havell’s chosen vantage point is simply “from the east river”. Could there be significance in his decision to position his viewers on the water and in the action? Is the overall feeling of the panorama less peaceful because of this decision and, if so, was that Havell’s intention? Knowing that panoramas were intended to engage (and even excite) their viewers, one might suggest that this was in fact Havell’s intention here. He is, perhaps, celebrating the rush of progress and the passage of time in a way that Hall and Varin do not in their respective works. Hall and Varin choose, instead, to include Brooklyn’s shore in their panoramas, pushing New York City out and away, distancing the viewer from the rush and providing a sense of peace.

34 Havell, Robert, Jr. Panoramic View of New York Taken from the East River. 1844. Engraving and aquatint with watercolor. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, n.p.

35 Inset, Havell, Robert Jr. View of New York Taken from the East River. 1844.

36 Griffiths, Alison. "Spectacle and Immersion in the Nineteenth-Century Panorama." Shivers down Your Spine: Cinema, Museums, and the Immersive View. New York: Columbia UP, 2008. 37-71. Print.

37 Watson, Petra. Picturing the Modern City as a Panorama. Burnaby, B.C.: Simon Fraser U, 2007. Print. (pg. 73)

38 The Panoramic River: The Hudson and the Thames. Yonkers, NY: Hudson River Museum, 2013. Print.

39 Image. Hall, George R., City of New York from Brooklyn Heights; engraving, D. Appleton & Co., 1872.

40 Image. Varin, Raoul, New-York from Brooklyn Heights 1873; aquatint engraving, 1873. Brooklyn Historical Society.

41 Image. Havell, Robert Jr., View of the Bay and City of New York from Weehawken; painting, 1840. The Panoramic River: The Hudson and the Thames. Yonkers, NY: Hudson River Museum, 2013. Print.

42 Image. Havell, Robert Jr., View of Hudson River from Near Sing Sing; painting, 1850. The Panoramic River: The Hudson and the Thames. Yonkers, NY: Hudson River Museum, 2013. Print.

43 Image. Havell, Robert Jr., Costa Scena: or a cruise along the Southern Coast of Kent; painting, 1823. The Panoramic River: The Hudson and the Thames. Yonkers, NY: Hudson River Museum, 2013. Print.

44 Inset, Havell, Robert Jr. View of New York Taken from the East River. 1844.