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Saint-Mémin's "A View of the City of New York from Brooklyn Heights in 1798" and the Changing Face of New York City

By Adam Fales

Charles Balthazar Julien Févret de Saint-Mémin (1770-1852) was born into the French nobility. After the events of the French Revolution, Saint-Mémin was forced to flee his homeland, making his way to America and New York City, arriving in 1793.[1] At some point between 1796 and 1798,[2] Saint-Mémin drew the view that would eventually become the engraving “A View of the City of New York from Brooklyn Heights in 1798.”

Saint-Mémin learned art primarily while in the military and through his own personal practice and attention to detail. When he arrived in the United States, art was a means to support himself and his family (parents and sister), rather than a passion. He learned the process of engraving from Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encycopédie. 

Engraving is an art form in which a drawing is etched onto a plate (usually copper) either by hand or—as in Saint-Mémin’s case—using a tool for mechanical reproduction, such as the pantograph.[3] The plate then goes through the process of being inked and pressed, resulting in a mirror image being pressed onto whatever material the artist uses. Engravings were used for a wide range of works, including broadsheets, maps, portraits, and views of cities.

Saint-Mémin primarily focused on the latter two subjects, although he did create some maps. In 1796, Saint-Mémin partnered with a man named Thomas Bluget de Valdenuit to open a portrait business at 11 Fair Street in New York City. In 1797, the business moved a few blocks south to 27 Pine Street, until Saint-Mémin closed the store and moved to other cities in the Northeastern United States, where he created portraits of famous American figures, including Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. These portraits established Saint-Mémin as an important figure in American society and are primarily what he is remembered for today.[4]

Saint-Mémin was looking at New York City not as an American citizen, but as a French Immigrant. He arrived in New York City on October 26, 1793, before he had entered the portrait business. He settled in Mount Pitt, with the Livingston family, in Lower Manhattan. Beginning the following year, Saint-Mémin began drawing and engraving various different views of Manhattan, both from the island and across the East River, from Brooklyn Heights. This latter view appears in Saint-Mémin’s final depiction of the Manhattan skyline: “A View of the city of New York....” Saint-Mémin’s notorious attention to detail ensures that this engraving is an accurate representation of what the skyline would have looked like as New York approached the turn of the century.[5] Saint-Mémin is able to capture an extraordinary amount of detail in the fantastic engraving, which stretches on for nearly five feet.[6]

Prior to Saint-Mémin’s engraving, the most famous view of the skyline of New York City was commonly known as the “Burgis View,” created in 1746.[7] The Burgis View gives a vivid, although significantly less detailed view of the Manhattan skyline compared to the Saint-Mémin engraving. Both views feature annotations, identifying important buildings and features in the skyline.[8] An important difference between these two views is their intention. Two important sources—coming from Hallam as well as Burrows and Wallace—identify the Burgis View as an extension of British colonialism; it was a view meant to make New York City seem like a thriving source of wealth for the British Empire.[9]

Coming after the Burgis Print, Saint-Mémin’s engraving could be the post-revolutionary counterpart, illustrating the changes in New York City and its skyline after and during the American Revolution.

The East River and the Eastern side of Manhattan Island composed Saint-Mémin’s view, creating a skyline made of primarily water, ships, and buildings. It is made up of roughly 1/3 water, 1/4 land and buildings, and the rest is the sky. Many other views from the same frame include the foreground of Brooklyn Heights within the view of the portrait.[10] Saint-Mémin included this foreground in an earlier view he did of Manhattan Island from Brooklyn Heights.[11] This view includes Brooklyn Heights predominantly, using New York City as the background to the landscape.

In “A View of the City of New York from Brooklyn Heights,” the buildings appear to rise directly out of the water, as though New York City has built directly up to the shore. The first annotation on the engraving just says “S.E. End of the Battery.” The Battery is the only portion of the engraving manmade structures do not dominate. As our eyes move from left to right across the engraving, we reach Whitehall Slip, named for the nearby White Hall: a prominent building and the former home of Petrus Stuyvesant (It’s located immediately next to the Battery in the engraving).

A slip is a ramp, leading out of the water onto land, used as a landing spot for boats and ships. Many of these slips take their names from the streets to which they are connected. Major exceptions are Old Slip, which was located at the foot of William Street, and Exchange Slip, where the Elizabeth Ferry landed. Most of the street names in lower Manhattan have remained the same, since the turn of the 19th Century, and many modern maps still have the locations of the slips marked.[12] The slips are a useful way to orient the (mostly extinct) locations in Saint-Mémin’s skyline within that of the 21st Century. The slip, located farthest North, is Peck Slip, located just South of the current location of the Brooklyn Bridge.

The Elizabeth Ferry landed just North of the Whitehall Slip, followed by the Exchange Slip, located between modern day Broad Street and Whitehall Street. Next to the gap created by the Exchange Slip, Delafield’s Stores form a row of white buildings. These stores were a result of the auction of a large portion of foreclosed land previously owned by the De Lancey family in 1788.[13] As a result of anti-Tory politics, much of the land owned by prominent Tories was confiscated in the years leading up to 1788. John Delafield bought a large portion of this land, allowing him to open a row of stores, dealing in insurance and banking. These buildings dominated this portion of the waterfront, as well as the view of the skyline. Instead of utilizing vertical space, Delafield’s Stores have a leveling effect, taking up a large part of horizontal space directly on the waterfront.

Just North of the Delafield Stores, the Exchange Market, located near the current Broad Street, rather than Exchange Place, takes up the waterfront. About a block inland, you can see the roof of Fraunce’s Tavern, located at the corner of the modern day Broad Street and Pearl Street.

Fraunce’s Tavern is still standing today as a historic museum and tavern. Stephen De Lancey built the building in 1719. It would later house a tavern owned by Samuel Fraunces. After Fraunces’ Tavern—called the Queen’s Head—moved in later that century, the business became an integral part of New York City. During the Revolutionary War, the tavern served as an important location for meetings amongst soldiers. After the war was over, George Washington celebrated in Fraunces’ Tavern, and members of the Continental Congress used the tavern for lodging.[14]

The Government House towers behind the first row of buildings on the waterfront. Carwithian’s 1730 engraving shows the tip of the Manhattan skyline completely dominated by Fort George.[15] This Fort, which had been controlled by both British and Dutch hands, was demolished in 1789.[16] This act symbolically cleared the lower part of Manhattan Island from its colonial vestiges of Dutch and British ownership, allowing for New York to define the island. Shortly after the demolition of the fort, the city constructed a three-story building that would later be called the Government House. This new building afforded wide views of the harbor, essentially the counterpart of Saint-Mémin’s engraving from the opposite side of the East River. 

Just barely South of Old Slip, Saint-Mémin depicts No. 1 Broadway, also known as the “Kennedy House,” or as the more illustrious title “Kennedy Mansion.” The house was located at the beginning of Broadway, across the street from the still existing Bowling Green, built in 1733. Built by Archibald Kennedy in 1750, the house was famous before, during, and after the Revolutionary War. Prior to 1776, houses No. 1 and 3 Broadway were known for the splendid spectacles they held for partygoers: on “great gala days and nights, the two houses were connected by a bridge,—a rialto from which smiling belles looked upon the river which washed the foot of the garden.”[17] During the Revolution, No. 1 Broadway housed both British and American generals (depending on who controlled the city at the time), and is the cite of the first meeting between Colonel Powell and General Washington after the Declaration of Independence was signed. After the War ended, No. 1 Broadway housed first a leader of the Sons of Liberty—Isaac Sears—and then later, while New York City was the Federation’s capital, the Spanish Ambassador to the United States.

No. 1 Broadway seemed to follow its numeration and lead the street. In the last decade of the 18th Century, Broadway, along with much of lower Manhattan, near the waterfront, became one of the most fashionable places to live, housing famous residents such as Benedict Arnold and Robert Fulton.[18] Wealthy merchants moved closer to the waterfront to be near to their wharves, a sort of dock, where most of their business was conducted. Saint-Mémin depicts several examples of these wharves, within his skyline, including Jones’ Wharf, Murray’s Wharf, and Jackson’s Wharf.

Between Old Slip and Wall Street, Saint-Mémin depicts three churches. Founded in 1698, Trinity Church was the most extravagant of the churches in New York City, located just up the street from Bowling Green. The first Trinity Church burned to the ground in the New York fire of 1776, but the Second Church was completed in 1790, appearing in Saint-Mémin’s skyline. In a fashionable neighborhood with wealthy people, Trinity Church’s congregation featured some of the most prominent citizens of New York City. It dominates Saint-Mémin’s skyline, not just with its own steeple, but also with the steeple of St. Paul’s chapel, erected in 1766, owned by Trinity Church.

In the same space between Old Slip and Wall Street, Saint-Mémin illustrates two other churches: Grace Church and the First Presbyterian Church. Grace Church is the farther South church, which is annotated on Saint-Mémin’s engraving.[19] Trinity was seen as an English church, as opposed to an American church.[20] In contrast, many churches, including the First Presbyterian Church, were linked to the Revolutionary forces, and were seen as tangible symbols of the Revolution. Due to a shortage of space during the Revolutionary War, Loyalists and British soldiers seized possession of these churches for use as stables, shelters, and other useful buildings. These buildings—and their treatment during the Revolutionary War—would have still been in the public’s mind after Saint-Mémin published his engraving. As Revolution changed to victory, the symbols of Revolution also changed to victory. These churches, which had been taken from the American people, become figures in the New York skyline—they served as reminders that Americans had won their liberty from the British. [21]

Saint-Mémin depicts other churches that received similar treatment, including The Middle Dutch Church and the Scotch Presbyterian Church, between Wall Street and Maiden Lane, and the Brick Presbyterian Church North Dutch Church between Maiden Lane and Beekman Slip.

Just North of Wall Street, Saint-Mémin depicts Federal Hall. Federal Hall was a renovated version of the old City Hall building for the City of New York. While not directly on the waterfront, the roof of Federal Hall, identifiable by its triangular roof, is visible behind the first row of buildings. It became the center of Government for the young United States in 1789, following the ratification of the Constitution. It was also the location of the Inauguration of the First President of the United States, George Washington.

Just to the North of Federal Hall, Saint-Mémin illustrates the annotated Tontine Coffee House. The Tontine Coffee House was a symbol of the changing New York City. It was established in 1793—less than a decade before Saint-Mémin made his engraving. It was the home of the New York Stock Exchange.[22] Located at 82 Wall Street, the Tontine was a harbinger of the bright economic future of New York City as well as the beginning of the shift of New York’s economic center slightly north from the earlier location. Around the turn of the century, bankers and brokers began to move into the neighborhood surrounding the Tontine Coffee House, creating a thriving economic climate. Coupled with Fraunce’s Tavern, farther South in the engraving, Saint-Mémin celebrates the rich history of New York City (symbolized by Fraunce’s Tavern), as well as its role in the Revolutionary War, while still illustrating the excitement at New York’s bright economic future (symbolized by the Tontine Coffee House).

The “Walton House” is the last significant Historical building that appears annotated in Saint-Mémin’s engraving, located just North of Peck Slip, where the Brooklyn Bridge lands in Manhattan in the 21st Century. William Walton built the house, to which he gave his name, in 1754.[23] The lavish house was meant to match the considerable wealth that Walton had gained through trade with the Spanish colonies in the West Indies and South America.

Saint-Mémin also includes many of the more practical buildings in his depiction of the skyline. Between Wall Street and Maiden Lane, the “Present Post Office” is annotated.[24] To its South, inland past the Scotch Presbyterian Church, Saint-Mémin illustrates the City Hotel. As the view continues North, Saint-Mémin depicts the Jail and New York Hospital among the many churches that populate the Northern part of lower Manhattan.

Saint-Mémin seems unconcerned with the people that populate New York City. They are there, but they are only unspecified shadows of people. The buildings and ships are the only forms that possess any detail. It is not clear what any of the figures are doing. Saint-Mémin appears to have only put figures in his view to create a sense of scale for the buildings and ships. They add nothing else to the engraving except proof that New York in 1798 was not a ghost town.

“A View of the City of New York…” is not exactly a panorama—a painting that wraps around in a circular fashion, encompassing a 360-degree view, often of a city—but it shares many of the qualities identified by Petra Watson in Picturing the Modern City as a Panorama.[25] Engraving is one of the media common to the panorama, prior to the advent of photography. Most panoramas take their views from a high vantage point, which is included in the title of the panorama.[26] Panoramas also often served as marketing devices, sold along with subscriptions to newspapers in the 19th Century. It is not clear if Saint-Mémin’s engraving was printed for commercial purposes or rather served a merely aesthetic purpose, but the latter is unlikely. Although it predates the time in which panoramas were commonly sold, it is still likely that Saint-Mémin’s view was used as some sort of commercial representation of New York City.

Watson describes panoramas as “a full force of pictorial record displaying objective fact.”[27] To Watson, the panorama derives much of its power from its objective depiction. Saint-Mémin does not give an objective depiction of the New York skyline.[28] This lack of objectivity goes past any mere deviation from the actual view of the New York skyline. Instead, Saint-Mémin brings his own motive—a message he wishes to convey—to his depiction of the view from Brooklyn Heights.

The buildings nearest the water appear to rise directly out of it, in Saint-Mémin’s engraving. He depicts the city as bursting at its seams. The only empty place in Saint-Mémin’s view of Manhattan Island is the far Southeast end of the Battery. The nearly uniform buildings pack the remainder of the waterfront, leaving us to wonder how there is space for the small figures that populate the city.

Saint-Mémin’s skyline then expands beyond the water’s edge, through the number of boats that populate the East River. Saint-Mémin depicts these ships as part of the New York City skyline: the tall masts mirror the church steeples and the white sails imitate the white-faced buildings that wall the waterfront. The sheer variety of ships mimics the variety of activities on the shore. Through a combination of his illustrations of the boats and his depictions of the buildings and figures on the edge of the water, Saint-Mémin gives New York City vivacity, as though it were actually alive and growing.

America’s history and the history of the Revolution fill the engraving. The Tontine Coffee House, Fraunce’s Tavern, and No. 1 Broadway were all incredibly important locations during the American Revolution. Federal Hall was the center of government for the early American Republic. The annotations along the bottom of “A View of the City of New York…” serve as a historical tour of the American Revolution in New York City, showing all the important locations. These annotations serve as reminders of some of America’s finest moments in its early history.

Saint-Mémin was a native Frenchman, though. It makes little sense for him to glorify New York City or America. He was a member of the aristocracy in France, forced to leave after the French Revolution: a conservative. America was still basking in its Post-Revolutionary glory, only a mere two decades after the Declaration of Independence was signed. What could motivate an artist, if not his ideals? Money. The only explanation available would be that Saint-Mémin created the engraving in a way that he knew would sell. It would not make sense for Saint-Mémin to put forth the effort to make a depiction of a small city. John Hallam points out that panoramas of cities were always created of larger cities, like New York or Boston.[29] By creating a depiction of a large city, Saint-Mémin automatically had a larger market to whom he could sell his engraving. In order to make sure the engraving sold well, Saint-Mémin would also do well to depict the city, and its country, in a positive light.

It feels pessimistic to relegate such an amazing work of art to a purely commercial endeavor, but Saint-Mémin was first a businessman and second an artist.[30] He only took up the trade of engraving as a means of providing for himself and his family.[31] After 1798, when this engraving is credited with being made, almost all the work we have from Saint-Mémin are portraits rather than views of cities. Portraits were the more commercially viable option, done on commission. The small idealistic hope we have could come from the idea that Saint-Mémin was possibly forced to work in a more profitable manner. Inside, there may have been a true artist, wanting to create his own work, but forced by the constraints of capitalism to make work that would sell—unfortunately, there is little evidence for this case. We can only hope.

Saint-Mémin’s “A View of the City of New York from Brooklyn Heights in 1798” presents what the New York Skyline looked like at the end of the 18th Century. It takes the perspective that becomes the defining view of the New York skyline. The view includes the very South end of Manhattan, reaching to where the Brooklyn Bridge would eventually land. It shows a tremendous amount of growth in New York City, presenting it as a great American city. It also serves as a historical guide to the city, including the buildings that people would recognize along the waterfront. In this way, Saint-Mémin’s view includes both the past and future of New York City as it heads into the 19th Century.

[1]. Miles, Ellen Gross. Saint-Mémin and the Neoclassical Profile Portrait in America. Washington D.C.: National Portrait Gallery : Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994.

[Almost all of the biographical information on Saint-Mémin, in this essay, is from Ellen G. Miles’ Saint-Mémin and the Neoclassical Profile Portrait in America, which focuses primarily on Saint-Mémin’s work as a portraitist, but gives an excellent biography of the man.]

[2]. The title of the engraving says that the view is in 1798, but many sources, including the Museum of the City of New York, date it to 1796. The drawing was Saint-Mémin’s, who also transferred it to brass plate, using his pantograph, but the engraving was published by Matthew Dripps, probably around 1850, according to the Brooklyn Historical Society.

[3]. A pantograph is essentially four pieces of straight material (usually wood, contemporarily plastic), mechanically linked together in a fashion that allows the user to trace a drawing at a scale either larger or smaller than the original.

[4]. Saint-Mémin’s portraits were the focus of a Smithsonian exhibition as well as Miles’ book (see bibliography). Little work has been done to study his views or other landscapes. They take a minor role in Miles’ book. There is almost nothing written on the view that I am examining in this essay.

[5]. Saint-Mémin, Charles Balthazar Julien Fevret de. A View of the City of New York from Brooklyn Heights in 1798. Engraving, 1798. Brooklyn Historical Society.

[6]. The Museum of the City of New York gives the engraving’s dimensions as 4.15 inches high by 57.1 inches wide. The height varies slightly as you go along the engraving.

[7]. Burgis, William. A South Prospect of Ye Flourishing City of New York. Engraving, 1848.

[The version of the Burgis view that I am working with (see URL in citation) is an 1848 reproduction. The original Burgis View was 6 feet and 6 inches wide, with a height of 28 inches. ]

[8]. It is not clear whether Saint-Mémin added the annotations to “A View of the City of New York from Brooklyn Heights in 1798,” Matthew Dripps added them before publishing the engraving, or someone entirely different is responsible.

It is also important to note here that the use of the word ‘skyline’ is a term of my own, not derived from anything in the 18th Century, when these depictions were created, although, I would argue that the depictions are analogous to our modern conceptions of the skyline.

[9]. Burrows, Edwin G, and Wallace. Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. p. 118. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Hallam, John. “The Eighteenth-Century American Townscape and the Face of Colonialism.” Smithsonian Studies in American Art 4, no. 3/4 (July 1, 1990): 145–62.

[10]. I think frame is a good term to describe the way the artist composes one of these views. This frame is from Brooklyn Heights, roughly using the end of the island and Peck Slip as boundaries.

[11]. Saint-Mémin, Charles Balthazar Julien Fevret de. Brooklyn Heights. Engraving, 1797. New York Historical Society.

[12]. The method I’m using for this is a comparison between the annotations to Saint-Mémin’s engraving (transcribed by the Brooklyn Historical Society in their description of the engraving, a copy of this description is included after the bibliography) with the map of lower Manhattan on Google maps (

[13]. Burrows, Edwin G, and Wallace. Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. p. 281-82. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

[Burrows and Wallace give a much more detailed account of the political conflict than would be relevant in this paper.]

[14]. Burrows, Edwin G, and Wallace. Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

[15]. I. Carwithan. A View of Fort George with the City of New York. Engraving, c 1730. Geography & Map Division. Library of Congress.

[This fort is also highly visible in the Burgis View. It’s annotated as “The Fort.”]

[16]. Burrows, Edwin G, and Wallace. Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. p. 300. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

[17]. Wilson, R.R. New York: Old & New: Its Story, Streets, and Landmarks. New York: Old & New: Its Story, Streets, and Landmarks, v. 2. J. B. Lippincott Company, 1909.

[18]. Moss, Frank. The American Metropolis - From Knickerbocker DAys to the Present Time - New York City Life - In All Its Various Phases. p. 101. New York, P. F. Collier, 1897.

[19]. There appears to be another steeple, farther South, where the Exchange Market is annotated, but with no annotation and coupled with the fact that hardly any buildings from the 18th Century are still standing in lower Manhattan, it is difficult to identify if this is a church or what church it is.

[20]. Moss, Frank. The American Metropolis - From Knickerbocker DAys to the Present Time - New York City Life - In All Its Various Phases. p. 49. New York, P. F. Collier, 1897.

[21]. Burrows, Edwin G, and Wallace. Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. p. 118, 250. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

[22]. MAAP, Columbia University Teachers College. “Place Detail: Tontine Coffeehouse,” n.d.

[23]. Wilson, James Grant. The Memorial History of New-York: From Its First Settlement to the Year 1892. Vol. 2. New York History Company, 1892.

[24]. Due to the fact that the engraving’s annotations were added after the fact, it is possible that this post office was not in use in 1798 when Saint-Mémin depicted the skyline. If this is the case, the fact that someone could go back later and find the building that would be used as the post office serves as a testament to Saint-Mémin’s descriptive ability.

[25]. Watson, Petra. Picturing the Modern City as a Panorama. Simon Fraser University (Canada), 2006.

[26]. Saint-Mémin’s vantage point was Brooklyn Heights. The reason Brooklyn Heights takes its name and became such a popular vantage point was due to the height relative to the East River, below. It offered a much better view than much of the rest of the Eastern shore of the East River.

[27]. Watson, Petra. Picturing the Modern City as a Panorama. “Abstract” p. iii. Simon Fraser University (Canada), 2006.

[28]. I would debate the validity that any representation or depiction is objective. Opposing arguments are much more easily made using examples from the medium of photography rather than engraving, but photography is not objective. Even photography has a motive behind it. For further explanation, see Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproduction,” especially the section on the photographs of Atget.

[29]. Hallam, John. “The Eighteenth-Century American Townscape and the Face of Colonialism.” Smithsonian Studies in American Art 4, no. 3/4 (July 1, 1990): 145–62.

[30]. It is not even clear if he would have considered himself an artist.

[31]. Miles, Ellen Gross. Saint-Mémin and the Neoclassical Profile Portrait in America. Washington D.C.: National Portrait Gallery : Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994.