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About Whitman's Art Reviews for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle

In 1846 Whitman was hired as editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. In this role, which he held from March 1846 through January 1848, Whitman transformed the political focus of this Democratic newspaper into one in which news and culture predominated. During this period Whitman composed some of his earliest writings on art. The articles which follow constitute a curated selection of these writings and a thematic addition to the journalism section of The Walt Whitman Archive. We consulted The Complete Writings of Walt Whitman: The Journalism, Vols. 1 (1998) and 2 (2003) to make our selection, while also identifying some editorials based on stylistic similarities with known Whitman editorials from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and other publications that are known to be Whitman's. Annotations are limited to passages focused on the visual arts.

Whitman's writings on art for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle range from independent essays on art, to reviews of local art exhibitions, to commentaries on the visual offerings in contemporary books and magazines. Above all, it was the contributions of American artists that piqued his editorial interest. He focused in particular on the growing presence of American artists in exhibitions hosted by such prominent institutions as the Brooklyn Institute, the American Art-Union, the National Academy of Design, and Plumbe's daguerreotype gallery. Free exhibitions such as those organized by the American Art-Union drew special praise as did the sale of "cheap prints," so that the growing middle class, not just the wealthy elite, could benefit from the uplifting presence of art in the home.

Whitman's writings on art, like his essays generally during this period, range broadly over an array of topics. He advocated strongly in favor of the government purchase of painter George Catlin's Indian collection, encouraged greater emphasis on drawing in the schools, and praised the efforts of sculptor Henry Kirke Brown. In keeping with his democratic sensibilities, Whitman did not limit his commentaries to the traditional arts of painting and sculpture, but contributed articles as well about architecture, photography, and prints, whether seen on the pages of books and magazines or offered for view as stand-alone images. Portraiture, whether expressed in painting, photography, or magazine illustration, elicited some of his most impassioned commentary. In particular it was the human faces and imagining "what tales . . . those pictures [might] tell, if their mute lips had the power of speech!" that fueled Whitman's imagination and would encourage him in the coming years to sit for many painted and photographic portraits of himself.

In his book and magazine reviews Whitman rarely passed up an opportunity to draw attention to the rich variety of visual material awaiting the reader. "We will confess, for our part, a fondness for a tastily illustrated work," he advised. Historical subjects, portraits, biblical scenes, city views, botanical specimens, genre scenes, fashion illustration, and drawing manuals aimed at the country's youth all attracted the poet's attention. Facilitated by improvements in printing technology, book and magazine illustrations, some in full color, were greatly enhancing the nineteenth-century reading experience. Aided by his experience as a compositor Whitman was able to distinguish and often commented on the technical qualities of the illustrations he encountered, whether they be etchings or engravings on wood, copperplate, or steel. He responded in particular to the emotional power of images, commenting on both their aesthetic quality and their contribution to the accompanying text.

In their totality Whitman's commentaries reveal the expansive beginnings of an aesthetic sensibility that was at times provocatively progressive (as in his writings on photography) and at other moments very much of his times (as in his enthusiasm for biblical illustrations and the sentimental offerings found in many popular magazines). Although brief, these reviews underscore both the eclectic range of Whitman's visual sensibilities and his preference for an art grounded not in the rarefied world of high culture but in the visual experiences of everyday life. Above all Whitman emerges as an energetic supporter of the moral suasion of art.

Art reviews for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle

"Splendid Churches," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 9 March 1846:

"Polishing the 'Common People'," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 12 March 1846:

"New Publications," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 14 March 1846:

"Literary News, Notices, &c., Works of Art, &c.," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 15 April 1846:

"Literary Notices," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 19 May 1846:

"Visit to Plumbe's Gallery," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 2 July 1846:

"Memorials of the Red Men," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 9 July 1846:

"That Indian Gallery," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 22 July 1846:

"The monthly Magazines," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 28 July 1846:

"City Intelligence," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 4 August 1846:

"Literary Notices," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 10 August 1846:

"Literary Notices," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 15 August 1846:

"Literary Notices," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 26 August 1846:

"The Literary World," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 12 October 1846:

"Free Exhibitions," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 21 October 1846:

"Holy Bible—Illuminated: Harpers' edition," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 21 October 1846:

"Notices of New Books," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 16 November 1846:

"Matters Which Were Seen and Done in an Afternoon Ramble," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 19 November 1846:

"About Pictures, &c.," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 21 November 1846:

"[Among the embellished periodicals]," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 17 March 1847:

"Books Lately Issued," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 22 July 1847:

"["Pastourel," by Frederick Soulie]," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 28 September 1847:

"["The new Juvenile Drawing Book"]," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 29 September 1847:

"Some Thoughts about This Matter of the Washington Monument," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 18 October 1847:

"Local Intelligence: &c.," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 6 November 1847:

"New publications," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 8 November 1847:

"Local Intelligence: &c.," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 18 November 1847:

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