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OPENING THE ERIE CANAL
CHARLES TURNER, 1850-1918
OIL ON CANVAS, 12'10-1/4" X 15'9-1/2"...
In 1905, the Board of Education awarded their first official art commission to Charles Yardley Turner for a pair of murals for DeWitt Clinton High School. Entitled Opening the Erie Canal, Turner’s murals fulfilled several functions: they complemented and harmonized with the architectural space; they had a didactic purpose, illustrating an event in American history that was relevant to the high school curriculum; and they celebrated DeWitt Clinton, the namesake of the school, former president of the Free School Society of New York and champion of free secondary education, former mayor and state governor, and the man behind the creation of the Erie Canal.
The left panel entitled Entering the Mohawk Valley (DeWitt Clinton and Party Formally Opening the Completed Erie Canal Entering the Mohawk Valley, October 1825) depicts DeWitt Clinton and company approaching Lake Erie, the northern end of the canal, and the right panel entitled, Marriage of the Waters, shows the former Governor as he ceremoniously pours water from Lake Erie into the Atlantic Ocean. Both images are based on the celebrations that occurred between October 26 and 4 November 1825. The canal spanned the width of New York State, connecting Lake Erie and the Great Lakes to the Hudson River and ultimately the Atlantic Ocean and European trade.
The murals contain many recognizable details. To demonstrate the workings of the canal, Turner painted the party of Governor Clinton on a boat that has just passed a lock and has dropped down to a new level. The youth in the upper left corner rests against the beam used to operate the lock. In the far distance, crowds of rural New Yorkers cheer as the boat passes. Turner used a combination of models and portraits to depict the various figures. DeWitt Clinton in distinctive profile leads the group toward the prow of the boat.
Marriage of the Waters features DeWitt Clinton in the center, standing on deck of a steamboat in the lower bay off Sandy Hook, New Jersey. Gracefully posed, he dramatically pours water from Lake Erie into the Atlantic as a group of admirers look on. This group features New York City politicians, including former and current New York City mayors. Directly to the right of DeWitt Clinton is an admiral, and to the right of him is Dr. Samuel L. Mitchell, distinguished by his doctor’s gown. The balding figure behind him to the right is Ricard Riker, the Recorder, and behind Dr. Mitchell to his left is Cadwalleader D. Colden, who was mayor in 1819 and was made a Major General by D. Clinton. Finally, the then current Mayor of New York, Phillip Hone, stands next to the Brigadier-General. The group gathers around a table topped with an assortment of bottles. These contain water from great rivers around the world which were also poured into the ocean, giving the event international import. In the distance on the left are a steamboat and a British frigate which happened to be in port at the time. The symbolic marriage of the waters took place on November 4, 1825, eight years after construction of the canal began.
100 WEST MOSHOLU PARKWAY SOUTH, BRONX, NY
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