Albert Tissandier: Drawings of Nature and Industry in the United States: 1885

by Mary Francey



Tissandier drawings and accompanying essays - page 1


Acquired in 1978, approximately 225 of Albert Tissandier's finished drawings documenting his six month long journey across the United States in 1885 are in the permanent collection of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts. Although the museum has exhibited selected works from this group only twice, 176 have been photographed and may be viewed by visiting the online digital collections of the University of Utah's J. Willard Marriott Library.


Staten Island Train

Founded in 1661 by early Dutch settlers, Staten Island is named for States General, Holland's governing body. Five miles from Manhattan and one half mile from Brooklyn, Staten Island was a popular week-end retreat for nineteenth century New Yorkers. An appealing seaside resort, it soon attracted both national and international tourists who were ferried from Manhattan Island to Staten Island's Saint George terminal where they could board an elevated train for transport on the island.

In this etching Albert Tissandier has represented one of the island trains that served incoming ferries. The train, supported by a steel structure the same height as the upper level windows of houses along the tracks, dominates the center of the composition. Curiously, there are no human figures visible in the street beneath the tracks, affirming the artist's interest in the mechanics of the train and construction of the tracks. He wrote that: "The trains are composed of four cars at the most, and are puled by a small tender locomotive which carries 1,450 liters of water, sufficient for the longest route. Its total weight is 5,800 kilograms with an adherent weight of 5,700 kilograms." Tissandier's meticulous rendering of the train affirms his careful observation of mechanical details as well as his genuine admiration for American technological accomplishments.


The Salt Lake, Utah: Bathhouse and Open Air Café

May 21, 1885

An entry in Albert Tissandier's journal firmly states that there is no more beautiful day-long outing possible from Salt Lake City than a trip to the mysterious Great Salt Lake. "It is impossible to dream of anything more poetic than this lake" he wrote, and noted that the shades of color are "...subtle and so similar to the sky that one can barely distinguish the horizon line of this inland sea." The shores, he wrote, were "...verdant and covered in flowers we in France would conserve as rarities." There were also some "primitive" establishments installed for visiting tourists and courageous bathers.

Tissandier described the various levels the lake had assumed over time, remarked on its size ("80 miles at its longest") and its previously recorded temperature differentials. Bathers, he said, were known to float as "easily as corks, and diving into this lake would be as difficult as entering a bath of mercury." The high concentration of salt could also "...cause divers' eyes to suffer seriously and even make them blind." According to reports by Mormon settlers, a barrel of salt could be recovered from three barrels of water. However, Tissandier noted that more credible surveys conducted by United States geological survey teams stated that the saline content of the lake varied from 14.8% to 22.4%, depending on year and season. He also described the ",,,small, almost imperceptible crustacean" the Artemia fertilis (brine shrimp) that lived in the lake, and the Ephydra gracilis, the tiny insects that swarmed the banks.

This drawing of the Great Salt Lake shows the bathing establishment at Black Rock that was used as changing rooms, observation decks, a restaurant, picnic tables, and a dock for swimmers. Tissandier effectively captured the desolate feeling of the ancient desert lake that, in spite of it's remote location and high salt content, was a romanticized attraction for locals and tourists alike.


Third and Chestnut Street, Philadelphia

April, 1885

A glimpse of nineteenth century Philadelphia's life is captured and frozen in time by Albert Tissandier's drawing of the busy intersection at Third and Chestnut Street. The country's first capital and its largest colonial city during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Philadelphia also had the first hospitals and medical research schools as well as the nation's first newspapers.

This drawing is further evidence of Tissandier's admiration for American technical and scientific achievements. Electric light poles and the pattern of wires that dominate this composition affirm the huge amount of electrical power needed by the city's large number of businesses and industries. An excerpt from his journal reads:

"Telegraph poles replace trees. tender green leaves of spring are represented by glass or porcelain isolators perched on their wooden rods which hold in place the immense spider web formed by these innumerable iron wires. Shops in the street appear open because there are no shutters so windows are brilliant and adorned just as they are during weekly business hours."

The comment about "brilliant" windows that Tissandier's comment about "brilliant windows" reveals his unfamiliarity with the practice of keeping window displays visible after shops closed. The myriad organized wires in the drawing can also be seen as indication of the artist's interest in electricity that had not yet had a significant effect on everyday life in France.


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