If you had only one chance to capture the image of the thing you were most proud of what would it be?  Today with the smartphone we take pictures of everything from our cat in a costume to what we had for lunch.  How quickly we forget that only a short time ago our stern-faced ancestors were sitting for several minutes to have their portraits taken. Yet even further back, before photography, people had the desire to capture their lives in any way possible, and sometimes this meant getting one shot EVER to get it right.


Van Bergen Overmantel, ca. 1728- 1738, height 16.25 in width 88.75 in, The Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, NY.

So imagine its 1729, you are a wealthy Dutch settler in the Hudson River Valley of New York named Marten Van Bergen, and you have just completed a new house (Meyers, 25).  You and your brother Garret have got the only houses on the block, I mean in the wilderness, and you are proud of it! Your father Marte Gerretse Van Bergen owned the land for fifty years but never built on it; now here you are one of the few Dutch residents on the west bank of the Hudson River (Meyers, 25). However you are not alone, you are linked to Albany to the north, New Amsterdam to the south, and there are nearly 23,000 Native Americans living outside of Westchester County–possibly right near you (Meyers, 24)!

You might just be excited to capture this moment of your family’s history as you tame the wilderness around you (Meyers, 25). So what do you do?  Sorry the selfie is about 270 years in the future… So you have to be creative… there are not many painters around. So you must import! And that is just what Marten Van Bergen did when he commissioned John Heaten to come to this rural location and paint what is known today as the Van Bergen Overmantel.  The date of the painting is not certain but probably between 1732 and 1740 and, regardless of why exactly it was painted, it surly does show off all of the great things the Van Bergen’s had way out in the wild.

Van Bergen did not realize it at the time but the overmantel he would hang over his fire place commemorating his home, farm, family, and servants would be considered, almost 300 years later, to be the earliest painting depicting Dutch life in New York State. Maybe we need to all stop mid selfie and consider how lucky we are that we did not have to wait a number of years to commemorate a special event. Instantaneously we can save and share memories.  We don’t have to wait nearly ten years as the Van Bergens might have.  But maybe we should consider the fact the painting remains today and that our selfies may not last half so long.

-Mary Bryn Alexander, CGP 2014

The Van Bergen Overmantel owned by the New York State Historical Society Fenimore Art Museum

For Further Reading:

The Folk Art Blog American Folk Art @ Cooperstown: Horse Play in Dutch New York

The Folk Art Blog American Folk Art @ Cooperstown: A Chance Encounter Brings Folk Art Masterpiece to Cooperstown

Myers, Kenneth. 1987. The Catskills: Painters, Writers, and Tourists in the Mountains, 1820-1895. Yonkers, N.Y.: Hudson River Museum of Westchester.

Rememberance of Patria: Dutch Arts and Culture in Colonial America 1609-1776. 1986. Albany, N.Y.: Albany Institute of History and Art.

Images from the Fenimore Art Museum/New York State Historical Association and the Farmer’s Museum collection include fine art, folk art, photography, Native American Indian art,  and farm related objects. Images of objects in the collections are available for scholarly or commercial publication, personal reproduction or research. Photographic images must be requested through the Rights and Reproductions Department.