New York Agricultural Fair of 1850

Attributed to John Wilson
Date: c. 1850
Medium: Oil on board
Dimensions: 21 1/2 H x 31 W
Credit: Gift of Ellen H. Leslie
Accession Number: 2013.21
An attribution to the artist John Wilson is based on a watercolor in the Institute's collection, View of State Street, Albany (x1940.600.23), which is signed "John Wilson/pinx." Both the watercolor and this oil painting depict lively outdoor scenes in and around Albany, New York. In this particular instance the New York Agricultural Fair of 1850 is the center of attention.
Held just north of Albany, the 1850 Tenth Annual Fair and Exhibition of the New York State Agricultural Society was the second hosted in the capital city. It opened for spectators on September 3rd and ran through September 6th. According to the Society's report*, "never was the attendance so great." This animated work captures the excitement of the fair and the throngs of people who attended the four-day event to see livestock, displays of fruits and vegetables, machinery, and farm equipment. The displays of flowers received special notice in the Society's report: "Floral Hall, in which every form of beauty was combined, under the direction of Dr. Herman Wendell, of Albany, was the object of unceasing admiration." Indeed, Floral Hall appears as the largest and most prominent tent in Wilson's painting.
In addition to agricultural displays, visitors had two circuses to enjoy, the Spalding & Rogers Circus and the June & Co. circus, also carnival sideshows and amusement rides. (A four-gondola ride similar to the later Ferris Wheel can be seen at the far right of the painting.)
The grandson of Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, attended the fair in 1850, and the Society's report noted that "it was on the occasion of great congratulation, that this gentleman, himself an honorable member of the Legislative Assembly of France, should have mingled with the farmers of New-York in this, their great assemblage." The red and white striped flag marked "Washington/Lafayette" seen in the lower center of the painting almost certainly references the attendance of this noted figure, although which one of Lafayette's grandsons—Oscar Thomas Gilbert, Marquis du Motier de Lafayette (1815–1881) or Edmond du Motier de Lafayette (1819–1890)—remains uncertain.
Visitors to the fair arrive on horse-drawn omnibuses, in wagons and carriages. Some may even arrive by canal boat via the Erie Canal, which parallels the road on the far left side of the painting. Like Wilson's other painting, View of State Street, Albany, this work boasts a frenetic scene of activity, excitement, and spectacle.
*Transactions of the N. Y. State Agricultural Society, with an Abstract of the Proceedings of the County Agricultural Societies, vol. X (Albany: Charles Van Benthuysen, 1851).