Where Art and History Connect

The Albany Institute of History & Art has collected art and historical materials from the Upper Hudson Valley for more than 200 years. The richness of the collections and the careful documentation of ownership allow works of ­art, historical objects, photographs, and manuscript collections to tell insightful and intriguing stories about the people and events of the region. At the Albany Institute, art and history connect. Follow us on a journey through the collections.


Stephen Van Rensselaer II (1742–1769)

Thomas McIlworth (active 1757–1768)
Oil on canvas in original carved and gilded frame
Albany Institute of History & Art Purchase, Rockwell Fund, 1981.10

The well–dressed young man in this portrait, Stephen Van Rensselaer II, had just turned twenty-one years old a few months before his likeness was finished in October 1763. Perhaps it was painted to commemorate his coming of age—his entrance into adulthood. Stephen’s striking indigo blue suit accented with silver thread on the buttons and buttonholes denotes a young man of wealth, someone of prominence in the community. Indeed, Stephen was heir to the accumulated wealth and vast land holdings of the Van Rensselaer family, holdings that consisted of 700,000 acres of land around Albany, New York.

This portrait by New York artist Thomas McIlworth accompanies manuscript collections, furniture, household items, and paintings in the Institute’s collections that document the historically important Van Rensselaer family.

Van Rensselaer Manor House, Front Exterior

Unidentified photographer
Albumen photographic print on card
Albany Institute of History & Art Library, Ser 25/26a

In 1765, at the age of twenty-three, Stephen Van Rensselaer II began constructing a grand house north of Albany on Patroon Creek, near present-day Manor Street and Broadway. Built in an updated Palladian style known as Georgian, the symmetrically balanced house made a striking and elegant statement. Stephen’s ancestors had built at least two earlier houses on the site, but Stephen’s new manor house reflected his family’s increasing wealth and social status in the mid–eighteenth century.

Taken about 100 years after its initial construction, this photograph shows the Van Rensselaer manor house set within a wooded garden. The one–story wings, visible on each side of the house’s main block, were later additions. The Albany Institute’s library contains several photographs that document the house’s exterior and interior rooms as they existed in the 1860s or early 1870s.

Wallpaper Panel “Fire” from Van Rensselaer Manor House

Unidentified photographer
Silver gelatin photographic print on card (later print)
Albany Institute of History & Art Library, Ser 25b/15a

Several photographs at the Institute illustrate the elaborate and certainly expensive hand-painted English wallpaper that must have amazed guests in the entrance hall of the Van Rensselaer manor house. The section shown here depicts Roman ruins set in a fictitious location. Known as a capriccio, such scenes referenced classical art and architecture and alluded to the Van Rensselaer family’s educated and refined tastes.

Van Rensselaer Manor House, Entrance Hall Side Door

Albion W. Floyd, Albany, NY, photographer
Silver gelatin photographic print on card (later print)
Albany Institute of History & Art Library, Ser 25b/3a

Rich wood carvings surrounded doorways in the entrance hall of the Van Rensselaer manor house, while neoclassical pillars and molding provided an air of distinction and elegance. Despite the promise of a comfortable life in sumptuous surroundings, Stephen II died in 1769 at age twenty-seven, having enjoyed his new house for only a few years.

Stephen Van Rensselaer III (1764–1839)

Gilbert Charles Stuart (1755–1828)
Oil on canvas
Albany Institute of History & Art Purchase, 1986.7

Following the premature death of Stephen Van Rensselaer II, the manor house passed to his son, Stephen III, who inherited it and the family landholdings upon coming of age in 1785. When Stephen III sat for this portrait in 1795 he was lieutenant governor of New York. He actively participated in State government and also advocated for greater suffrage and for internal improvements, especially for a canal across New York state.

In 1986, the Albany Institute acquired this portrait of Stephen Van Rensselaer III painted by Gilbert Stuart, the preeminent portraitist of the early American Republic. Stuart painted many of the prominent families and political leaders, including President George Washington, who guided the United States through its early years as a new nation.

Map and Profile of the Proposed Canal from Lake Erie to Hudson River

E. Brinckerhoff
c. 1817
Ink and watercolor on paper mounted on linen
Albany Institute of History & Art Library, MAP 211

After years of public debate, legislation, and land surveys, the Erie Canal that Stephen Van Rensselaer III supported was approved. Construction began in 1817. The canal eventually linked the Hudson River at Albany with Lake Erie near Buffalo. The canal opened trade between the rich farmlands of the west and the growing commercial port of New York City. The hand-drawn map dated 1817 shows the proposed route of the canal and the multitude of locks needed to overcome differences in elevation. The mysterious E. Brinckerhoff who drew and colored the map most likely copied an engraved map that accompanied the official reports of the Canal Commission.

Governor DeWitt Clinton (1769–1828)

Ezra Ames (1768–1836)
Oil on canvas
Permanent deposit by the City of Albany, 1971.12.5

In 1825 the Erie Canal opened with much fanfare. Governor DeWitt Clinton, a staunch supporter and canal commissioner, presided over festivities in New York City during the month of October. As part of the ceremonies, Clinton dumped a barrel of water from Lake Erie into New York harbor, symbolically uniting the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean, which the Erie Canal had accomplished.

Painted during his first term as New York state governor, this three-quarter-length portrait of DeWitt Clinton accompanies several other portraits of New York governors placed on permanent deposit with the Albany Institute. Six are currently on exhibition in the Hall of Governors at the New York State Capitol.

The Entrance of the Canal into the Hudson at Albany Taken in 1823

James Eights (1798–1882)
Pencil, ink, and ink wash on wove paper
Gift of James Eights, 1836.1.5

This original drawing of the Erie Canal at Albany, like many objects in the Institute’s collection, came directly from an early member, in this case the natural scientist James Eights. Eights’s ink drawing shows the eastern terminus of the canal where it ran parallel with the Hudson River. Here the canal cut directly through Stephen Van Rensselaer III’s property, separating the manor house and gardens from the Hudson River. Eights, in fact, included the manor house on the right-hand side of his drawing. On the left side stands the Philip Hooker-designed townhouse built for Stephen Van Rensselaer IV in 1818.

Van Rensselaer Manor House

Thomas Cole (1801–1848)
Oil on canvas
Bequest of Miss Katherine E. Turnbull, 1930.7.2

Stephen Van Rensselaer III lived at the manor house throughout his life, enjoying the gardens and probably watching the traffic flow along the Erie Canal. When Stephen died in 1839, his son William Paterson Van Rensselaer commissioned the Hudson River school artist Thomas Cole to paint views of the house and gardens as mementos for his mother, Cornelia Paterson Van Rensselaer, and sister, who planned to move from the house. Cole rarely painted strict topographical views, but he felt a commission from the Van Rensselaer family too important to decline.

Gardens of the Van Rensselaer Manor House

Thomas Cole (1801–1848)
Oil on canvas
Bequest of Miss Katherine E. Turnbull, 1930.7.1

The Albany Institute holds more than 500 items created by or associated with Thomas Cole, including paintings, drawings, sketchbooks, correspondence, and personal possessions. His paintings of the Van Rensselaer manor house and gardens are the two earliest accessions of Cole’s work at the Institute, a bequest in 1930 from Stephen III’s granddaughter, Katherine E. Turnbull.

Stephen Van Rensselaer IV (1789–1868)

Stephen Van Rensselaer IV (1789-1868)
Francis Alexander (1800-1880)
Pastel on paper in original wood frame with gilt oval mat
Gift of Stephen Van Rensselaer Crosby, 1957.70.19
As Stephen III’s eldest son from his first wife Margarita (Schuyler) Van Rensselaer, Stephen IV inherited the manor house and grounds upon his father’s death in 1839. The following year, 1840, he and his wife Harriet began transferring personal belongings and furniture from their North Market Street house, depicted in James Eights’ drawing of the canal (slide 9), to the manor house. Many of the couple’s personal possessions have come to the Institute within the last one hundred years, as donations from direct descendents.

French Clock

Unidentified maker
c. 1813
Marble, ormolu, metal, and glass with enameled metal dial
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Arnold Cogswell, 1967.37

Acquired while traveling through France in 1812 and 1813, this elegant French clock was one of Stephen Van Rensselaer IV’s possessions that he took to the manor house in 1840, when he and his wife Harriet moved in. Its surface—richly ornamented with gilt metal olive branches, military cartouches, and a figure of the Roman goddess Minerva—complemented the couple’s neoclassical furnishings, although the neoclassical style was becoming outmoded by the 1840s.

French-Style Bedstead

Charles–Honoré Lannuier (1779–1819)
c. 1817
Mahogany, burl elm veneer, ash with gilt and vert antique decoration, eastern white pine, soft maple and hard maple, cherry, rosewood veneers, cut brass inlays, and ormolu mounts
Gift of Constance Van Rensselaer Thayer (Mrs. William) Dexter, great granddaughter of Stephen Van Rensselaer IV, 1951.61

The Albany Institute owns one of the finest and most elaborate neoclassical–styled beds produced in early America. Crafted by French immigrant cabinetmaker Charles–Honoré Lannuier at his New York City shop, the bed may have been commissioned by William Bayard, Sr., as a wedding gift for his daughter Harriet and her husband Stephen Van Rensselaer IV, who married in January 1817, or it may have been ordered directly by Stephen. Regardless, it was one of the pieces of furniture moved to the manor house in 1840.

Lannuier designed and constructed the bed in a distinctively French style that reflects his training in France and the influence of Napoleon’s personal architects and decorators Charles Percier and Pierre François Léonard Fontaine. Unlike the English custom that positioned the headboard against the wall, French beds were placed parallel to the wall, exposing one side and hiding the other. The exposed side of this bed displays finely executed gilt metal ornaments and highly patterned burl elm veneer that instantly signify luxury and refinement.

Map of the Albany Lumber District

Printed by Hoffman, Pease, and Tetley, Albany, NY
Lithograph on paper
Albany Institute of History & Art Library, MAP 50b

This detailed map of Albany’s north end shows a landscape in transition from a sparsely settled, semi–rural location to a busy commercial district. Set in the heart of that landscape was the Van Rensselaer manor house and gardens, which appear in the middle of the map. The Erie Canal, which runs directly through the area, brought about much of the change as its waterway provided a ready means for hauling and transporting goods like sawn lumber. The area around the manor house, in fact, became known as the Albany lumber district because many dealers and wholesalers of lumber settled in the area. Other maps in the Institute’s collection show the city at both earlier and later periods, allowing researchers and visitors to see how the north end grew and changed, street by street.

Frank A. Jagger Lumber Boat at Albany Lumber District

Unidentified photographer
c. 1875
Albumen photographic print on card
Albany Institute of History & Art Library, PA 19/13

Among the more than 100 photograph albums in the Institute’s collection, a rare volume containing dozens of photographs of Albany’s lumber district reveals the enormous extent of the commercial activity that characterized Albany’s north end in the 1870s. Lumber merchants such as Frank A. Jagger, whose canal barge appears in this photograph, stockpiled large quantities of sawn boards along branches of the Erie Canal. This lumber would have been visible from the Van Rensselaer manor house.

North Elba

David D. Coughtry
Oil on canvas
1984 Mohawk–Hudson Regional Exhibition Purchase Prize, 1984.25

Artist David Coughtry has captured both the serenity and the power of nature that visitors now find in New York’s Adirondack Park. In the nineteenth century, however, the Adirondack region was a battleground for the early environmental movement. Many of the logs that supplied Albany’s burgeoning lumber market came from the Adirondacks, floated down the Hudson River to Glens Falls, where the logs were sawn and transported to Albany.

The Albany Institute purchased Coughtry’s large landscape painting as its purchase prize during the 1984 Exhibition of Artists of the Mohawk–Hudson Region, a juried regional art exhibition founded by the Albany Institute in 1936 and still held annually.

Van Rensselaer Manor House, Front Exterior

Albion W. Floyd, Albany, NY
c. 1890
Silver gelatin photograph print on card (copy print)
Albany Institute of History & Art Library, Ser 25/25c

With commercial and industrial development surrounding the Van Rensselaer house and gardens, the family eventually moved out sometime after Harriet’s death in 1875. The photograph from about 1890 depicts the house denuded of its once lush gardens. In 1893, Albany architect Marcus T. Reynolds dismantled the house and incorporated much of the building into his design for a fraternity house at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. That building was eventually demolished in 1973.

Where Art and History Connect

Two centuries of strategic collecting have allowed the Albany Institute to assemble historical objects, paintings, photographs, and furnishings that make connections and tell the story of Stephen Van Rensselaer II’s grand manor house. From its original construction in 1765 to its ultimate disappearance from Albany in 1893, the story of the house reveals the history of the Van Rensselaer family, the commercial growth of Albany’s north end, and the creation of New York’s famous Erie Canal. This is just one of many stories the Institute’s collections can tell.