Detailed Nineteenth-Century Views of Texas Cities Are the Focus of Amon Carter Museum Exhibition

Release date: 
December 19, 2005

FORT WORTH, Texas --- From the close of the Civil War until shortly after the turn of the twentieth century, a number of artists traveled throughout the United States to create maplike scenes of each state’s burgeoning settlements, towns, and cities. These highly detailed and oversized lithographic prints, created by the artists as if seen from high above, came to be known as “bird’s-eye views.” Today, the ones that have survived over the years are remarkable objects for all of the information they contain, and the Texas views offer a fascinating chronicle of one of the greatest periods of urban growth in the state’s history.

From February 18 to May 28, 2006, the Amon Carter Museum presents Patterns of Progress: Bird’s-Eye Views of Texas, an exhibition of more than 60 views of cities ranging from Austin, Childress, Denison and El Paso to Sherman, Texarkana, Victoria, and Wichita Falls. In many cases the prints are at least three feet wide, and their detail is surprisingly accurate. They will be displayed in alphabetical order so that visitors can easily find the view of a particular city. The cities of Austin, Dallas, Denison, Fort Worth, Gainesville, Galveston, Greenville, Houston, New Braunfels, San Antonio and Waco each have as many as three or four views published on different dates. As an example, visitors will be able to see the growth of Austin from 1873, when the state capitol was a relatively small structure, to 1887, when the present state capitol had just been completed.

These captivating bird’s-eye views helped satisfy a need for municipalities and businesses to promote their interests and encourage urban growth. Each view shows a patchwork of streets intersected by railroads and rivers and dotted with buildings, houses, factories and farms. Small or large, each townscape exhibits its unique character while making unabashed claims for prosperity and progress.

“The Carter’s collection of bird’s-eye views is one of the very finest in the nation, on a par with that of the Library of Congress,” notes Rick Stewart, the museum’s director. “We have long wanted to mount an exhibition of the Texas bird’s-eye views, and we’ve been able to do that through the generosity of individuals and institutions who have loaned views that we do not possess. This is a unique opportunity for visitors to see a vivid record of the astonishing growth of Texas in the latter decades of the nineteenth century.”

The views also document the development of the railroads and their seminal influence on the growth of cities and smaller towns throughout the state in the post–Civil War period. In 1870, when some of the earliest views were done, Texas ranked 28th in the nation in the number of miles of railroad track. By 1904, the state ranked first in the nation, with more than 10,000 miles laid during the years that most of the bird’s-eye views were produced. “Visitors to the exhibition will be interested to see how many Texas towns were created or invigorated by the arrival of the railroads,” Stewart notes. “You can tell where the streets and public spaces of a town were laid out to accommodate them, as opposed to earlier towns that depended on a river or an old overland trail for their existence.”

The Artists

These prints are not only comprehensive historical documents but are intricate works of art as well. Motivated by a seemingly insatiable public thirst for views of a growing nation, a small coterie of artists---perhaps around 50---crisscrossed the country for the sole purpose of making separately published bird’s-eye views of American cities. Between 1871 and 1914, eleven different itinerant artists drew and published at least 67 bird’s-eye views of Texas cities. They had to act as traveling salesmen, securing funding to cover their costs before the views could be drawn and then printed. The most popular method was to secure advance subscriptions, which the artists or their agents offered in every city. The editors of local newspapers were enlisted as allies to sell the idea of a bird’s-eye view as a matter of civic pride. In some instances, banks, real estate firms, and other merchants paid to have their ads printed on the views in the form of small vignettes in the margins. In an age of unprecedented urban growth, the bird’s-eye views served as examples of community boosterism.

Augustus Koch, a German immigrant from Birnbaum, made 22 Texas views, more than any other artist. Thaddeus M. Fowler, a native of Pennsylvania, made 16 views in Texas and more than 400 nationally, making him the most prolific of the city-view artists. Other artists included Herman Brosius, Camille Drie, Paul Giraud, D. D. Morse, Henry Wellge and A. L. Westyard. Many of these artists received their training through apprenticeships with older artists; some of them had also served as advance sales representatives for the lithographic firms---for the most part based in the Midwest---that printed the views. All of the artists were skilled in the ability to sketch the streets of a town block by block, and then combine the sketches into an overall view, imagined from above.

What Is a Bird’s-Eye View?

The images were drawn by hand using, most often, two-point perspective to produce a three-dimensional rendering. The artist usually began making the city portrait by consulting any available maps of the city, which helped him better understand its overall layout and identify the optimal vantage point. If no maps were available, the artist might make one of his own for these purposes. He would then canvas the town, sketching individual buildings from the predetermined direction and converting them to the desired aerial perspective. The artist would then typically make sketches of individual buildings; in other instances, he might sketch whole blocks or areas of the town. The artist might spend several days in the smaller towns and weeks in the larger ones.

Several objects in the exhibition show what the artist initially produced and how it compares to the finished lithograph. The Carter’s unfinished view of Sunset, Texas, by Thaddeus Fowler features notes made by the artist, either for himself in producing the finished drawing or perhaps to guide the lithographic artist in transferring the drawing to the stone or zinc plate. Another example in the exhibition is Fowler’s finished pencil drawing of Quanah done in 1890, compared to the final print. The most apparent change is the omission of the cartouche in the print’s title, which in the drawing includes a handsome portrait of Comanche Chief Quanah Parker.

Bird’s-Eye Views in the Carter’s Collection

The Amon Carter Museum holds more than 300 bird’s-eye views in its collection. More than 50 of these are of Texas cities, and there are significant holdings for California and Colorado as well. Only the Library of Congress has a larger collection of bird’s-eye views; the Amon Carter Museum has worked extensively with the Library of Congress in the past to make the views better known to scholars and the public. Mitchell A. Wilder, the museum’s first director, became interested in the objects after reading The Making of Urban America (1965), a seminal history authored by John W. Reps, then professor of urban studies at Cornell University (and now Emeritus). Wilder began acquiring examples of the views for the museum’s collection, concentrating on Texas and other states west of the Mississippi. In 1967 Wilder began a close working relationship with Reps, who had become the nation’s leading expert on the views. This collaboration, over a period of many years, resulted in exhibitions and the publication of Reps’ groundbreaking study, Cities of the American West: A History of Frontier Urban Planning (1979), awarded the Albert J. Beveridge Prize by the American Historical Association.

The views in Patterns of Progress record the beginnings of urban growth in the Lone Star State, and they are fascinating objects to admire and study. They are documents of promotion and civic boosterism, to be sure, in which artists emphasized the attractive features of a city, while tending to diminish or ignore the less pleasant aspects. As a general rule, the artists exaggerated the height and size of major buildings and eliminated many fences, out buildings, and electric and telegraph poles. But such embellishments and omissions are of small consequence and do little to diminish the remarkable detail the views contain. Thaddeus Fowler’s portrait of Denison, according to the local newspaper editor at the time, “is believed to include every residence within the city limits, covering a territory of over three miles square”¦Every public school building, all the churches, and every residence [are] easily recognized.”

Patterns of Progress: Bird’s-Eye Views of Texas is organized by the Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas. The exhibition is made possible in part by grants from the Texas Commission on the Arts, the Clements Foundation, and the Erwin E. Smith Foundation. Media sponsor: Texas Highways.


El Paso Museum of Art, El Paso, Texas; Nov. 11, 2006--Feb. 4, 2007
Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, Canyon, Texas; March 17--June 10, 2007

Public Programs

Saturday, February 25, 11 a.m.
How Did They Do That? Artist’s Views of Texas Cities, 1871--1891
Dr. Ron Tyler, professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and former director of the Texas State Historical Association

Saturday, March 4, 1--4 p.m.
Family Funday
Positively Prints
Prints are fun, especially when you get to make your own. Just how do artists make prints? See how prints are made and make your own artistic print. Storyteller Catherine Whiteman will bring the works alive with engaging stories.

Saturday, March 25, 11:00 a.m.
Texas Households and Neighborhoods: What Bird’s-Eye Views Teach Us
Dr. Kenneth Hafertepe, associate professor of museum studies, Baylor University and author of an article on urban slave spaces in Texas

Thursday, April 27, 6:30--8 p.m.
Saturday, April 29, 10 a.m.--4 p.m.
TCU Extended Education Course
A Bird’s-Eye View of Fort Worth from 1876 to 1891
Offered in collaboration with the Amon Carter Museum, the Center for Texas Studies, and TCU Extended Education

On April 27, Director Rick Stewart will lead a tour of the exhibition. Afterward, fourth-generation Fort Worthian Quentin McGown will lead participants through 19th-century Fort Worth using the Web site On April 29, McGown will take participants on a bus tour of several existing sites featured in the 1876, 1886 and 1891 views of Fort Worth. Both classes meet at the Amon Carter Museum. For information or to register call 817.257.7132, e-mail or visit Tuition is $85 for the series, which includes bus transportation and a box lunch on Saturday. Carter members call 817.989.5063 for discount information before you register.

Museum Hours

Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Thursday: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Sunday: noon to 5 p.m.
Closed Monday and major holidays.

Exhibition Admission

Museum members: free
Adults: $6
Seniors 62 and over: $4
College students with ID card: $4
Youths 18 and under: free
Admission is free on Thursdays, 5--8 p.m.
Admission to the permanent collection is free.