Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Two “van”-Tastic Persons

LCP’s Print Department boasts a collection of some 4000 printed portraits, stored within 52 archival boxes, ranging from Augustus H. Abbott to Ulrich Zwingli. Needless to say, entering all of these priceless items into the LCP database presents a daunting challenge, and encompasses an enormous number of man- (and woman-) hours!

The following are very brief biographies of several of the interesting individuals who reside within the portrait collection.

G. Parker, engraver after a miniature by C. Fraser, Stephen Van Rensselaer, engraving, ca. 1836.

This handsome gentleman, Stephen van Rensselaer (1764-1839), was born with multiple silver spoons in his mouth. The Dutch had awarded his ancestors a huge land grant in upstate New York, and Stephen had thrived within his vast rich family environment. He graduated from Harvard College in 1782. The following year, on his twenty-first birthday, he became lord of his family’s estate, which comprised almost 1200 square miles. As heir to this enormous estate, he was deemed the tenth richest American of all time, having amassed a fortune of $10 million (which was equivalent to 1/194 of the entire nation’s gross domestic product!). As a politician, he was elected Lieutenant Governor of New York from 1795 until 1801. He served in the House of Representatives from 1822 to 1829. As a less-than-stellar military figure, he was a commander during the War of 1812.

His outstanding contribution, however, was the establishment of the Rensselaer School, now known as the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute “for the purpose of instructing persons, who may choose to apply themselves, in the application of science to the common purposes of life”.

I. A. Van Amburgh, woodcut, ca. 1850.

Isaac A. Van Amburgh (1811-1865) was another New Yorker, but one not initially privy to such great wealth. At age nineteen, he was employed as a cage cleaner at North Salem’s Zoological Institute of New York. His boss noted that Isaac showed great aptitude in handling the wild animals while performing his menial cage duties. After spending a winter training his ferocious felines, Isaac –a true showman- made his New York debut in the Van Amburgh Menagerie, dazzlingly wrapped in a Roman toga. The crowd was amazed at his ability to make his cats sit still and then come to him on command. They were even more flabbergasted when he stuck his arm, and then his head, inside a lion’s mouth.

In truth, van Amburgh utilized one of the oldest training methods to “tame” his animals: cruelty, beatings and starvation, inhumane even by nineteenth century standards.  Suffering a fatal heart attack in 1865, van Amburgh died a wealthy man, not between the jaws of one of his lions, but within the confines of his own bed.

Gus Spector
LCP Volunteer

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