The Illusion of the Ordinary. John Lewis Krimmel's Village Tavern and the Democratization of Public Life in the Early Republic

John, Richard R.; Leonard, Thomas C.

John Lewis Krimmel is widely regarded as the first genre painter in the early republic.2 Born in Germany in 1786, he studied art in Germany before emigrating to the United States as a young man. Settling in Philadelphia in 1810, he worked steadily until 1821 when he died at the age of 35.

Krimmel is often praised as a faithful chronicler of the routine, the unremarkable, and the taken-for-granted. Yet, in our view, it is a mistake to treat Village Tavern as an ordinary scene from everyday life. Unlike so many genre paintings, it is neither sentimental nor nostalgic. Rather, we contend that--like Krimmel's well-known paintings of major civic rituals in the early republic, such as his View of Centre Square on the Fourth of July (1812) and Election Scene, State House in Philadelphia (1815-)--it dramatizes a significant development in American history. In Village Tavern, Krimmel ponders the social consequences of the communications revolution that had been set in motion with the Post Office Act of 1792. Just as a late twentieth-century photojournalist might find newsworthy the hustle-and-bustle of an on-line internet cafe, so Krimmel documents the new informational environment that this revolution had spawned.

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April 19, 2021