Treasures from the Vault: James Hamilton

Elizabeth Kilmer, Exhibitions Content Manager

My husband and I recently started what we call our “Adventure Book,” a book we fill with snapshots and receipts from our vacations and dates to create a physical reminder of all we’ve done together. I’ll admit, it’s just a scrapbook, but Austin feels more “manly” calling it our Adventure Book. We started this tradition because we realized that, while we take many photographs on our trips, we almost never see them again once we’ve come home.

How does our scrapbooking project relate to a treasure from the vault? Well, I’m happy you asked! While today we have the ability to take photos right from our phones or pick up numerous postcards from our travels, that wasn’t always the case for travelers. Although souvenirs have remained popular, in the past some individuals chose to paint their own “postcard” while on vacation. This was especially popular with the upper class during the 18th and 19th centuries, who would even commission detailed paintings from well-known artists. But, if you weren’t so monetarily blessed, you could always paint your own!

James Hamilton’s 1941 Doges Palace is a prime example of a DIY postcard. Hamilton grew up in Fort Wayne, and, after completing his training as an architect at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he traveled Europe throughout 1903 and 1904. While hopping from one country to another, it’s likely that Hamilton wanted to study the historic architecture that Europe’s cities had to offer – especially since most of them were yet untouched by World War I and World War II. We can see Hamilton’s appreciation of the centuries-old architecture of Venice’s Doges Palace in this painting. He has minutely detailed each arch and pillar, faithfully capturing the intricacy and beauty of the building. Hamilton has added more to this scene, however, implying that this watercolor painting is more than just an architectural study.

A watercolor of the Doges Palace shows the building with three women standing outside it and multiple figures in the background.
James Hamilton, American, 1876-1941. Doges Palace. Watercolor and pencil on paper, c. 1904. James Hamilton Collection, 1941.13. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Through Hamilton’s inclusion of other individuals within the palace courtyard, he has captured more of a scene than an architectural study. We see three women in the foreground walking along the cobbled courtyard and there are two or three men under the archway on the right. In the background, beyond the center doorway, we see a shadowed figure. In Doges Palace, Hamilton has captured what he likely saw on his own visit there, which is men and women doing sightseeing of their own. It’s not all that different from the photographs we take on our own vacations. This is, essentially, a personal postcard that Hamilton enjoyed after his return home and perhaps used to remember his trips as we use our Adventure Book.

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