Collection Description:

The David Johnston Kennedy Collection at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania consists of over 1000 artifacts, consisting mostly of watercolors, but also of photographs, sketches, and even newspaper clippings. The collection was compiled by David Johnston Kennedy between 1836 and 1898, the year of Kennedy's death. It is perhaps the largest, and most informative collection of images of places in the Philadelphia area. Kennedy's pictures are mostly of places, the majority of them of locations within the greater Philadelphia area. A large number of his pieces depict scenes specifically within the Center City area, yet he also includes pictures depicting places in North, West, and South Philadelphia. Some of his pictures are not of Philadelphia at all, but rather depict scenes from his travels, both inside and outside of the United States.

It is somewhat difficult to even begin to understand of determine Kennedy's motivation in creating these pieces of art. There is an extreme lack of information available regarding Kennedy's life, making any sort of assumption about the work even more difficult. All that is clear from what is know about Kennedy, is that he moved around a lot early in his childhood, spent significant time living in Philadelphia, and he enjoyed painting.

While browsing the collection, it is interesting to see what choices Kennedy made about what to paint. He seemed to especially enjoy painting places, often providing a short, written description of the history of the place. Most of these descriptions seem to be of his friend's homes, rather that his own residences or the residences of his relatives. The fact that Kennedy includes so many paintings of people's "mansions" and "summer homes," shows that Kennedy was extremely interested in the lives of the Philadelphia elite. Often his remarks describing these places are extremely "gossipy." Perhaps because he was not originally born into this society, accounts for Kennedy's seeming awe of their way of life. His collection documents his personal history which appears to be closely tied to the lives of the Philadelphia elite. In addition, he rarely documents pictures of people, and instead documents almost exclusively places and things. Is Kennedy's collection therefore telling the viewer of his preoccupation with material possessions, or was Kennedy just more interested in the artistic aspects of painting scenery and places, rather than people?

From Kennedy's collection, we can also infer that Kennedy traveled extensively, both inside and outside the United States. He seemed to create these images, both photographic and watercolor, as a way to not only remember where he had been, but also to remind others of his travels. I found it most interesting to see how many pieces from Kennedy's collection depicted scenes of boats and other sailing vessels. In addition, it was interesting to see how many pieces from Kennedy's collection were copies of pieces from other collections including William L. Breton's collection of views of Philadelphia.

When looking through the copies of the collection at the Free Library of Philadelphia, I noticed that many of Kennedy's pieces appeared to be altered. Often, he would add a further notation to the bottom of the piece years after it had been completed. Often, these notations were merely remarks noting when businesses changed names, or when the places he had depicted were torn down. It was also interesting to notice the lack of images of people present in his depiction's of streetscapes. Were the streets really that empty between 1838 and 1898, or was Kennedy creating his images from memory? If he was creating the images from memory, then it is impossible to determine how accurate his portrayals actually were. Most of the places depicted by Kennedy have already been torn down, while the places still standing have undergone extensive renovations.

It is clear that Kennedy is telling a story of the history of Philadelphia specifically from his own perspective. He weaves this history together by combining images of places, with textual information remarking about those places. However, Kennedy's collection is unique because he connects his own personal history to the history of the United States. He includes information in his collection about George Washington, and John Adams, while simultaneously providing an anecdote from his own personal history. Kennedy's collection provides a unique portrayal of Philadelphia's history.