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Reinventing History 

click to enlarge _Dudley Observatory Dedication_, by Tompkins H. Matteson. To commemorate its 150th anniversary, the observatory will restage the 1857 group portrait with local dignitaries at a November 16 gala.
  • _Dudley Observatory Dedication_, by Tompkins H. Matteson. To commemorate its 150th anniversary, the observatory will restage the 1857 group portrait with local dignitaries at a November 16 gala.

In the summer of 1856, the leading figures in American science and politics assembled on a hill in North Albany to officially cut the ribbon on the new Dudley Observatory. The ceremony marked the end of four years of construction, and sent a signal across the country of Albany’s desire to become a cultural and intellectual center. The observatory, the first such facility in the country unaffiliated with either academia or government, had been paid for by private citizens, the most generous of whom was Blandina Bleecker Dudley, widow of former Albany mayor, United States senator, and wealthy merchant Charles Dudley.

To commemorate the occasion, the trustees hired Tompkins Matteson to paint a group portrait of the assembled dignitaries. Matteson was a successful painter of genre scenes and slices of American history. Among his best-known works are depictions of the Salem witch trials, George Washington at Valley Forge, and Rip Van Winkle. His pictures possess a stagy naturalism—they look like real life, only much more ordered and way better lit.

In contrast, Matteson’s Dudley Observatory Dedication is a model of stylized formality. The dignitaries sit stiffly in receding rows, each in more or less the identical black suit, each wearing pretty much the same blank, stoical expression. Below them are bonneted women and other onlookers, including a lone scribe in his plain, white jacket. No doubt the reporter is headed for writer’s cramp, as the speaker is Edward Everett, perhaps the most celebrated orator of his day, but famous now for being the windy speechifier who rambled for two unmemorable hours before Lincoln rose and delivered the two-minute Gettysburg Address. Matteson’s painting is a masterpiece of miniature portraiture, containing the likenesses of more than 100 individuals.

This month, in honor of the observatory’s longevity, Matteson’s ambitious painting will be recreated with the help of modern-day political, scientific, and academic dignitaries. The Albany observatory, which was rebuilt as a stately structure on Lake Avenue in 1893, closed in 1965, and torn down in 1970 to make way for a psychiatric center, is now operated primarily as an educational institution in Schenectady. Janie Schwab, the Dudley’s executive director, commissioned artist Michael Oatman to restage Matteson’s tableau vivant. Oatman, an RPI professor renowned in art circles for his collage and installation work, will be aided by photographer Joe Putrock.

Members of the observatory’s board and staff, the area scientific community, donors, and supporters will be included in the picture, including science writer Dava Sobel and Assemblyman Jack McEneny. Schwab notes that everyone who attends the gala, to be held at the Albany Institute of History & Art, is invited to take part. Nineteenth-century dress is optional. The Oatman/Putrock photograph will become part of the permanent collection at the Albany Institute, which also holds the Matteson original.

The picture will be made at the State Education Building’s Chancellors Hall, as the culmination of the Dudley’s gala “An Evening with the Stars.” The gala is being described as the observatory’s 150th anniversary bash, despite the fact that the facility was chartered in 1852 and dedicated in 1856. “We’ve been celebrating this for several years,” Schwab explains. “It’s 150, give or take. It took me a while to get the party together, but it’s going to be a good one.”

“An Evening with the Stars” will take place on November 16. For information and tickets, (518) 382-7583; www.dudleyobservatory.org.

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