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Mansard Muse, Cupola Caprices & Victorian Verge

Updated: Dec 23, 2023

As esssay on painting American Architecture- Brian Keeler


I've long had a sweet spot for the lovely mansard roof houses and other buildings of our area here in the Northeast- meaning Pennsylvania, New York and New England. But of course, the mansard roof became popular in Second Empire France ( 1852-1870) and the invention of this roofing style is credited to Francois Mansart, the French architect, (1598-1666.) The formation of the distinctive roof line goes back even further, as it made its appearance on the Louvre around 1550.

Still, the style has taken on a uniquely American relevance as it was accepted with gusto and used throughout the country in the late 19th century and into the 20th. When we view these lovely builidings, they now seem iconic and from another era of dignity and class in architecture. They are humble and used for everyday homes and exalted as they're used for grand palaces, theaters and government buildings. Many towns and cities have some of these beautiful homes- two towns that come to mind as exemplar, for having so many beautiful Victorians, are Cape May, NJ and of course, San Francisco, CA.


Above- "Spring -Street Light in Ithaca, NY" Oil on linen 26" x 30" This painting portrays one of the stately and beautiful Victorians in downtown Ithaca- known as the Sprague House.


Above- Ornate windows on this third floor mansard roof on a home in Moravia, NY. This oil titled, "Signs of Spring, Moravia, NY" is a 36" x 36" oil on panel.




Many of these houses have fallen, or they've been razed- and usually for short-sighted reasons or really misguided motives. I will close this essay with a lament for the fallen Victorians. But to mention at the outset, that the loss is documented here in Ithaca by a book that came out many years ago, titled, Then and Now. It shows how crass commercial buildings that have replaced once magnificent architectural marvels. A Facebook friend, Terry Harbin frequently posts clippings from old newspapers that show how truly remarkable some of Ithaca's homes once were prior to meeting the wrecking ball. One caption noted that a fallen Victorian represented an "outmoded" form of architecture. And even the "parking lot" justification rears its ugly head today- as there is a red house in downtown Ithaca that has been in the news lately that may be razed for this exact reason. Apologies to Joni Mitchell.



Above- an 18" x 20" oil on linen panel painting done en plein air in Gloucester, MA. It depicts City Hall and an old home in front, now used as a lawyer's office. This depiction happens to include three different types of mansards (mentioned in the text below.) In the front is the concave version, then the straight type and finally the convex style (on top of the clock).



Of course, many of us think of Edward Hopper's captivating canvases he created with mansard roof houses in Gloucester, MA and elsewhere. But it is worth remembering that when Hopper painted these buildings they were probably only 20 or 30 years old or so. In other words they may have seemed modern to him and his contemporaries.




Above- A 36" x 40" oil on linen of Stonington, Maine that features a humble house in the foreground with one of the concave versions of the mansard style of roof. This painting is now in a private collection in Maine- sold through the Argosy Gallery in Bar Harbor, Maine.


My first stay in a mansard roof building was in the summer of 1973, when I spent the time between semesters at the York Academy of Arts - pursuing my art in Wildwood, NJ. I was sketching portraits in a gallery on the boardwalk and all of the artists stayed in this five-story Victorian era hotel called the Beachwood Hotel. I did not realize the uniqueness of this stately building or even the term mansard at the time. It was an incredible 19th century building on a corner not far from the ocean. I have many memories of two summers spent there while learning the in and outs of doing quick portraits from sitting customers.


But I think I became acquainted with the term mansard in a roundabout way- in Italy of all places, as a top floor apartment in Italy is referred to as a "mansardo." I then learned that the term was derived from the French roofline designs. And while researching the background of the term, I found out that these roofs come in four main configurations: concave (as in the above painting), convex, straight and an "S" shape bulding one, which is a variation on the concave. The windows that adorn mansards are often beautiful and varied in design. The mansards are also called gambrel roofs, French Roofs or hip roofs. Their appeal was practical as it added another living space in the roof area, but the aesthetic qualities are apparent as well to those of us who pause to look up.


Then there are the towers or adjoining structures on some Victorians, such as in the painting of Ithaca shown later in this article. They are not cupolas but resemble something akin to bell towers or campanile, as they are called in Italy. They come in a wide variety and are positioned in various ways.



Above- In the grittly suburb of Philadelphia, this nocturne view of Manayunk, PA has a mansard roof house- now a bar called the Castle Roxx. It is a 30" x 30" oil on linen.


Above- "Spring Light on Buffalo Street" an 18" x 20" oil on linen depicting a view of Ithaca, NY. Some refer to this Vicrtorian as the "Blavatsky House" as the famous mystic and founder of the Theosophical Society, Madam Blavatsky, lived there for awhile.


My main interest is in painting houses with mansards or towers is for their visual beauty and historical significance. They add nice accents to paintings of urban scenes espeically when they are immersed in otherwise banal modern buildings or crass commercial enterprises that have often cropped up. There is also something timeless about the mansards that has an appeal too. I used to have a bumper sticker on my truck that read, "Warning, I break for Greek Revival." Now I could update it with one of the folowing; "Frequent Stops for Mansards" or " I Break for Cupolas."


Related to this general interest in the 19th century, is my appreciation of cupolas. I just had a plein air class that I was teaching here in Ithaca that I called, "Cupola Caprices." We gathered in the Fall Creek area of town which has a wonderful Victorian house that we used as our motif. I painted this same house in diptych format about 20 years ago on a January afternoon. The advantage of doing paintings of houses like this one in the winter is that the folliage is gone, so there's less obstruction.



Above - A January view of the house in Ithaca on the corner of First and Cascadilla Streets. This painting is in a dyptych format or two-canvas version. It was painted from the tailgate of my truck.


It was great to be on the street for the entire day. I actually started with preliminary sketches and began the work the night before. So even though plein air is often thought of as, perhaps slap dash or , spontaneous and suggestively abbreviated this work took a good solid ten hours to portray the motif. It was wonderful to meet so many of the neighbors that day, some who lived in the house we were depicting and others in surrounding houses. The experience felt like communal bonding where we all shared in a convivial way our sense of this place.


As with any rendering of buildings, architecture or street scenes, all of these paintings require a knowledge and use of basic perspective. I encourage my students to make a preliminary sketch to determine where the eye level is going to be placed on the paper and on the eventual painting. This is key, as we need to set this up in advance to get all the orthogonal lines in agreement. Students are often reluctant to this- and the results can be seen later as the drawing, composition and perspective are often out of kilter. But aside from determining the eye level and vanishing point, my concern initially is composing and creating interesting intervals and divisions of space.



Above- "Mid- August Evening Light" this oil on linen panel is 26" x 30" and it was painted as a demo piece with students in a plein air class. It depicts a house with a cupola in Ithaca, NY on the corner of First Street and Cascadilla Street.



Above- painting a townscape in the Fall Creek area of Ithaca, NY. This was done as a demo for a plein air class.

To view a video recap of this painting- check out this Youtube clip- https://youtu.be/NR2DjJd29ZA?si=nf4YbK1tvQov5bt7



Oddly, my hometown does not have any mansard roof houses, (anymore) (The former Welles Feed Mill had such a roof, but it burned in the early 1980's) although Wyalusing does have some wonderful Victorian era homes There was an exceptional example of a 19th century building, The Hotel Middendorf, (shown below) that once stood right in the center of town. It had two marvelous cupolas and a mansard roof. The secondary cupola was in the center and to the left of the main and taller one. I was told by my father that the secondary tower in the center was designed for a clock to be put there, but the idea was never carried through. The hotel was torn down in 1986, and luckily the taller cupola was saved and now still stands in the borough park as a vestige of the once grand hotel. Some of the Victorian houses in Wyalusng have ornate gingerbread woodwork- the fancy trim that surrounds the porches and windows. In fact, one man, J.Morgan Brown, the owner of a local lumberyard and builder of several of these houses was known as the Gingerbread Man. J. Morgan Brown also built the iconic Hotel Wyalusing on Main street and his legacy as the Gingerbread Man can be seen in the details of many of these homes.



Above- a pastel rendering of the hotel that once stood in the center of Wyalusing, PA- the author's hometown. The Hotel was razed in 1986. It featured two cupolas and a mansard roof on the front portion. You'll notice a small plinth or stone platform on the corner of the sidewalk. A phone booth was once situated here. Brian Keeler's father, William Keeler, editor of the local paper, lamented this intrusion in a column as he thought it a jarring anachronism to the 19th century building.


Painting in New England is one of my favorite places for seeking the muse in architecture. Last year I was a participant in the Cape Ann Plein Air Fest. I have painted in this area for many years but it was a treat to have an entire week there with the best plein air artists in the country- all painting the Gloucester and Rockport areas. One of my paintings was of a mansard roof house on Prospect Street in Gloucester. I learned that Hopper had painting the same street back in the 1920's but looking in the other direction.



Above- A Nocturne plein air painting in Gloucester, MA during the Cape Ann Plein Air Fest. It is in a private collection.


Finally, verge boards, as suggested in this essay title, is part of the appeal with architectural elements and flourishes. These are the corner boards, often ornate hand-carved details at the apex of the roofs of Victorian homes. While driving about it is fun to notice the variety of these in remaining old houses. There is a house in Hector, NY that I've painted several versions of over the years. I usually choose a vantage of this Victorian house that includes the adjacent barn and vineyards. This view is great at sunset and it leads down to Seneca Lake. But the house recently had its cupola reinstalled (it must have been removed, like steeples of old churches that perhaps become too challenging to maintain.) But this house has beautiful verge boards that I've painted on a couple of occasions.



Above-"Verge Light- Seneca" This oil on panel is 18"x 24" and depicts a scene in Hector, NY. The painting is in a private collection- sold through the West End Gallery in Corning, NY.


Our own house here in Ithaca is a wonderful 1865 Victorian that has a cupola and verge boards. I've painted this Victorian many times over the years as well. It has special aesthetic appeal and it is beautiful in varioius kinds of light and in differnet seasons as well.


As an ending, it is with woeful lament that we note the passing so many of these remarkable buldings from our towns and countryside. Some lost through through neglect, others from urban renewal of the 60's and beyond, even today there are wonderful old houses torn down for a variety of resons. I have compiled a list of historic homes and other unique buildings in Wyalusing that have been lost to wanton self-interest, greed and neglect. It seems like it just comes down to values and knowing that our history also informs our present and future. Just this year another historic structure was lost near my hometown- across the river in Sugar Run. I've given up writing letters to the editor, as it seems to do no good. Even here in Ithaca, an entire section of town with historic homes were destroyed on East State Street- to be replaced by generic student housing.


Above- This genre scene depicts our house on Snyder Hill Road in Ithaca as a nocturne, complete with the cupola and verge board trim.



Above- A unique double-cupola Italianate house in Sheldrake, NY along Cayuga Lake. This 30" x 36" oil is titled, "Cayuga Moon, Sheldrake, NY." This painting is in a private collection and sold through the West End Gallery in Corning, NY.



Above- "September Afternoon- Light on the Whiton House, Ithaca, NY" Oil on linen 18" x 18"- This oil painted en plein air from a Victorian house on the corner of Aurora and Clinton Streets in Ithaca, NY.

To view a short video of this painting near the end of the first session- go to this link- https://youtu.be/xXIFqQmXGu4?si=6ZPPIljzEfy5ZSJM



Video- A guided tour of a selection of Brian Keeler's paitnings. Keeler leads us through this group of paitnings of Victorian architecture gathered in his house in Ithaca. He explains some of the key elements of each paintng. Check it out at this link.



Above-"Buffalo Street Refelections- Ithaca, NY" Oil on linen (diptych) 10" x 36" Private collection in Ithaca, NY



"November Evening Light- Clinton Street, Ithaca, NY" Oil on linen panel 18" x 24" This work was painted en plein air and it is part of the current show at the North Star Fine Art on the Commons in Ithaca, NY.



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