Indian Encampment

attr. Richard Nisbett (1753-1823)
Watercolor on paper
Circa: 1822
Size: 13" (w) x 7 3/4" (h) (sight) / 21 1/2" x 16 1/4" (frame)
This remarkable watercolor from 1822 is one of the earliest American asylum works extant and likely the earliest in private hands. Further, it is attributed to Richard Nisbett (1753-1823), a published author and poet of note, and a patient at Philadelphia Hospital's asylum ward.

The painting is inscribed on the lower left, "1822. Painted by a maniac confined in the cells of the Alms House—the design his own." It is initialed "J.P.H" for John Pennington Hopkinson (1801-1836). Dr. John P. Hopkinson was a Philadelphia physician, author, and professor and was the son of Congressman Joseph Hopkinson, and Francis Hopkinson's grandchild, signer of the Declaration of Independence.

The two known works by Nisbett are in institutional collections, a "Mappa Mundi" from 1819 (collection of The Historical Society of Pennsylvania) and "Antarctic Scenery," 1816 (collection of The Library Company of Philadelphia). The three works share an illustrator's technique of using mixed proportions on specific details as a device to emphasize certain information. Stylistically, the painting herein relates more with the Antarctic Scenery painting versus the Mappa Mundi, which is quite a bit more complicated than either.

It has been well recorded that as a patient, Nisbett wrote poetry (including a hundred-page epic poem) and painted watercolors. Both works mentioned above and the work herein have strong narrative qualities. It has been suggested that Nisbett's watercolors may have been works created to accompany his poems.

It is also interesting to note that an inscription on the back of the "Antarctic Scenery" painting refers to Nisbett as "a maniac."

In Nisbett's epic poem, The Notioniad, Nisbett writes of a long voyage and references "The Susquehanyans" [Susquehannock Native Americans]. At one point, Nisbett tried the life of a farmer in Catawissa, PA; however, he found clear-cutting and tilling the land problematic. The image here with Native Americans (Susquehannock) at rest in a clear cut field may relate to Nisbett's experiences—that they were better suited than he at such tasks.

Below, the scholar Max Cavitch expands on the life of Nisbett and his Mappa Mundi.

Richard Nisbett’s Map of the World
By, Max Cavitch, Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania

Richard Nisbett (1753-1823) is an obscure figure who, like many obscure figures, led a remarkable life. In 1773, he was a member of the West Indian plantocracy, engaged in a pamphlet war over slavery with Benjamin Rush. By 1800, he was a Quaker convert confined as a psychiatric patient in Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Hospital, where Rush was a physician. This stunning transition, from being a champion of the enslavement of others to being himself the subject of perpetual confinement, is recorded in a variety of disparate and discontinuous sources, including manuscripts and paintings that Nisbett himself produced while he was a patient. It’s possible that Nisbett created his watercolors, including this map of the world, to illustrate or accompany the epic poem, The Notioniad, that he also wrote while in confinement. (Never published, the original bound manuscript of The Notioniad is in the collection of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.)

It’s likely that Nisbett was born in Greenwich, England, and he may have been Oxford-educated. He spent part of his youth in the West Indies, first as a plantation overseer and subsequently as a merchant and owner of slaves. He married Frances Clifton in 1779 on the island of St. Kitts, where she had been born around 1756. Nisbett fathered six children with Frances. In time, his increasingly meliorist views on slavery led to his removal to Pennsylvania and, ultimately, his conversion to Quakerism in the 1790s.

In Pennsylvania, he continued to tilt his lance at a variety of occupations, but failed at each one, probably because he was being overtaken by mental illness. He was held temporarily at the Pennsylvania Hospital in the late 1790s, and he wound up permanently confined there from 1800 until his death in 1823.

While in the Caribbean, Nisbett had published not only the defense of slavery that Rush attacked but also various poems on religious matters and a book on the spiritual instruction of slaves. Later, as a patient, Nisbett continued to write—mostly poetry—and to engage socially with visitors and the hospital’s staff. Indeed, he became the favorite of one of the hospital’s chief benefactors and lay-caregivers, Samuel Coates (1748-1830), who kept sporadic notes on his encounters with various patients, but who wrote more about Nisbett than about anyone else—even to the point of transcribing some of their conversations.

At first, one can only stand back and marvel at the map’s surprising beauty—and consider, with humility, how far beyond the range of our observation and interpretation Richard Nisbett really is. Multicolored words, figures, and cartouches defy comprehensive inventory. The place names are a mixture of the actual, the mythological, and the personal. Many of the continents, countries, and cities that we recognize by their proper names have been completely repositioned, geographically. Sardinia, for example, is next to Scotland. And South America abuts Asia Minor.

Yet having access to the Coates memorandum book helps us to identify, at least, and possibly make some sense of, various elements of Nisbett’s world-system. For example, despite Coates’s understanding that he was born in London, and educated at Oxford, [Nisbett] will not allow it—he says, “there is no such place in my Maps, which are admitted every where, to be the most correct of any in the known world. It is true, there was once a little Island, falsely called Great Britain, but the Divine Alma, sunk it 60 fathoms deep in the Sea, about 50 years ago. It has never been seen since that time.”

Indeed, on Nisbett’s map one finds (however radically dislocated) Wales, Scotland, and Ireland—but no England. Why? Resentment or confusion over his own origins? “About 50 years ago” would have been around the time of his birth—could Coates have been transcribing a terrifying fragment of infantile historical truth? Or does Nisbett’s effective destruction of England have more to do with his later conversion to Quakerism and his anti-slavery views? One thinks of John Wesley’s assertion, in his Thoughts Upon Slavery (1774), that it would be best if the sugar islands “were all together sunk in the depth of the sea.”

Another salient and overdetermined feature of Nisbett’s map is its canny sense of how globalization puts places in touch with one another—for example, Philadelphia and China’s Pearl River Delta, which are placed side by side. Like other Philadelphians in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Nisbett lived his life against a teeming backdrop of Sino-American exchange. Ever since regular U.S. trade was established in the 1780s, accounts, images, and objects from China had been rapidly accumulating in Philadelphia, which was at that time the nation’s principal seaport.

Nisbett’s map is one of just a few of his watercolors known to survive, and, as such, it is one of the earliest as well as one of the most visually impressive examples of Outsider Art in American history.

Selected references:

1) That this psychiatric patient was the same Richard Nisbett who published Slavery Not Forbidden by Scripture (Philadelphia: John Sparhawk, 1773) has been repeatedly affirmed by modern historical scholarship. See, for example: Stephen Fried, Rush: Revolution, Madness, and the Visionary Doctor Who Became a Founding Father (New York: Crown, 2018), 425; Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the “Racial” Self (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 69; and Winthrop D. Jordan,White Over Black: American Attitudes toward the Negro, 1550-1812, 2nd ed. (University of North Carolina Press, 2012), 306.
2) Susanna Dillwyn to William Dillwyn, 14 June 1793, box 2, folder 9, Dillwyn and Emlen family correspondence, 1770-1818, Library Company of Philadelphia.
3) Elaine Forman Crane, “Biographical Directory,” in The Diary of Elizabeth Drinker, vol. 3 (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1991), 2191.
4) Coates, “Memorandum Book,” 70.
5) John Wesley, Thoughts Upon Slavery (Philadelphia: Joseph Crukshank, 1774), 40.
6) Philadelphia was both a terminal destination and a dissemination point for Chinese imports. Philadelphia residents also invested heavily in ventures out of other U.S. ports, such a New York.

Provenance: John Pennington Hopkinson, thence by descent.


Condition: Excellent. Double-sided wood frame with 8ply rag mat; Museum Glass.

Price: $24,000.00