This seemingly unrecorded view of the bay and town of Regla, in Havana Harbour, is based on a virtuous drawing by the famed naturalist, explorer and artist Paul Wilhelm Herzog von Württemberg taken during his first tour in the Americas. A large format, separately issued work, it was produced by a boutique Hamburg lithographer, evidently for private circulation.
Hailing from the royal family of the southern German state of Württemberg, Duke Paul Wilhelm was a man of insatiable curiosity and intellect, who longed to explore the world distant from the refined boredom of court life. He was especially interested in botany and ethnography and was a skilled amateur artist.
Inspired by Alexander von Humboldt, from 1822 to 1824, Paul Wilhelm led his first research expedition to the Americas, travelling to the United Statea, where he headed up the Mississippi-Missouri Basin, being one of the first to explore the headquarters of these great rivers. On the same tour, he visited Cuba, spending time in the Havana area before exploring the interior and south coast of the island. His observations on Cuban society and the island’s natural life are amongst the most insightful and valuable of the era. In later years, Paul Wilhelm gained even greater fame upon his further expeditions to the Americas and Australia.
Regla was a town (today part of metropolitan Havana) along the southwestern side of Havana Harbour, that had grown up beside the hermitage of Nuestra Señora de Regla. By the early 19th century, it was a small, but prosperous commercial centre, a nexus between the Havana area and Cuba’s interior. Home to the island’s leading nautical school, it was defended by an archipelago of fortifications.
The present view, taken from the perspective of the city of Havana shore, shows the town of Regla in the centre-left. The harbour occupies the foreground, while numerous fortifications inhabit the points and heights of land. Many vessels ply the harbour, and most notably the small landing boat in the lower-right, carries a man wearing a hat, rowed by two locals. This man is none other than Duke Paul Wilhelm, making this a self-portrait!
In Paul Wilhelm’s account of his 1822-4 American expedition, Erste Reise nach dem nördlichen Amerika in den Jahren 1822 bis 1824 (1835), he recalls his encounters with Regla.
The Duke, who first sighted subject, upon entering Havana Harbour, recalled “the indescribably lovely view of the bay and the small town of La Regla” (p. 40). In another passage he notes “From all sides, both along the coast and the bay of la Regla, a lot of works bombard the city. Seen from a distance from the sea, the town is barely visible, but the hills that amphitheatrically bound the aforementioned bay appear beneath a picturesque single viewpoint. The forts El Principe and S. Domingo de Atares, a league southwest of the city; and the Cabannas, leading to the north of the Morro fort, are like fortified cities.” (p. 38).
Of the town proper, Paul Wilhelm recalled: “La Regla is a pretty, fairly well-built little town, built along a bay, which is connected to the large water basin that forms the Havana harbor and a comfortable anchorage for smaller vehicles. The inhabitants of la Regla, therefore, also carry on a not insignificant trade, especially in coastal shipping…the population of La Regla, which in 1810 was made up of 2,218 souls, and may now have increased by a third, contains more white than colored inhabitants” (pp. 55-6).
Importantly, it was during his time in Regla that the Paul Wilhelm met a local resident, Mr. Henrique Desdier, who possessed an “exact knowledge” of many parts of Cuba and maintained a “many-sided acquaintance with the wealthiest planters on the island”. Desdier subsequently acted as the Duke’s guide during his tour of the interior and south coast of Cuba, and his “kind character made him a very pleasant companion”.
Artworks by Paul Wilhelm von Württemberg from his expeditions, as well as those by members of his parties, are prized artefacts of exploration and science of the era. The present work, which features the line ‘Gez[eichnet]. von Herzog Paul v. Württemberg’ (meaning ‘drawn’ by the Duke), in the lower-left margin, identifies him is the artist, while the work conforms to his signature style.
The view was lithographed by the ‘F. Meyer’ (as noted in the lower-right margin), who we believe refers to a boutique lithographer in Hamburg (a city that the Duke passed through on his travels). The dating of the print is difficult to pinpoint; but by its style, it seems to have been made shortly after the Duke’s return to Germany from his first American tour.
We have not been able to trace the original manuscript drawing upon which the present work is based, nor can we trace even a reference to the present lithograph, let along the location of another example, making it an extremely rare, and possibly unique, record of a famous encounter with Cuba.
References: N / A – Seemingly Unrecorded. Cf. Paul Wilhelm von Württemberg, Erste Reise nach dem nördlichen Amerika in den Jahren 1822 bis 1824 (Stuttgart, 1835).