The Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum collection was recently enriched by the addition of two Hudson River landscape paintings on loan from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation, namely Summer Landscape (1853) by Jasper Francis Cropsey (1823–1900) and The Woodchoppers (1858) by George Inness (1825–1894). We are very grateful to the Newington-Cropsey Foundation for this generous loan and delighted to exhibit the paintings alongside our own collection. Please stop to look at them in the South Parlor the next time you are at Bartow-Pell.
Cropsey and Inness were prominent members of the second generation of painters who were inspired by the work of Thomas Cole (1801–1848) and Asher B. Durand (1796–1886) and later became known as the Hudson River School. Although not a formal school or group, the artists inspired by Cole and Durand included such prominent painters as Frederic Church and Alfred Bierstadt, who with their contemporaries helped to create America’s first native school of landscape painting based on depictions of American scenery as both an expression of national identity and a source for spiritual renewal. Although the second generation inherited Cole’s interest in American landscape as a subject for art, their preference for domesticated landscapes, like that of other landscapists of the time, set them apart from Cole’s celebrations of untamed wilderness and from his moral allegories. The term “Hudson River School” was initially one of disdain, coined by critics in the 1870s who increasingly viewed the landscape subjects and detailed naturalistic style as old-fashioned. The term was also a bit of a misnomer, as most of the artists painted not only in the Hudson River Valley, but also throughout the Northeast, as well as in the American West, Europe, and tropical regions of the New World. Their paintings enjoyed enormous popularity from the 1830s to the 1870s and established American landscape as an important and quintessentially American art form.
Jasper Francis Cropsey was one of the most popular and accomplished artists of the Hudson River School. Born in 1823 on his family’s farm on Staten Island, Cropsey was professionally trained as an architect. Except for some watercolor lessons from the English artist Edward Maury (active 1835–40), Cropsey was self-taught as a painter. A visual arts prodigy, he learned by studying painting treatises, visiting exhibitions at the National Academy of Design, and copying engravings of the 17th-century French landscapist Claude Lorrain (ca. 1600–1682) and the Dutch masters. Cropsey made his debut at the National Academy of Design in 1843 and in 1851 was elected an academician. Like many American artists of the mid-19th century, he chose to broaden his artistic education by traveling to Europe. A European grand tour (1847–49) and a seven-year sojourn in England (1856–63) gave him a firsthand acquaintance with European art and culture, with the contemporary art scene in England, and with the English critic and author John Ruskin (1819–1900). The exhibition of Cropsey’s painting Autumn—on the Hudson River (1860) at the London International Exposition of 1862 brought him international success and an audience with Queen Victoria.
From the mid-1840s through the 1870s, Cropsey was renowned in both the United States and England for his finely detailed, panoramic views of American scenery, particularly his richly colored canvases of American autumn and his luministic, ethereal skies. He exhibited regularly at the National Academy of Design and at the American Watercolor Society, the latter, an organization he helped found in 1867. Cropsey’s ensuing success allowed him to design and build a grand summer home, Aladdin (1866–69), at Warwick, New York. About the same time, Cropsey revived his architectural practice. Among his best-known designs were the passenger stations for the Sixth Avenue elevated railway in New York. In 1884, in the wake of declining prices for his paintings and those of other Hudson River School artists, Cropsey and his family moved to Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, to a house they called Ever-Rest. The home now houses the Newington-Cropsey Foundation, a center for the study of Cropsey’s art. During the last fifteen years of his life, Cropsey increasingly turned to watercolors, most of them either depictions of Hastings and its environs, or based on his sketches from years past, all affirming his realist aesthetic and his enduring enthusiasm for American scenery long after the market for such paintings had disappeared. Cropsey died in 1900 at Ever-Rest.
Painted early in his career, Cropsey’s Summer Landscape (1853) is one of many seasonal landscapes that the artist produced throughout his long career. Although celebrated in his day as “America’s Painter of Autumn,” Cropsey painted all the seasons. Summer Landscape captures the serenity of a glorious summer day resplendent with lush foliage, flowers, and a bright sky. A gentle breeze seems to blow from the left, rustling the leaves. A pond occupies most of the foreground, its waters reflecting the foliage and sky. On the high embankment, a young man fishes in the pond, as his female companion sits beside him. The young couple is clearly enjoying a moment of rural leisure amidst the bounty of nature, the kind of activity that would have appealed to an increasingly urban American public by the mid-19th century. Such depictions of domesticated landscape, where man lives in harmony with nature, are typical of Cropsey’s work.
Although the exact location is unknown, the scene was likely painted after one of Cropsey’s summer sketching trips in the Northeast. In 1849 after Cropsey and his wife, Maria, returned from their two-year honeymoon and European Grand Tour, he set to work in a studio in New York City. During the next several years he spent his summers traveling through New York State, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Massachusetts, reacquainting himself with the American landscape. A consummate draftsman, Cropsey filled his sketchbooks with detailed nature studies of flora, the surrounding terrain, and climatic conditions, later working these sketches into paintings in his studio. His rich, painterly technique is consistent with Cropsey’s paintings of the 1840s and early 1850s, when his works have a stylistic affinity with the work of Thomas Cole, an artist he much admired and whose studio he had visited in Catskill, New York, on the Hudson River.
Summer Landscape also features passages of articulated naturalism—the ferns in the left foreground, the wildflowers along the tree path in the middle ground, and the play of light on individual leaves and tree branches—which are delineated with a clarity and realism that anticipates the mature style for which Cropsey is best known. Such close observation of the natural world was fundamental to Cropsey’s artistic philosophy and a major theme of a lecture on “Natural Art” that he delivered to the American Art Union in 1845. Cropsey noted that the greatest landscape painters are those who “have been the most attentive to nature,” and he urged his colleagues to “go to [America’s] wild forests . . . or to her cultivated valleys,” and to “view them with an unprejudiced eye,” for therein one could see nature’s majesty and appreciate the works of the Creator. “A man of faith,” according to his biographer Anthony Speiser, Cropsey believed that all God’s creations were significant, and this led him to paint his subjects with minute detail. Cropsey championed both wilderness and cultivated landscapes, but he is best known for the latter—domesticated American landscapes where man lives in harmony with nature, both the agrarian and the increasingly industrialized landscape—all a manifestation of God’s handiwork.
Gina D’Angelo, Art Historian and BPMM Curatorial Committee Member
Please read about The Woodchoppers by George Inness—also on loan to Bartow-Pell from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation—in an upcoming post.