Jasper Francis Cropsey – American Artist

Jasper Francis Cropsey (American, 1823 to 1900)

Jasper Francis Cropsey was born in Rossville, Staten Island in 1823, and at an early age displayed talent for both architecture and art. In 1843 he exhibited for the first time at the National Academy of Design, and founded an architectural office in New York. The following year he was elected an Associate Member of the Academy, at the age of 21. By 1845 he turned his full attention to landscape painting, and gave a lecture by the title “Natural Art”, in which he proposed that the imitation of nature through open air painting was preferable to its idealization. Between 1847 and 1849 he traveled through England and spent two years in Rome, living in a studio that had once been Thomas Cole’s, a fortuitous situation given Cropsey’s youthful emulation of the older artist.[1]

After returning to America he left again for England in 1856, where he lived until 1863, exhibiting at the Royal Academy in London and receiving a medal from Queen Victoria. Returning again to the United States he resumed his practice in architecture, designing New York City railway stations in 1876, and painting until his death in 1900. His immense canvas Autumn-on the Hudson River, completed in London in 1860, has been called “perhaps the central masterpiece of what later, in the 1870s, came to be known as the Hudson River School.”[2]

Cropsey first visited Greenwood Lake, New Jersey, in the autumn of 1843, and it was on the strength of the first paintings he made there that he was elected an Associate to the National Academy of Design. The site would prove important to Cropsey for personal reasons, as it was there that he met Maria Cooley, who in 1847 would become his wife. Cropsey maintained a studio at the lake until 1869, and continued painting the subject after that date. In a more general sense, Greenwood Lake depicts a motif dear to Cropsey–and the one with which he is most readily identified–the autumnal Northeastern landscape.

Cropsey shared Cole’s fondness for fall coloration, which distinguished the American landscape paintings of the Hudson River School from those of their European counterparts, who had seldom shown interest in the subject. When Cropsey exhibited his paintings in London he felt it necessary to display foliage from American trees to prove that his chromatic flights were based on fact and not fancy.[3] In appreciation of Cropsey’s skillful rendering of autumn tones, poet W. C. Bennett penned sentiments which could well apply to Greenwood Lake:

“Forgot are summer and our English air;

Here is your Autumn in her wondrous dyes… .”[4]

Greenwood Lake is a textbook demonstration of aerial perspective, its gradation of tone and color intensity diminishing with each projection of the land, until the distant mountains dissolve in a shimmer of clear light. There is scarcely enough breeze to disturb the water or to distract from the scene’s serenity. This was for Cropsey an expression of his faith, manifested in the natural world. In 1846 he wrote to his fiancee Maria Cooley:

“[T]he voice of God came to me through every motionless leaf, on every blade of grass-the odor of the flower and in every breath of air I drew.”[5]

Essay written by Jerry N. Weiss

[1] Andrew Wilton, American Sublime: Landscape Painting in the United States 1820-1880 (Princeton University Press, 2002), 24.

[2] Wilton, 24.

[3] Wilton, 25, 137.

[4] Wilton, 138.

[5] Ella M. Foshay, Jasper F. Cropsey: Artist and Architect (The New- York Historical Society, 1987), 27.

Information courtesy of Shannon’s Fine Art Auctions, October 2011

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