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Nature's palette: the landscapes of Jasper Francis Cropsey.

Looking Carefully

"This October festival costs no powder, no ringing of bells, but every tree is a living liberty pole on which a thousand bright flags are waving..."

Henry David Thoreau wrote about it and Jasper Francis Cropsey painted it -- autumn in all its splendor. Much of America offered a seasonal display which was unmatched in Europe. Although the topic of seasons had been a subject for European painting since Les Tres Riches Heures by Jean, Duke of Berry, illustrated by the Limbourg Brothers in the fifteenth century, autumn took on a new significance at the hand of American painter Jasper Francis Cropsey [1823-1900].

In Piermont on the Hudson, Cropsey captures a familiar scene in upper New York State. Structurally, the landscape offers a traditional foreground, middleground and background joined by a meandering s-shaped water passage from the boat in the foreground to the open river beyond. The Hudson River appears lake-like in its breadth. A male artist sits on the bank sketching as a lady stands behind. It was not unusual for Cropsey, or other Hudson River School painters, to include an artist sketching, since this epitomized the attitude they upheld of the artist's relationship to nature. The cattle add to the quiet, pastoral quality of the scene as they graze on the left. In the distance is a white church spire and evidence of a surrounding village. A jetty juts into the quiet of the river and provides ground for a string of railroad cars leading out to a steamboat. Strongly prominent in the foreground are two large trees dressed in traditional autumn colors. The oak on the right is arrayed in an orange splendor of leaves not yet fallen to the ground. Looking closely, one sees that the leaves are made of irregular lines of color which imply the shapes of oak leaves without being a literal interpretation. The elaborate bark of the tree is detailed with white highlights and dark contrasting crevices -- even green is seen in the bark's many colors. The trees to the left offer yellow and pink leaves. The hills behind the cattle begin to lose detail in the distance. They are violet and green with a freshness of color which remains despite the bluing of colors through the artist's use of aerial perspective. The boat has a picnic basket and a bottle of wine along with a red garment, dull in comparison to the trees. Brids float through the air of this comfortable autumn day. The vertical format of the landscape presents a deep, but not wide, space. The presence of boat, people and village shows an itnermingling of man with nature which begins to feel confining in this format, as if to be a commentary on human presence. Despite all, it is apparent that the autumn leaves and the beauty of the trees are Cropsey's focus in this composition.


Three years after Cropsey painted Piermont on the Hudson, John F. Kensett (American, 1816-1872) completed a view called Upper Mississippi. This horizontal landscape offers the romantic, crisply colored view of another river in America. The mountains display a harder edge than those at the river's edge on Cropsey's Hudson. There is a feeling of a river less tamed than its eastern counterpart. The strong diagonal of the mountainous reflection guides us miles downriver to a point where the mere atmosphere obscures our view. The calm water makes the Mississippi seem tame but deep. In the foreground a couple of ducks break the surface with an almost silent landing. Midway up the composition, in the shadow of the mountains, eight small Native-American figures delicately break the water's surface with two canoes. The figures are little more than small dabs of paint; their lack of detail adding to the composition's vast distance. This landscape seems less invaded by humans, more spacious and more in awe of nature and its vastness than in Piermont on the Hudson. Each artist said much about the locations they chose to paint. The Mississippi was still mysterious in many ways. Miles of the river were uncharted the time of Kensett's painting. Cropsey allowed the natural intermingling of humans and nature to pervade his composition. Cropsey takes a low viewpoint placing the viewer on the ground as if sitting beneath a tree and looking into the scene. This intimacy with nature was true in many works by Cropsey. Conversely, Kensett placed the viewer above the middle of the river where the participation is objective and separate from the scene. The two artists each showed their associations with the Hudson River School as they painted. This group of artists was interested in capturing the crisp, freshness of nature in America. The power of nature was clearly represented, dramatized and respected in their work.

Key Concepts

* Jasper Francis Cropsey and other members of the Hudson River School displayed their high regard for nature and their love of America in their often spectacular landscapes.

* Artists of the Hudson River School, the first coherent American art group, wished to show the power and spirit of America's wilderness without historical, literary or allegorical references.

* The presence or lack of humans in landscapes of the nineteenth century often told much about the settlement of North America.

* Placement of the viewer by the artist can make the landscape either one of intimacy or objectivity.

* Artists of the Hudson River School sought to idealize nature to depict its essential forms.


Jasper Francis Cropsey's rural upbringing on his father's farm gave him few, if any, opportunities to experience the arts. He later remembered early drawings in the margins of his school books, but had no formal art training. He enjoyed architecture and built an elaborate model of a house and furnishings in fine detail, which won him a diploma at the 1837 fair of the Mechanics Institute of the City of New York. Soon thereafter, he entered an apprenticeship in an architectural office. Cropsey's boss encouraged his interest in painting by providing studio space and some supplies. Crospey worked in architecture throughout his life but his painting captured his spirit and truly astounded others. At the age twenty-one, Cropsey became the youngest Associate Member of the National Academy ever elected.

Cropsey believed tht the best paintings and poetry were those inspired by nature. This ideal was shared by others in the Hudson River School which was America's first coherent and sizeable group of landscape artists. Other artists associated with this group are Thomas Cole, Albert Bierstadt, Asher Brown Durand, Thomas Doughty and Frederic Edwin Church. The group's name came from a hostile critic and stuck despite its inaccuracy since the members traveled and painted throughout North and South America. These artists felt a reverence for the power and spiritual manner of America's wilderness. They felt no need to encase their subject in an allegorical, picturesque, literary or historical context as was the practice of European landscape artists.

Cropsey admired the paintings of Thomas Cole, often considered a founder of the ideals professed by the Hudson River School. It was Cole who established native American scenery as a credible subject of painting without the necessity of drawing on historical associations. Cole, Crospey and others spent a great deal of time observing nature, each developing a slightly different approach. While Cole manipulated light for dramatic effect in his compositions, Cropsey held fast to the idea of studying weather conditions to better show the specifics of a time and place without generalities. Cropsey became especially enamored with autumn landscapes; the colors of New England's deciduous trees were truly unique. English skeptics were convinced of the authenticity of Cropsey's scenery only after a painting display which included real autumn leaves of New England pressed and pasted to cardboard.

In addition to being regarded as the finest colorist of the Hudson River School, Cropsey was a founder of the American Watercolor Society and, as an architect, is known for his landmark railway stations on Sixth Avenue in New York.

Suggested Activities


* Trees can be identified by their overall shape, their leaves and their bark. Study five or more deciduous trees. Ask students to create a landscape in which they feature at least one tree which will be identifiable to other students. They may wish to examine closely how Cropsey used color and line to show oak leaves without specifically painting each leaf.

* Divide the class into two groups. Ask one group to write about what might happen for one day of their life if they lived on the Mississippi of Kensett's painting. Ask the second group to write of one day of life on the Hudson as inspired by Cropsey. Using these stories as a beginning, develop a comparison of the two locales.

* Invite young students to look at Cropsey's tree trunk and limbs. Note with them how the leaves are grouped. Ask each student to bring in a colorful leaf to be pressed in class. Students will paint a tree grouping the leaves as discussed and coloring them in similar manner to those collected by the class. Create a display of the Cropsey painting and paintings by the students. Display the collected leaves and tell of Cropsey's leaf display in England.


* Divide the class into two groups. One group will create compositions in which the viewer is intimately related to the subject. The other group will give the viewer an objective position. How do these landscapes differ?

* Study methods for creating distance in a composition such as aerial perspective, overlapping, decreasing detail, etc. Place students in pairs giving each team a piece of 8" x 10" (20 cm x 25 cm) paper. For fifteen minutes or less, students work together planning a composition with as much distance as they can possibly portray. Place all final pieces on the board and give "Hudson River School Awards" to those considered most successful by the class at showing distance.

* Gather examples of landscapes in america from early paintings to modern photographs. Create a slide show or bulletin board featuring these works and addressing environmental changes. A local archive may give you landscapes from your area to include. Do any of the views show a romantic and dramatic view of nature? Do any show the reality of human effect on nature? Develop a message for the bulletin board or a script for the slide show which addresses environmental change.


John K. Howat. The Hudson River and its Painters. New York: The Viking Press, 1972.

Jasper F. Cropsey: A Retrospective View of America's Painter of Autumn. College Park, Maryland: The University of Maryland, 1968.

Jasper F. Cropsey 1823-1900. Washsington DC: The Smithsonian Institution Press, 1970.

Barbara Novak. American Painting of the Nineteenth Century: Realism, Idealism, and the American Experience. New York: Praeger, 1969.

Pam Hellwege is Department Head, Teacher and Youth Programs, The Saint Louis Art Museum, Saint Louis, Missouri.

Slides of Piermont on the Hudson and Upper Mississippi along with many other images are available for $1.00 each from the Resource Center of The Saint Louis Art Museum, Forest Park, St. Louis, MO 63110-1380. Please request slide number B-24 (Cropsey) and slide B-12 (Kensett). No postage or handling charge.
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Author:Hellwege, Pamela
Publication:School Arts
Date:Feb 1, 1992
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