Jasper Francis Cropsey

by Peter Trippi

Jasper Francis Cropsey: Catalogue Raisonné, Works in Oil, Volume One: 1842–1863. Edited by Anthony M. Speiser; catalogue entries and documentation by Kenneth Maddox. Hastings on Hudson, New York: Newington-Cropsey Foundation, 2013. 465 pages.

Had it not actually happened, the life of the American artist and architect Jasper Francis Cropsey (1823–1900) would be unbelievable. Renowned today for his leading role in the first generation of Hudson River School landscape painters, Cropsey began life as the eldest of eight children on a Staten Island farm. Eventually, the sickly youth trained and practiced as an architect, and he also studied art at the National Academy of Design in New York City, where he later became an active academician. Cropsey traveled unusually widely and often for a man of his generation, even spending seven years in London, where he and his wife, Maria, were presented to Queen Victoria, and where he organized the American section of the 1862 International Exhibition.

Particularly admired for his brilliantly colored paintings of autumnal foliage, Cropsey saw America’s rugged natural beauty as a direct manifestation of God and of his homeland’s special role in the world. Yet by the time he died at the turn of the last century, Cropsey and his Hudson River School peers had faded from view, and it was not until the 1960s that the slow but steady recovery of their reputations began in earnest.

Despite the high esteem in which Cropsey is currently held, and despite the huge prices being paid for his finest artworks, there has never been—until now—a definitive catalogue raisonné for him. The present volume—the first in an anticipated series of three, ordered chronologically—is, therefore, a valuable contribution to scholarship, providing in one place a trove of information that is otherwise unpublished or difficult to access. As such, it will prove indispensable to scholars, collectors, dealers, auctioneers and anyone else requiring details about Cropsey’s work, and is surely the base upon which all future studies about him will build.

When it was founded in 1977, the Newington-Cropsey Foundation declared that one of its key goals was to research and publish Cropsey’s art. In her foreword to this volume, the Foundation’s chairman (and Cropsey’s great-granddaughter), Barbara Newington, modestly highlights the inspiration provided early on by the Russian-born scholar and collector Maxim Karolik (1893–1963). Best known for revitalizing scholarly interest in the Hudson River School during the mid-twentieth century, and for forming the outstanding collection of its artistry that he and his wife bequeathed to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Karolik also advised the Foundation co-founders, John and Barbara Newington, on their own collecting. The couple’s achievement is visible today through their ownership of Ever Rest, the handsome studio house in Hastings on Hudson that Cropsey occupied from 1885, and through their for mation of what is now the single largest private collection of Cropsey’s works. The production of a catalogue raisonné is inevitably a team effort, of course, so the acknowledgements section succinctly traces the project’s necessarily long gestation and salutes its many participants.

The volume’s editor was the Newington-Cropsey Foundation’s own Anthony M. Speiser, who authored the introductory essay, “Jasper Francis Cropsey: Painter of Faith.” As the title suggests, his text rightly underscores the artist’s Christian spirituality, and Speiser’s evident sympathy for the book’s subject is conveyed through references to him as “Jasper.” The bulk of the book is taken up, of course, by the catalogue entries prepared by Kenneth Maddox, who became the Foundation’s art historian in 1995. Chapter 1 covers the period 1842–45, followed by eighteen more chapters, each focused on a single year. These entries are thorough and informative, and a close reading reveals that Maddox has uncovered hundreds of previously unknown paintings. (Indeed, the Foundation’s database began life containing approximately 1,000 works in total, but now holds roughly 2,400 works in oil alone.) Maddox has clearly done a Herculean job in assembling huge amounts of documentary information regarding provenance, exhibition history and bibliographic references.

Some of these aspects are further addressed in the impressive appendices that follow Chapter 19. They include a chronology of Cropsey’s life; a bibliography; a list of his collectors; lists of paintings by subject, by public collection and by title (the latter for both Volume One and for all oil paintings known); a year-by-year exhibition history; and other customary research tools. In this era of budget-cutting, not every catalogue raisonné team can afford to index its volumes, so it is worth noting that this one, thankfully, is indexed. Periodic supplements containing information on newly discovered or freshly reinterpreted works will be made available to owners of the volume.

Complementing the scholarly data is the physical beauty of the book itself. Almost all of the illustrations appear in color, and it is clear that publication manager Abby Kinsley worked hard to source the best possible photographs that capture Cropsey’s brilliant colors and crisp forms. The entirety has been designed by Lawrence Sunden, who is well known to museums and galleries for clean, elegant layouts that let the artworks look their best.

After spending so many years creating such an impressive publication, it would be understandable if the project team chose to set Cropsey aside. Yet two more volumes are scheduled to be produced, as this first one closes in 1863 with Cropsey’s return from Great Britain. Many bright years and masterworks were still ahead, and now his fans can look forward to learning more about them—all in good time.

American Arts Quarterly, Summer 2014, Volume 31, Number 3