New York

Jasper Cropsey

Staten Island Institute

Three exhibitions of American landscapists shed light on the nature of landscape painting during the generation that followed Cole and Durand and reached maturity about the middle of the last century.

Of these three, only that of Jasper Cropsey (1823–1900), originally organized and shown at the University of Maryland, offers a comprehensive view of the artist’s work. At the outset Cropsey was wholly under the sway of Cole: his early landscapes are not so much landscapes as they are pastoral history paintings, roughly comparable in intention to the landscapes of Claude Lorrain, which are always peopled by nymphs or minor dieties in order to raise their dignity in an esthetic hierarchy for which only depictions of the greatest actions of gods, prophets or heroes could claim lasting significance as art. But in many cases, Cropsey goes even further than did Claude, and one may well ask why, since the esthetic ideals that put history painting at the top were certainly more wholly representative of Claude’s age than of Cropsey’s. I think the answer is because they were not wholly representative of Cropsey’s age: they were part of a conflict, of which they were only one term, the other term being the decrepitude and abandonment of those very ideals. In such a situation, it almost inevitably happens that, in order to affirm ideals that are no longer adequate to cope with the situations life and work present, you have to exaggerate; this is what led to the agrarian celebrations in American painting of the thirties, as in Cropsey it leads to the cloying Elysium of feudal scenes like The Days of Elizabeth or the hothouse creation which is The Milennial Age, a predominantly Greco-Egyptian hybrid with minor accents from the Florentine Renaissance and the French Middle Ages—everything but the present! In Cropsey’s early work, even where landscape does predominate it is violent and theatrical (Storm in the Wilderness), as it was in Cole, and at the same time it is careful to include some anecdotal element somewhere—for just as the artist is afraid to paint pure landscape, even where the mood is on an heroic scale, he is also afraid of feelings, especially when they are on an heroic scale, so he dilutes both with an element that is narrative and merely cute.

Two influences combined to rescue Cropsey from this dilemma and these limitations: the proto-romantic landscape style of the Neapolitan Baroque painter Salvator Rosa, who was as popular in America as he was everywhere else through about the middle of the 19th century, and by way of contrast the very unrhetorical landscapes of such Dutch Baroque artists as Paulus Potter. Between them, these models taught Cropsey how to cope with the problems—largely having to do with the intellectual or emotional attitude toward one’s subject, rather than with the means of rendering the subject—that land scape presented, how to tame it. So it happens that if, in Cropsey’s middle period, a synthetic or ersatz element is often to be found in the use of standard Dutch or Italianate motifs, the shrill color or the narrative accessories, he is nevertheless able to treat landscape as a vehicle for a kind of painting in which visual detail and esthetic ideology are both subordinated to feeling and to the sensations that inspired it. The emotion and the object’s concreteness are fused in an amalgam that we call a symbol, and so long as Cropsey remains close to the tangible he has his finest moments: Wyoming Valley, Pa., is the first of them. What happens in his later years is that the two elements in the amalgam are separated once more: the perceived scene becomes ideated, as in the view from Todt Hill looking over the Vanderbilt farm, or else it is submerged in sensation, as in Early Autumn with Fisherman and Haywain. In the second in stance, one ends with third-rate Constable, in the first with an approximation of Inness; but in either event the center has been lost.

Jerrold Lanes