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1845 Letter to Hudson River Artist Jasper Cropsey: A Richly Detailed Discussion of the Current State of American Art
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Relates a conversation with Peter Rothermel on the need to nurture an “American School of Design,” with sharp criticisms of the deleterious effects of European study on budding talent as seen in Emanuel Leutze’s latest work.

[Rothermel] during the evening suggested one thing as tending peculiarly to build up an American School of Design without the extraneous influences that all young men going abroad are subject too. it was that an embargo to prevent the leaving of artists for abroad, for a space of 50 years, be put in operation, thus causing their productions to be pure emanations of their own early & intuitive feeling…

JOHN MACKIE FALCONER. Autograph Letter Signed, to Jasper Cropsey, Washington, D.C., January 15, 1845. 4 pp., 7⅞ x 9⅞ in. Includes envelope.

Inventory #25492       Price: $1,250

Complete Transcript

[Postscript in top margin:] I forgot my subject for sketch, but leave it with you to receive for me on my week either the “Noisy Scene” or “Passing Away”-either you think best general subject

                                                                        Washington D.C. Thursday Evg

                                                                        Jany 15 1845

Dear Cropsey

            Ere this you will have heard by Mr Ridner[1] of my getting to Philadelphia & calling on & being kindly received by Mr Rothermel[2] & Mr Sartain.[3] I spent the evening very comfortably with Mr R & am really glad of having made another acquaintance of so much practical information & so peculiarly gifted with an appreciation of the ideal in beauty. Mr R during the evening suggested one thing as tending peculiarly to build up an American School of Design without the extraneous influences that all young men going abroad are subject too. it was that an embargo to prevent the leaving of artists for abroad, for a space of 50 years, be put in operation, thus causing their productions to be pure emanations of their own early & intuitive feelings, to support this he instanced 2 or 3 pictures of Leutze[4] which have a much fresher & purer style than any he has recently produced, or rather since his location at Dusseldorf. having seen 2 of these pictures referred to, I do really think they are far beyond his last, in all the desirable attributes pertaining to colour. the drawing is not perhaps so scholastic & correct, but I think the proportions of the figures are as good if not better. part of the remedy suitable to our present state & as advancing future excellence must result with the buyers exercising a more discriminating <2> judgement in purchasing than has lately been current & for this end it will be well for artists to put fully within the reach of purchasers their real opinions of others work, preventing to a certain extent the injudicious acquisition of works from sources that have run out or are more full of flimsy prettiness than crude but advancing progression. The dissatisfaction at the Art unions acting on principles of buying the best & worst pictures seems great with those I have met, that have been interested & I do not think will advance its interests with the knowing admirers of art. purchasers let good pictures painted in their midst, go abegging yet buy anything with red gowns or frocks that turns up & it should cause little wonder that artists go abroad & become tinged with the changed tones of times deeds & not the original beauties of old masters as they appeared in their full vigor. artists here have a feeling of capacities to cope with their brothers abroad & the increase of remuneration swells the temptations making them think comparatively little of home times & Home subjects & realizing fully the prophet hath no Honour in his own country. Yet we must hope for better things & the dawn certainly has commenced. What I have seen In Phila & Balte give real evidence on that point & afford encouragement to young artists to do carefully & circumspectly every thing pertaining to their art & their standing in society, to enable them to reap with satisfaction to themselves the approaching harvest <3>

            It is very likely Mr R will go abroad to avail himself of the advantages of costume, models & increased prices yet he fears a falling of & leaning on something not his gift by nature. He thought our New York school inclined to the Ingham manipulation[5] while the Philadelphians followed Sully as their leading spirit.[6] Every thing I have seen there is a drawing out of Sullys mannerisms in mats of light & shade, colours &c  He expressed much anxiety to see the later works of Elliot[7] Matteson[8] & yourself, thinks of being in N York next spring, enquired after Hicks[9] who had failed to write him, also for Duggan[10] has anything been heard from him since I left?

After getting through with my Baltimore business I waited with your introductory on Mr Gillet[11] who received me very kindly & invited me to tea with him. having a business letter to write by the return mail I was forced to decline it but promised to go at a later hour of the evening, which I did. The streets are very badly lighted & his house at the “west end” so I enlisted the services of a Boy (who begged me to give him a levy to go to museum with) to conduct me there[;] after a smart walk I found my guide was out in his knowledge of the track[.] I discharged him & found a communicative darkie “Boy” (some 40 years of age) who knew “de place”. Mr G’s collection I was much pleased with [-] many of his pictures are fine & choice specimens of the respective artists. I think Musidora by Sully the best & most sterling work of his I have met with.[12] His Rothermel as a whole I think the nearest perfection, the Chapman Boy snaring has better painting than he now gives us.[13] he has a fine Birch[14] likewise a Waugh.[15] The Ruth & Boaz by Miller[16] we had <4> at last exhibition. His own discrimination does not allow him rank it with his choice pictures. We had some pleasant chat of arts matters & I am inclined to term him a judicious patron of the present school & free from any admiration of the wretched copies of Beatrice Cencis,[17] Titians Daughters[18] &c that are so plentiful in our city’s west end parlours. He thinks the art Union have sent very poor specimens of art to Baltimore this year & as his influence aided them with an accession of some 40 members his opinion is entitled to some weight. Mr G informs me he intends going to reside permanently in NY next spring & he seems much pleased with the opportunity that will be afforded him of being in nearer contact with the artists who seem now to hold much weight in his estimation. his invitation to visit him again on my return was given & I departed about 10 oclock to prepare for a night ride to Washington at 12 pm from where I am now scrawling, surrounded by sleek looking Congressmen of all lengths & Breadths but all seemingly punctual at meal time & never excited save at those hours. from Baltimore 40 miles we took till 3 this morning, & then took Bed till ¼ before 8, ½ past 8 took Breakfast, southern fare in shape of Hominy, Indian Bread &c making its appearance. at 10 went to the national institute, a very extensive building devoted to the reception of models for patents, also the fruits of specimens of the various objects acquired by the late exploring expedition. I went to the Capitol, Treasury Buildings &c but my arm is fatigued having written 4 letters this afternoon (letters however all of duty & affection) & I must bid you adieu. My recollections of the Cary & Town Collections I will likely describe to Matteson. hope you are all well & coming on neatly

in Haste yours J M Falconer

[Postscript on inside flap of envelope:] I start for the steamboat in ½ an hour. it goes off at 3 a.m., going on board to night I get a sleep while the boat goes on the Potomac. chances for sketching as yet have been nothing. to morrow promises rain  8 pm

Historical Background

A small group of artists founded the New York Drawing Association in 1825 in New York City to “promote the fine arts in America through instruction and exhibition.” The following year, they changed the name to the National Academy of The Arts of Design, and in 1828, to simply The National Academy of Design, a title it held for the next 170 years and recently readopted. The Academy was and is a professional honorary association, a school, and a museum. The academy has memberships at the associate and full membership levels.

The American Art Union was a subscription-based organization active from 1839 to 1851 to educate the American public on national art and to support the viewing and sales of art by artists in the United States and American artists abroad. It played a significant role in increasing the art literacy of Americans and developing a taste for an American kind of art.

John Mackie Falconer (1820-1903) was born in Scotland and came to the United States in 1836. He became a merchant in New York and devoted his leisure time to painting in oils and water colors. He studied at the National Academy of Design, the Graham Art School, and the Brooklyn Academy of Art. He became an honorary member of the National Academy of Design in 1851 and was friends with many artists of the Hudson River School, including Jasper Francis Cropsey. He is known for his studies of older buildings and ruins. After the Civil War, he devoted himself to etching and helped revive etching in the United States. Falconer etched on copper from his own works and those of other artists.

Jasper Francis Cropsey (1823-1900) was born on Staten Island, New York, and taught himself to draw while absent from school because of ill health. He obtained an education as an architect and set up an office in 1843. He studied at the National Academy of Design and first exhibited there in 1844. The following year, he was elected as an associate member and devoted himself exclusively to landscape painting. He traveled in Europe from 1847 to 1849 and became a full member of the Academy in 1851. That year, he also produced a pair of paintings, The Spirit of War and The Spirit of Peace, which were widely celebrated and displayed. Cropsey’s interest in architecture was a strong influence in his paintings with their precise arrangement and outline of forms. As a first-generation member of the Hudson River School, he painted landscapes with lavish colors. He believed landscapes were the highest form of art and that nature was a direct manifestation of God. Although he died in anonymity, his works were rediscovered in the 1960s, and his works are now found in most major American art museums.

Condition

Overall very good.


[1] John P. Ridner (1810-1873) was a mahogany merchant in New York City and served as a manager of the American Art Union. In 1850, he published The Artist’s Chromatic Handbook. Being a Practical Treatise on Pigments: Their Properties and Uses in Painting.

[2] Peter F. Rothermel (1817–1895), most noted for his paintings Columbus Before the Queen (1841), Patrick Henry before the Virginia House of Burgesses (1851), and Battle of Gettysburg (1871), was a Philadelphia artist who served as director of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts from 1847 to 1855. Despite the feelings he expressed to Falconer in 1845, Rothermel traveled in Europe from 1856 to 1859. He specialized in portraits and dramatic historical paintings.

[3] John Sartain (1808-1897) was an English artist who began to make mezzotints before migrating to the United States in 1830 and settling in Philadelphia. He became a prominent engraver and mezzotint artist, including engravings for magazines.

[4] Emanuel Leutze (1816–1868) was a German-born painter who immigrated to the United States as a child and settled in Philadelphia. Best known for his painting Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851), Leutze is associated with Dusseldorf school of painting. After an 1840 painting attracted attention, he studied in Dusseldorf and Munich, where he also painted Return of Columbus in Chains to Cadiz (1842) and Columbus Before the Queen (1843), among others. He returned to the United States in 1859 and opened a studio in New York City.

[5] Charles Cromwell Ingham (1796-1863) was an Irish portrait painter who studied in Dublin before immigrating to the United States after the War of 1812. In the 1820s, he was a founder of the National Academy of Design and served as its vice president for a number of years.

[6] Thomas Sully (1783-1872) was born in England but migrated as a child with his family to Charleston, South Carolina. After brief periods in Boston and New York, he settled in 1806 in Philadelphia, where he remained for the rest of his life. He was best known as a portrait painter and produced more than 2,600 paintings during his career.

[7] Charles Loring Elliott (1812-1868) was an American painter known for his portraits. After studying in New York City and painting portraits in central New York for a decade, Elliott moved back to New York City in 1845 and was elected to the National Academy of Design in 1846. He was considered the best portraitist of his day and painted portraits of James Fenimore Cooper, fellow artist A. B. Durand, and many others.

[8] Tompkins H. Matteson (1813-1884) was an American painter who studied at the National Academy of Design and ran a studio in New York from 1841 to 1850. His paintings drew on historical, patriotic, and religious themes, and his most famous works include Washington Delivering His Inaugural Address (1848, widely distributed as an engraving), Examination of a Witch (1853), and The Scarlet Letter (1860).

[9] Thomas Hicks (1823-1890) studied art at the Academy of Philadelphia and the National Academy in New York before sailing for Europe in 1845 and remaining there until 1849. He was elected to the National Academy in 1851 and was president of the Artists’ Fund Society of New York from 1873 to 1885. He painted portraits of many of the leading political and cultural figures of the period.

[10] Peter Paul Duggan (1810-1861) was born in Ireland and immigrated to the United States at a young age. He was a professor of drawing at the New York Academy before retiring because of ill health. He worked mainly in crayon and occasionally painted in oils. After he retired, Duggan moved to London and then Paris.

[11] Lewis Warrington Gillet (1816-1859) was a businessman in Baltimore and New York who assembled a large art collection. When he moved to New York, Gillet established a tea brokerage firm there.

[12] Musidora (1813-1835) is the only known nude by Thomas Sully. Inspired by James Thomson’s 1727 poem “Summer,” it depicts the moment that Damon discovers Musidora bathing in the forest. Impressed with his gentlemanly conduct, Musidora immediately pledges her love for him. Although the story was a common subject among artists, Sully’s interpretation uniquely places the viewer in the role of Damon. It is currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

[13] John Gadsby Chapman (1808-1889 was an American artist, famous for his Baptism of Pocahontas (1840). He began his study of art in Philadelphia but moved to New York City in 1834 and became a member of the National Academy of Design. One of his early paintings was Boy Setting a Snare (1838).

[14] Thomas Birch (1779-1851) was an English-born American painter of portraits and maritime scenes. He also completed an important engraving in 1801 of the unfinished U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.

[15] Samuel Bell Waugh (1814-1885) was an American portrait, landscape and moving panorama painter. He first displayed paintings in Toronto in 1834. He studied in Italy from 1837 to 1842, when he returned and settled in Philadelphia, where he became one of the leading portrait painters. He later painted portraits of Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant.

[16] Alfred Jacob Miller (1810-1874) was an American artist best known for his paintings of trappers and Native Americans. In the 1830s, he painted portraits in Baltimore and New Orleans before spending two years in Scotland and England from 1840 to 1842. He then returned to Baltimore, where he specialized in portraits.

[17] Beatrice Cenci (1577-1599) was a young Roman noblewoman who murdered her abusive father. After a sensational murder trial, she was condemned and beheaded. Around 1600, the Italian Baroque painter Guido Reni painted a portrait of her that inspired many later romantic literary and musical artists, though the attribution of the painting to Reni is disputed.

[18] Titian’s Daughter (ca. 1555) is a painting by Titian (ca. 1488-1576), the master Italian painter of the Venetian school.


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