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Title

: Jasper Francis Cropsey's Catskill Mountain House

Author

Kathleen M. Bennewitz

Date

1995

Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
During the 19th century, adventurous tourists and earnest nature lovers flocked to the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York where they enjoyed spectacular views of the Hudson Valley and such natural wonders as Kaaterskill Clove and Falls. Many artists, including Jasper Cropsey (1823-1900), also frequented this picturesque wilderness that would become the country's first vacationland. Known as members of the Hudson River School, these painters captured the area's sweeping vistas in their sketchbooks and on canvas.Catskill Mountain House, executed in 1855, is one of the paintings that established Jasper Cropsey as the 19th-century master of American autumnal scenery. The white colonnaded building perched on an escarpment more than 2,200 feet above the valley is the Catskill Mountain House. Known for its splendid amenities and commanding views, this grand hotel, which operated from 1826 until the early 1900s, was a popular destination for wealthy New Yorkers who traveled there by train or coach during the summer and fall. From the neoclassical porch, guests could witness dazzling sunrises and sunsets; inside they enjoyed fine dining, dancing, and other social activities. Artists, however, rarely stayed at the Mountain House due to the high cost of rooms; instead, they had to secure more affordable accommodations nearby.Illustrations of the Mountain House appeared in 19th-century tourist guides to the region and in popular magazines, as well as in engraved portfolios celebrating the native landscape—such as Nathaniel P. Willis's American Scenery (1838-40) and William Cullen Bryant's Picturesque America (1874). Artists also painted it frequently. The Institute's version of this particular Cropsey painting of the hotel is based on a drawing the artist made on a sketching trip in June 1852. On that sojourn Cropsey, paper and pencil in hand, hiked North Mountain in search of the vantage point where Thomas Cole, founder of the Hudson River School, had placed his easel eight years earlier. In fact, Cole's 1844 painting A View of Two Lakes and Mountain House, Catskill Mountains, Morning (now in the Brooklyn Museum) probably was Cropsey's model.Artists of the period considered a wilderness area like the Catskills to be a "studio of nature." In his 1835 article "Essay on American Scenery," Cole wrote "rural nature. . . [is] an exhaustless mine from which the poet and the painter have brought forth such wondrous treasures. . . where all may drink, and be awakened to a deeper feeling of the works of genius, a keener perception of the beauty of our existence." In his series of essays "Letters on Landscape Painting," published in 1855 in The Crayon, Cole's successor Asher B. Durand encouraged American painters to become familiar with the infinite variety of native scenery and the "forms of Nature yet spared from the pollution of civilization" before going abroad "in search of material for the exercise of your pencil."After hearing other artists who had just returned to New York City describe their experiences in the Catskill and White Mountains, Cropsey too became a regular visitor to these natural sanctuaries. By the 1850s his principal artistic subjects were idealized views of eastern mountains and valleys. Like Cole, whom he greatly admired, Cropsey believed that what critics described as the "wild scenery of the Catskills and the romantic scenery of the Hudson" represented America's mythic past. Unlike Cropsey's 1865 painting Starrucca Viaduct, Pennsylvania, currently exhibited in "Made in America: Ten Centuries of American Art," which celebrates both nature and industry, Catskill Mountain House, painted ten years earlier, depicts a popular tourist attraction as a solitary classical ruin. By emphasizing the undisturbed surroundings of the foreground and by excluding all references to human life and modern industry, Cropsey seems to suggest in this scene of autumnal glory that unspoiled nature can prevail over man's civilizing efforts.Kathleen Motes Bennewitz is the Institute's educational-materials writer.Related ImagesCatskill Mountain House, 1855
Oil on canvas
The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, bequest of Mrs. Lillian Lawhead Rinderer in memory of her brother, William A. Lawhead, and the William Hood Dunwoody FundStarrucca Viaduct, Pennsylvania, 1865
Oil on canvas
The Toledo Museum of Art, purchased with funds from the Florence Scott Libbey Bequest in memory of her father, Maurice A. Scott
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Source: Kathleen Motes Bennewitz, "Jasper Francis Cropsey's <i>Catskill Mountain House,</i>" <i>Arts</i> 18, no. 2 (February 1995): 14.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009