Published: August 24, 2004
ON-HUDSON, N.Y. – Nestled among the steep cliffs above the gritty Hudson River waterfront is a most unexpected aerie that was once the home of painter Jasper Francis Cropsey (1823-1900). The pleasing yellow and white Gothic Revival cottage, meticulously restored by and now the home of the Newington-Cropsey Foundation, has become a rich repository of the artist’s oil paintings, watercolors and sketches.
The homestead has come full circle since Cropsey moved into it in the 1880s, having been sold from the family in the early Twentieth Century, only to be reacquired by Barbara Newington, Cropsey’s great-granddaughter. With the purchase, Newington and her husband established the foundation more than a quarter century ago. Since that time, they have added galleries, studios and an academy to the property.
The galleries and studios have been filled with Cropsey’s best works, the academy filled with students. Lush gardens were planted, inviting paths wind among the impressive buildings and the lavish manufactured pond. Their efforts have created an unprecedented testament to the Hudson River School master and the effect is extraordinary.
Cropsey was among the second wave of Hudson River painters influenced by the romantic aesthetic of the Victorian age. The era was characterized by the curious blend of the picturesque and the classical that permeated American painting and sculpture and other arts. Monumentally idealized renderings of nature, interpretations of the American wilderness that still lurked just beyond the garden gate, tamed and celebrated the formerly fearsome wilderness.
Cropsey himself was a devotee of harmony in all things, and his romantic and allegorical work of the 1840s suggests the influence of Thomas Cole and Asher B. Durand. His earliest works showed autumn in all its glorious color and in stunning detail, earning him the sobriquet “painter of autumn.”
Cropsey and his fellow Hudson River School artists worked in a time before photography. They made arduous treks up the Hudson to the Catskills and the Adirondacks, to the White Mountains, Maine and Newport, capturing those landscapes. They brought home images that described lands and vistas the Nineteenth Century American had not yet seen, but could be quite proud of. This was the era of Manifest Destiny and westward expansion. The grander and more gorgeous the landscapes, the better. Some artists viewed the American landscape as a source of divine inspiration and expression; some wove moral messages into their pictures. Depictions were dramatic; allegory was bold.
Cropsey’s later paintings had a more luminous and panoramic quality than his earlier allegorical paintings. The Industrial Age was encroaching on the pristine landscapes.
Among America’s more prolific painters, he produced about 1,300 oil paintings and 400 to 500 watercolors, along with sketches and impressive architectural drawings. By the late 1880s, he worked more in watercolors than in previous decades.
Cropsey was born on Staten Island where wide farmlands gave him subject matter for much of his early work. Childhood frailty confined him at home for long periods, during which he sketched and drew constantly; at 13, he built an elaborate architectural model of a house using tools he made himself. The model was awarded a prize at the 1837 fair of the Mechanics Institute in New York City, and captured the eye of New York architect Joseph Trench, who offered Cropsey an apprenticeship in his firm. Eighteen months into the apprenticeship, Cropsey’s drawing and painting skills were such that the responsibility for all drawings in the office became his. But by the time he was 20, he knew what he wanted. He changed his business card from “Jasper Cropsey, Architect” to “Jasper Cropsey, Artist.”
That year he left Trench’s office to devote himself to his painting and architecture became secondary. The same year, he designed a house and two churches in Staten Island and first ventured to Greenwood Lake and Lake Wawayanda on the New York-New Jersey border. That area was to have a profound impact on his work.
His first exhibition, a view of Greenwood Lake that has not been seen since the late 1800s, was shown in 1844 at the National Academy of Design, which offered the 21-year-old artist an associate membership. Cropsey spent much time around the lakes throughout his life and painted them at least 13 times.
By 1847, Cropsey was already a well-established painter. That year he married Maria Cooley, whom he had met and courted at Greenwood Lake, and the couple traveled in England and Scotland for the summer and then settled in Rome. There the pair was welcomed into the group of American artists who gathered there to study and work. Cropsey set himself up in the studio that was previously occupied by Thomas Cole. They returned to New York two years later and Cropsey continued to visit upstate New York and New England to paint and sketch. His work continued to be well received in America and abroad.
During the 1850s, Cropsey produced four major and remarkable allegorical paintings, “The Millennial Age,” “Days of Elizabeth,” “Spirit of War” and “Spirit of Peace.” “The Millennial Age,” a biblical allegory, and “Days of Elizabeth,” based on the writings of Sir Walter Scott, are on view at the Newington-Cropsey Foundation.
“The Spirit of War” and “The Spirit of Peace” were meant to hang as a pair but became separated in the early Twentieth Century. “The Spirit of Peace” went to Charles Knox Smith, whose estate is now the Woodmere Art Museum in Philadelphia. “The Spirit of War” disappeared, only resurfacing in a barn in the Adirondacks in 1978. It hangs in the National Gallery of Art today.
In 1856, Cropsey conducted an auction of his paintings and used the proceeds to take himself and his family back to London where his work was again exceptionally well received. His monumental and boldly colorful 1860 “Autumn on the Hudson River” was greatly acclaimed and Queen Victoria asked to meet him. (The painting is now in the collection of the National Gallery of Art.) The Cropseys remained in England, working and living among other artists, until 1863 when they returned home abruptly, largely because of the Civil War. The English were sympathetic to the Confederate cause, and life became uncomfortable for Yankees. Although their plan was to return to England to live out their days, they remained in New York. A friend shipped the entire contents of their London apartment a few years later.
Several years later, Cropsey designed and built “Aladdin,” a 29-room house and studio on 45 acres near Greenwood Lake and Lake Wawayanda, where the family summered until 1885 when he bought the house in Hastings-on-Hudson that he called “Ever Rest.” He added a studio to the house similar to the one he had designed for “Aladdin” and lived and worked there until his death in 1900.
The Newington-Cropsey Foundation was established 1977 to preserve, maintain and display the art, paintings and studio of Jasper Cropsey and to illustrate life in the Hudson River Valley during the Nineteenth Century. Founded by Cropsey’s great-granddaughter and her husband, Barbara and John Newington, it has a further stated purpose: to provide educational programs to advance the basic values of the Nineteenth Century as exemplified by the works of Hudson River artists.
The Newingtons worked tirelessly to acquire “Ever Rest,” which passed from the family some years earlier, and to fill it with Cropsey works. No simple task. The interiors are filled with Cropsey’s sketches and studies, and some pieces of furniture that belonged to him, along with the clothing he and his wife wore when they were presented at court. Since so much else had passed from the family, furniture and accessories of the period were gathered painstakingly to complete the rooms.
The foundation acquired additional land below the house behind the train station in order to build a handsome state-of-the-art gallery of art, a sculpture garden, called the Garden of Great Ideas, and an academy of art. New also is the caretaker’s cottage along the lower drive. The buildings are imposing and the gardens are exceptional.
The 23,000-square-foot Gallery of Art and cultural studies center is home to the foundation’s permanent collection, temporary exhibit space, the offices of the American Arts Quarterly and foundation administrative offices.
The works on view are predominantly Cropsey’s, but they are complemented by plaster casts of classical and renaissance sculpture and reliefs from the Parthenon and the Baptistry door in Florence, Italy. The building was completed in 1994 and is certainly impressive. Above the main entrance is the specially commissioned bronze, “The Herald,” which trails a banner bearing the legend, “Truth, Beauty, Goodness.” The rotunda is modeled after the Parthenon with temple niches.
The Cropsey gallery is a grand octagonal room in the Gothic Revival style, modeled after the studios Cropsey built at “Aladdin” and up the hill at “Ever Rest.” A stone fireplace, also in the Gothic Revival style, is flanked by Nineteenth Century windows from a church in Newport, R.I.
Cropsey’s architectural renderings are on view in an upstairs gallery. They include drawings for St Luke’s Church in Rossville, Staten Island, N.Y.; his home “Aladdin;” the studio at “Ever Rest” and a New York townhouse. Of particular interest is the series of drawings for what would have been simply beautiful cast-iron stairs and platforms for the elevated stations of the Sixth Avenue railway. Each bears his unique stamp of Gothic Victorian and the perfectly serene. Railroad man George Pullman commissioned Cropsey to design a home for him in Long Branch, N.J., and Cropsey also decorated one of his Pullman locomotives.
Drawings for mural decorations that Cropsey was invited to produce for the drill shed at the Seventh Regiment Armory on Park Avenue in New York City are also on view. He was in very good company: other figures asked to decorate the rooms at the armory included Louis Comfort Tiffany, Alexander Roux Co, Herter Brothers and Pottier Stymus.
The Newington-Cropsey Garden of Great Ideas is a program dedicated to the creation of a sculpture garden on the grounds and on college campuses. Student sculpture has been placed at Georgetown University and Vanderbilt University. Students at the Academy of Art are trained in drawing and sculpture according to the tenets of the Hudson River School.
Tours of the Cropsey gallery and homestead are by reservation only and are given by staff members. The homestead is open from 10 am to 1 pm, Monday through Friday; for reservations, 914-478-1372. The homestead is closed to the public during the months of December, January and August.
The Cropsey gallery is open from 1 to 5 pm, Monday through Friday; reservations, 914-478-7990. The gallery is closed during January and August. Passive viewing of the grounds and architecture is allowed 1 to 5 pm weekdays without an appointment.
The foundation recommends that people interested in viewing the entire complex book a reservation at the homestead for early morning, enjoy lunch at a local eatery, then visit the gallery in the afternoon.
The Cropsey research library is open by appointment only. The library is nonlending, limited photocopying services are available.
The Newington-Cropsey Foundation is located directly behind Metro-North’s Hastings-on-Hudson train station at 25 Cropsey Lane. For information, 914-478-7990, or www.newingtoncropsey.com.
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