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Brook Study at Warwick, New York

Not on view

Brook Study at Warwick, New York

Artist: David Johnson (American, 1827 - 1908)

Date: 1873
Medium: Oil on canvas, with an original 1870s-style frame
Framed: 38 x 52 x 5in. (96.5 x 132.1cm)
Overall: 26 x 40in. (66 x 101.6cm)
Signed: Lower right: 'DJ 1873' Verso: 'Brook Study at Warwick NY DJ 1873'
Credit Line: Proctor Collection
Object number: PC. 62
Label Text
The impressive frame on this painting was probably in place when Helen Elizabeth Munson Williams purchased Johnson's painting at the Utica Art Association's 1878 exhibition. The combination of decorative elements on the three principal moldings, featuring geometric and naturalistic patterns juxtaposed in novel combinations, is typical of the most sophisticated frames made in the 1870s. It's original, bright gold finish can be seen along the bottom edge where a label has been removed.

The outermost edge is decorated with an overlapping ("imbricated") leaf and berry motif. The middle cove features bellflowers and ivy leaves against a textured stipple ground. Two rows of beads border the inner cove, which is decorated with a spade-shaped anthemion pattern. This neoclassical motif was a popular design element in frames made during this decade. Owen Jones published an example of an anthemion in his influential book, Grammar of Ornament (1856). The small leaves and ribbons that cover the miter joints at the corners are typical of a well-made frame.

Paul D. Schweizer
August 2010

Text Entries

David Johnson was interested in recording nature on canvas rather than celebrating its drama or majesty. Largely self-taught, Johnson took lessons with Jasper F. Cropsey in 1850,(1) and also painted with John F. Kensett and John W. Casilear early in his career.(2) Like these artists and most of the landscape painters of his generation, Johnson traveled to sketch at many of the popular painting locations near the Hudson River and in the White Mountains. In setting up his compositions, he consistently selected views that emphasized the pleasant aspect of the site, not its sublime or mysterious element. Accepted as a member of the National Academy of Design in 1860, he exhibited at the organization’s yearly exhibitions and also had works shown at other locations including the Paris Salon of 1877.

Johnson was a careful and methodical draughtsman. His surviving drawings attest to his awareness of morphological differences in natural forms; studies of oaks, elms, maples, and pines show how the artist sought to create detailed renderings of leaf and bark structures, as well as the overall growth pattern of each species. Inland rock formations also fascinated the artist. In a number of paintings, such as Brook Study at Warwick or Forest Rocks (Cleveland Museum of Art), the rocks are actually the subject rather than incidental elements in the composition. As his career continued, Johnson’s painting style was strongly influenced by the tonal European Barbizon landscapes which were popular in France. His paintings from the 1880s and 1890s are an unusual combination of the darker and richer colors of French paintings by Theodore Rousseau and Jean Francois Millet and the artist’s own continued interest in exacting detail.

The Utica picture is a well-documented painting. Exhibited at the Centennial in Philadelphia in 1876, it was also shown in 1878 at the Utica Art Association where it was sold to Mrs. James Watson Williams. In a letter to George W. Adams, President of the Art Association, Johnson stated that this painting was “painted entirely upon the spot and is, as far as I was able to make it so, a literal portrait of the place.”(3) He commented further that he was happy to know that the painting would be in a collection that included a painting by the French nineteenth-century artist Jean Baptiste Camille Corot, an artist he admired, “although I see things and put them down diametrically opposite to the great master.”(4) In Johnson’s earlier landscapes, the exacting attention to detail sometimes gave a certain static or labored quality to the composition, but in Brook Study at Warwick the artist had clearly mastered the art of painting precise detail without sacrificing the life of the picture.

According to the artist, the brook at Warwick, in Orange County, New York, was a place often used by “pleasure parties,”(5) but this painting gives the viewer the impression that the subject is removed from the disturbances of civilization. One tree stump at the lower left is the only obvious indication of the alteration of the landscape by man. An astute observer of nature, however, might also note that the trees in this hemlock forest are relatively small, indicating that the land had been cleared in the not too distant past. The soft light and the pleasant green tonalities reinforce the inviting quality of the landscape; nature is presented in its friendly guise as the perfect backdrop for a picnic. In many of Johnson’s landscapes with rocks, people are depicted to indicate the scale and confirm the idea that the setting is one which is not foreboding to man. Brook Study at Warwick needs nothing else to make it more inviting; the sunlight reflecting on the rocks, the quiet pool, and the warm green of the trees combine to create the effect of a pleasing landscape where visitors are welcome.



1. William S. Talbot, Jasper F Cropsey 1823-1900 (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1977), p. 71.

2. An 1849 painting of Haines Falls (private collection) has an inscription on the back that reads: “My first Study from Nature /made in company with J.F. Kensett &/J.W. Casilear.” See John I.H. Baur, “ ‘the exact brushwork of Mr. David Johnson,’ al1 American Landscape Painter, 1827- 1908,” American Art Journal, vol. 12 (Autumn 1980), figs. 2, 3, and 33.

3. David Johnson letter to George W. Adams, March 18, 1878, Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute.

4. Johnson to Adams. Johnson’s interest in Corot can be seen in one of his sketchbooks, where there is a copy of one of the Barbizon master’s paintings. See Baur, figs. 11 and 38.

5. Johnson to Adams.


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