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Castle by a Lake

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Castle by a Lake

Artist: Jasper Francis Cropsey (American, 1823-1900)

Date: 1855
Medium: Oil on canvas
Framed: 25 1/2 x 34 5/8 x 3 1/4in. (64.8 x 87.9 x 8.3cm)
Overall: 17 1/2 x 27in. (44.5 x 68.6cm)
Signed: Lower left of center: 'J.F. Cropsey 1855'
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 60.195
Text Entries

America had no castles. Its unique past was to be seen in vast untouched wilderness, firsthand evidence of a natural history long vanished from the Old World. American writers such as William Cullen Bryant and Ralph Waldo Emerson, and painters such as Thomas Cole extolled the moral message to be found in primeval nature. Jasper Francis Cropsey followed such admonitions and drew carefully after nature, but he was also one of the American artists who were strongly attracted to ruins, castles, and other European monuments to human history.

During and after his first journey abroad as a young artist, from 1847 to 1849, Cropsey sketched and painted castles as well as landscapes in Italy, Scotland, and England.(1) Trained first as an architect, the painter was usually faithful to the appearance of such actual historical monuments as the citadel at Naples, (2) Doune Castle, (3) in the Trossach Mountains of Scotland, and Kenilworth Castle.(4)

While nature, carefully studied, was a core concern of mid-century American painters, the landscape as drama and allegory had substantial public appeal. In addition to keenly observed American views Cropsey also painted, in the 1850s, some dramatic interpretations of both American and European subjects. Contact with the Old Masters in Europe and the contemporary English anecdotal history painters stimulated Cropsey and other American painters; and the writings of Sir Walter Scott made events set in feudal times especially popular.

In the Utica painting of 1855 a fortified castle is set in the midst of a sunny landscape. It is one of several European subjects painted just before the artist’s second trip abroad, from 1856 to 1863, many of which appeared in an April 1856 auction sale held in his studio.(5) It does not appear to resemble any known fortress, but we are persuaded of its actuality by the detailed naturalism of its landscape setting. A brush fluent in the vocabulary of placid water, springy plants, ancient shadowed trees, and grazing deer convinces us of the setting’s reality. No matter that the castle is a bit fanciful in design and somewhat insubstantially modeled, the fluttering banners and figures atop the walls welcome a party returning on horseback and transport us to a feudal time and place. The effect of a view into another era is made even more strongly by the oval format, a shape not common for Cropsey.

In 1851 he had painted Spirit of War (National Gallery of Art), in which, under a lurid sky, a huge medieval castle looms darkly atop a rocky outcropping while knights in armor ride out to avenge the sack of a smoldering village.(6) In Hawking Party in the Time of Queen Elizabeth of 1853 (private collection), a festive hunting party rides from woods into a clearing beneath a castle whose walls and towers are made massive by strong light and shadow.(7) Cropsey evoked the violence and the pageantry in dramatic images of a distant historic period. He was criticized by some for excessive detail to the detriment of general coherence and harmony, but such historical compositions were nonetheless well regarded by those who esteemed moral didacticism.

In Castle by a Lake, however, Cropsey avoids the overt melodrama, which can be distracting in some of his histories. He transports us back to an earlier age, not with an image of dramatic heroism or picturesque pageantry, but one of everyday reality made convincing by its close attention to nature.



1. Williams S. Talbot, Jasper F. Cropsey 1823—1900 (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1977), PP- 47ff. 70ff

2. Pencil on paper, 1848, Talbot, p. 344,, no. 30.

3. Oil on canvas, 1848, ibid., p. 351, no. 41.

4. Pencil and wash, 1849, ibid., p. 354, no. 4.5.

5. In 1855 Cropsey sold Chepstow Castle, and in the 1856 sale there was a picture titled Chepstoiv Castle, 18 X 27” (Talbot, pp. 314, 4.88). Given the habit of citing window (image) dimensions rather than full canvas size, it is tempting to identify it as the Utica picture. There is, however, no resemblance between the actual ruins ofChepstow and the architecture of the castle in the Utica painting.

6. Talbot, p. 365, no. 60.

7. Ibid., p. 372, no. 7o.


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