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Indiana University Art Museum

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American Harvesting

Jasper F. Cropsey, American Harvesting (1851)

The subject of landscape has fascinated American artists since the Revolutionary era. In contrast to the decaying and depleted landscapes of over-civilized Europe, these New World artists saw America as place of boundless possibility, purity, and freedom. Many of the paintings of Jasper Francis Cropsey (1823–1900) and his colleagues showcased the majesty, bounty, and optimism that many Americans felt with the new democracy.

In the mid-nineteenth century, a group of American landscape artists, known as the Hudson River School, rose to prominence. Following in the footsteps of their mentor Thomas Cole, the great American landscape painter, these artists examined the uncorrupted countryside and virgin wilderness around the Hudson River Valley in New York State with the sharp eye of a naturalist and the heart of a storyteller.

Cropsey was one of the more famous painters of the second generation of this school of painters. Born on a farm near Staten Island, Cropsey began his artistic training at age fourteen with an extensive apprenticeship under the New York architect Joseph Trench. Here, he studied watercolor and was trained in architectural drawing. Trench taught Cropsey to include landscape in his architectural renderings, a balance of civilization and wilderness which soon became a recognizable feature of the artist's style until his death in 1900.

In American Harvesting, Cropsey presents America as a pure and prosperous Eden, where, as if by divine mandate, human beings live effortlessly as masters of pristine nature. Here, progress is unimpeded, and the wilderness of the beautiful American landscape inevitably yields to the civilization of the American family farm.

For Cropsey, painting landscapes was much more than a pleasing representation of natural geography. Based on traditional landscape methods, Cropsey made precise drawings directly from nature and combined them to create a larger, composite landscape painting. His painting American Harvesting reflects the Romantics' philosophical conviction that the sublimity of God is revealed through natural features such as infused light, magnificent clouds, and expansive vistas. American Harvesting was highly influential and critically acclaimed in its day. Its idyllic depiction of rural farm life was widely reproduced and cherished as an embodiment of hope and prosperity.