James Fenimore Cooper as Art Critic and Connoisseur

Luis A. Iglesias (University of Southern Mississipi)

Presented at the Cooper Panel on “Cooper and Visual Culture” at the 2016 Conference of the American Literature Association in San Francisco, California.

Originally published in the James Fenimore Cooper Society Journal Spring/Summer, 2016, pp. 13-17.

Copyright © 2016, James Fenimore Cooper Society.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

Louvre Gallery

The Gallery of the Louvre, by Samuel F.B. Morse, 1831-33.

{p. 13} Through his novels, especially the Leather-Stocking Tales, James Fenimore Cooper has had a significant influence on the visual arts. His tales have inspired many contemporary artists, including Thomas Cole, Asher Durand, Thomas Chambers, and John Quidor. However, this paper will draw attention to Cooper’s promotion of aesthetic appreciation more broadly and focus on his connoisseurship of the arts. While his cultivation of artistic appreciation seemed to have arisen late (much like his writing career), showing little interest in the fine arts earlier in his life, we do find traces of his knowledge of the fine arts early in his writing. In Precaution (1820), for example, he made passing reference to Joshua Reynolds, the president of the Royal Academy, London. However, it was during his sojourn in Europe that Cooper honed his skills as art critic and connoisseur. It is important to note that for Cooper, connoisseurship was not just about improving his personal appreciation of art, but also, and more importantly, as a means to improve national taste as a means to promote national trade and transatlantic commerce.

Cooper points out in Gleanings in Europe: France that Americans “overlook the vast importance of cultivating the arts, even in a pecuniary sense” (France 168). An appreciation and cultivation of an artistic and aesthetic sensibility along with a connoisseurship of fine craftsmanship will have, according to Cooper, significant benefits for the growing nation-both culturally and commercially. While acknowledging that a cultivation of the arts may appear to have little material benefit, he argues that it does enhance the quality of both personal and social life and, by extension, the nation as a whole. He argued that “the very extreme of art, of this nature, may, of itself, be of no great direct benefit, it is true, but it should be remembered, that the skill which produces these extraordinary fruits ... produces all that embellishes life in the intermediate gradations” (France 168). What better way to spend all that profit gained by commercial growth? The appreciation of the fine arts enables an “increased means of enjoying the very money that is so blindly pursued, which their possession entails” (France 168).

{p. 14} We can recall in The Red Rover (1827), which Cooper wrote while in Europe, how the stalwart American Harry Wilder is awed over the Rover’s richly appointed cabin with its silver candlesticks, finely carved mahogany furniture, and silk divan and pillows (RR 80). His reaction, as is the reader’s, assumes a recognition of quality and an appreciation of fine craftsmanship. Similarly, in The Water-Witch (1830 — started in Paris and completed in Italy), Seadrift’s connoisseurship of the luxury cloths and goods he presents for sale focuses largely on appreciating the fine manufacture of “silks from the looms of Tuscany, ... Lyonnis brocades,” [and] laces copied from “the fretwork of the richest cathedrals of the Fleming” (WW 100). In fact, the novel’s charming narrative of smuggling frequently focuses its attention in luxuriating on aesthetic and pictorial descriptions and how the appreciation of artistic workmanship on and off ship enhance the surroundings of its characters. Of course, transporting these goods leads to a thriving business so long as trade in such quality items is open and (in the context of the story) freed from import restrictions; a narrative thread underscored by the novel’s capitalistic Dutch New York merchants.

However, as Cooper points out in Gleanings: France, Americans “shall in vain endeavor to compete with the great European nations, unless we make stronger efforts to cultivate the fine arts” (France 168-9). His appeal is one with nationalist implications. Not that the United States does not have skilled craftsmen, he points out; but the failing is that her artisans produce goods that are mainly for use; he notes that while we may produce “a skillful glass cutter, should he not also be a tasteful glass cutter” (France 169). For Cooper, it is not only necessary but also inevitable that the nation actively gain a greater appreciation of the arts and the skills to produce aesthetically refined goods — “that is the history of every society,” he observes, “in its progress to perfection.”

From Cooper’s perspective, what is necessary is a greater cultivation of and exposure to the arts, which will result in the refinement of American’s taste, leading to the inevitable refinement of the kinds of manufacturing needed to satisfy those tastes. He urged that the nation should “appropriate, at once, a million to the formation of a National Gallery, in which copies of the antique, antiques themselves, pictures, bronzes, arabesques, and other models of true taste, might be collected, before which young aspirants for fame might study, and with which become imbued, as the preliminary step to an infusion of their merits into society” (France 169). For Cooper, then, the cultivation of the arts is a national project and a patriotic effort-and a project he was willing to invest in as well. His relationship with American artists abroad furthered his personal stakes in promoting the arts in the nation.

To a large extent, Cooper’s connoisseurship and calls for elevating aesthetic appreciation by the nation respond to the nation’s technological improvements, expanding middle-class, and commercial sensibilities. Acutely aware of those advances — and, yes, at times alarmed by them — he nevertheless recognizes that while “railroads and steamboats do something for us,” they are utilitarian in nature and progress. He points out that “the ‘go-ahead’ propensities and ‘gregarious’ tastes of the nation set anything above a very moderate mediocrity quite out of the question” (Italy 186). Therefore the need for connoisseurship is urgent and of national importance. As he wrote in Gleanings of Europe: Italy, “’What is America but a country of ships!’ ... [but] What is a ship to a cameo?” (Italy 245).

That Cooper’s connoisseurship should arise from his European travels is not surprising. Yet, it is noteworthy to appreciate the extent to which it shaped his own sensibilities giving us a more nuanced purchase on his views of the nation’s provincialism and promise. He observed that “Travellers are too much in the practice of describing under the influence of their early and home-bred impressions. As a man sees the world, his prejudices diminish, his diffidence of his own decisions increases” (Italy 228). Speaking in general, his statement was no less true for himself.

Of course, the cultivation of connoisseurship during the early nineteenth century was not new when Cooper took himself and his family to Europe. In the last decade of the eighteenth century there arose in England a culture of connoisseurship, a direct effect of the breakup of continental collections after the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars. As a result works of art — old masters and objet d’art — became available in an evolving art market as never before, accessible to a new class of fine arts consumers beyond noble and ecclesiastical patrons. For the first time, the gentry and rising middle class were able to acquire artworks once held only by the aristocracy. This set in motion the formation and eventual opening of increasingly public collections, galleries, and museums.

With greater accessibility and buying power, the new class of art buyers created a need for connoisseurship, driven by the recognition that art uplifts the morals (and status) of the individual and nation. Therefore, the connoisseur provides a public service-rising above vulgar and commercial interests (though frequently profiting from those interests). The civil function of connoisseurship, with an eye toward quality and discernment once the purview of an aristocracy of taste, came to be understood and appreciated as more than the technical qualities of the artistic product but also its cultural, philosophical, and historical significance. 1 However, eighteenth-century British connoisseurship frequently focused on how to behave like an aristocrat when faced with fine arts. Such guides underscored behavioral codes for one’s comportment in galleries and on how to gain access to galleries not yet open to the general public. 2 As Maureen McCue notes in British Romanticism and the Reception of Italian Old Master Art: 1793-1840, as the nineteenth century progressed, access to the best examples of art came to be seen as a right that ought {p. 15} to be extended to the entire population, a recognition that culminated in the creation of the National Gallery. 3 Though many of the continent’s future great museums, such as the Louvre, Prado, and Uffizi, were technically open to the public by the early nineteenth century, access was restricted by letters of invitation or class credentials.

Yet, in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars, the early nineteenth century saw art flow out of Italy and into France (making France a new center of old masters and classical antiques). Moreover, extending beyond France, the increased trade and circulation of art throughout Europe made possible exhibitions at galleries, auction houses, and a boom in the print trade. Coupled with the increase in disposable income by a rising commercial class, the expanding marketplace of fine arts meant that art circulated among an ever-growing audience. The appreciation of art could no longer be claimed as the exclusive domain of either aristocrats or practicing artists. Instead a wide and diverse public became acquainted with a richly diverse visual culture amongst which Italian Old Master works retained their preeminent position. 4 Moreover, the middle class was able to view and read about the works of the Old Masters and even purchase prints creating a demand for art appreciation among the rising economic classes. Meanwhile, Old Master works were making their way across the Atlantic through a lively trade in copies.

As an increasing transatlantic appreciation of European art and antiquities grew along with the nation’s increasing commercial ambitions, so too did the demand for connoisseurship. In early 1826, Samuel Morse delivered a series of four lectures at the New York Athenaeum on his theories regarding the art of design. Seeking to educate the American audience and enrich their appreciation of European art, Morse’s lectures exemplified the “intellectual imitation derived from careful observation, astute selection, and calculated recombination that formed the basis for his intellectual and artistic output.” 5 Drawing on a wide range of Anglo and Continental sources across art history and aesthetic theory, 6 Morse’s lectures underscore the relationship between connoisseurship and education anticipating Pierre Bourdieu’s insight that “a work of art has meaning and interest only for someone who possesses the cultural competence, in other words the code, into which it is encoded.” 7

Samuel F.B. Morse, self-portrait 1818.

In fact, Morse himself took subscriptions to copy Italian, Dutch, and French masterpieces as the means to finance his trip to Europe. While there he worked in Italy and France, sending back copies to individual subscribers and the National Academy of Design.Taking commissions from wealthy American patrons, Morse copied works by Raphael, Bartolome Murillo, Nicolas Poussin, and Jacopo Tintoretto. It is likely these commissions were influenced by his lectures since these are the artists he cited and discussed. 8 And, among his subscribers was Cooper.

That Cooper would take an interest both in promoting the arts and in native artists is neither surprising nor undocumented. Morse and Cooper belonged to the Bread and Cheese Club along with Bryant, Halleck, Durand, Dunlap, and Cole. Founded in 1822, its members included doctors, lawyers, and merchants — but it was the relationship between the artists and writers of the period that initially founded the group that gave the club its focus. As such, the club brought together the growing community of artists and writers who called New York City home, thereby beginning the work of moving the cultural center away from New England and toward New York in the 1820s. From the Bread and Cheese Club, the Sketch Club emerged, eventually leading to the formation of the American Academy of the Fine Arts and later still, the National Academy of Design, of which Morse, along with Bryant, were originating founders. 9

Established in 1825, the National Academy was modeled after the Royal Academy in London, and founded with the simple yet powerful mission to “promote the fine arts in America through instruction and exhibition.” Central to Morse’s concept of the Academy was that its membership be limited to professional artists, and consequently, that the academy should be directed by and in the service of American art and artists and its purpose focused on the cultivation of the national arts and craftsmanship. As a result, one of the primary missions of the National Academy was that it would serve as an art school for the training of aspiring professional artists. And, in addition to practical training, a portion of the original educational program was devoted to lectures on topics that included anatomy, perspective, ancient history, architecture, and mythology. True to his mission, Morse traveled and studied abroad, hoping the trip would prepare him further for not only his patriotic service to the academy but also the much sought after commission to provide a large history painting for the Capitol’s rotunda in Washington (a commission that eluded him in spite of Cooper’s and others’ many interventions and appeals). 10

While in Europe, Cooper, Morse, and Horatio Greenough maintained a close and lively correspondence, visiting each other as often as possible. Bound together in their shared identities as American artists traveling abroad and “as Americans committed to advancing the Arts in the United States,” their frequent correspondence and meetings reveal their shared interests in promoting the arts in America (Bellion 95). An accidental but telling artifact of this period is found in the curious circumstance that Greenough carved a bust of Cooper in Florence during 1829 and later rechiseled the bust into a portrait of Morse in 1831; that bust would end up at the National Academy {p. 16} of Design, metaphorically and literally embodying the spirit of all three in one classically inspired marble sculpture (Letters II.166).

Rembrant's Angel—Tobias

Rembrandt, The Angel Leaving the Family of Tobias.

For his part, and standing by his call for greater national appreciation and exposure to the fine arts, Cooper commissioned several works from Morse and others, including a copy of the Borghese Vase for the National Academy of Design. Cooper commissioned Greenough for a small sculpture group of singing angels, titled the Chanting Cherubs, based on Raphael’s Madonna del Baldacchino; and from Morse he ordered a copy of Rembrandt’s The Angel Leaving the Family of Tobias. While to a significant extend his personal commissions were an effort to financially support his younger compatriots, his patronage can also be viewed within his project to further introduce Americans to the visual arts of old masters. His letters to both Morse and Greenough encourage them to present these works to the public in traveling exhibitions, showing that he wanted these commissions to benefit his friends financially and the nation aesthetically.

In many respects, the culmination of both Morse’s and Cooper’s trip to Europe is made manifest in Morse’s painting The Grand Gallery of the Louvre (1831-33). At six feet by nine feet, incorporating thirty-seven works by Italian, Spanish, and Dutch masters, this tour-de-force painting took over a year of painstaking copying to complete, requiring daily visits to the Louvre. Morse hoped it would be his greatest achievement, securing the Capitol building’s rotunda commission he longed for but had yet to realize. It was, however, an odd choice of project since several such paintings already existed. Nevertheless, (perhaps at Cooper’s urging — but more probably from an expectation that Cooper would purchase the painting when completed) Morse seemed to have chosen the challenging design as an nineteenth-century version of Instagram: artistically showcasing his connoisseurship and taste in European art, demonstrating and sharing his talent (the fidelity to the style of the old masters he copies is exceptional), and pictorially providing a remarkable variety of major works he deemed aesthetically significant — in other words, a painting for connoisseurs by a connoisseur.

The selections are both expected and eclectic. While most of the Louvre’s best known works are represented — Titian’s Francis the First, Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, Veronese’s Wedding Feast of Cana to name only three — there are three works by Bartolome Murillo and two classical sculptures- the Artemis on the Hunt and the already mentioned Borghese Vase. It is worth noting that the Borghese Vase and the figural group below it were added after Morse returned to America (along with the other human figures). Perhaps not surprising given Morse’s and Cooper’s close friendship and Cooper’s personal encouragement if not financial support, the grouping standing below the Borghese Vase is a portrait of Cooper, his wife and daughter Susan.

When Morse visited the Louvre, the Salon Carré (the location depicted in Morse’s Grand Gallery) showcased masterworks from the French School. In the painting, Morse rehangs the gallery to match his eclectic tastes. The Borghese Vase, which was housed one floor below the Salon Carré, depicts a Dionysian procession, an odd choice given Morse’s conservative, Protestant tastes. But, the Vase was long regarded as the foremost example of classical art in France and contemporary American guide books regarded the vase as the “finest representation” of its kind, calling it “perfection” and “magnificent” (Bellion 91). A popular must-see work for American tourists, the vase represented a high watermark of classical art and one can imagine Cooper wanting this example of classical sculpture brought to America — believing, as he points out, that by exposing American artists (and citizens) to such casts “the tastes of the ancients are fast producing an influence on the tastes of the moderns” (Italy 177). After all, he observed that most of the beautiful forms that embellished French and Italian artworks and crafts were “directly derived from models found at Pompeii and Herculaneum”; therefore, both U.S. artisans and manufacturers would benefit the same way from its example.

I will note that in his portrait, Cooper’s hand gesture points up to the vase and the paintings surrounding; a suggestive detail given that adjacent to the vase is Rembrandt’s The Angel Leaving the Family of Tobias, the painting Cooper commissioned Morse to copy for him. Rembrandt made several versions of the painting, and it was a well-circulated engraving, familiar to Americans through reproductions. The painting, as critics have cited, was itself an example of “artistic plagiarism” — as Rembrandt copied the angel from a well-known Maerten van Heemskerck print. 11 I am struck by the implications here — the painting calls attention to not only Cooper’s connoisseurship of old master works but also the ways reproduction and circulation influence the work of master artists; a means of furthering aesthetic appreciation for Americans through the transatlantic exchange of art reproductions.

However, Cooper points primarily to the painting just above the vase, Murillo’s graceful Holy Family. Painted between 1665 and 1670, it is typical of Murillo’s late period style inspired by Raphael, whose pyramidal composition Murillo reuses. Murillo, already known and popular among {p. 17} nineteenth-century American audiences for his sentimental depictions of street urchins and rosy-cheeked saints, was an artist aesthetically popular and therefore explains the representation of three examples of Murillo’s works in Morse’s painting. The inclusion of these works as well as their foregrounding by means of Cooper’s gesture, draws attention to Murillo’s painting and, by doing so, gives these works importance, underscoring Pierre Bourdieu’s observation that taste is on a continuum between personal choices linked to social/national inclinations and legitimate choices linked to education. An appreciation of Murillo links both forms of cultural capital, affirming the national and aesthetic.

It is worth noting that unlike Morse, Cooper did not generally belittle the works of old Masters nor was he critical of their religious (mainly Catholic) content. While Morse was repelled by the pomp of Catholic display and rejected the heretical presentations of religious art, Cooper’s relation to art (and Catholicism) was much more dynamic, as we often read in Gleanings in Italy. At one point, as he recalled standing before the majesty of Saint Peter’s Basilica, he wrote: “I stood gazing at the glorious pile, the tears forced themselves from my eyes” (Italy 192).

How Cooper influenced Morse’s design and selection of paintings to include in the Grand Gallery is not definitively known (though in a letter to Greenough, he claims to have had a “finger” in the making of Morse’s painting). What is known is that Cooper visited the Louvre daily, checking up on Morse’s progress. Cooper, writing to fellow Bread and Cheese Club member William Dunlap from Paris on March 16, 1832, records the various “suggestions” he regularly made to Morse: advising him to “lay it on here, Samuel — more yellow — the nose is too short — the eye too small — damn it if I had been a painter what a picture I should have painted” (Letters II.239). Apparently, Morse took this all good-naturedly, or at least that is how Cooper recalled it. But, to the larger point, because of the friendship with Morse, Cooper’s increasing connoisseurship cemented his relationship not only to Morse but also to his appreciation of art itself: writing to Richard Cooper from Belgium on August 5, 1832, Cooper boasted that he was “getting to be a collector” (Letters II.295) and writing to Greenough from Paris on December 24, 1831, Cooper imagined a future trip of “invading Italy” on a “picture speculation” with Morse (Letters II.165).

Returning to Morse’s painting, Cooper is surrounded by his connoisseurship: the vase he commissioned for the National Academy, the Rembrandt he commissioned for himself, and the Murillo Holy Family, a painting resonant with Americans’ aesthetic sensibilities. Moreover, as a document of Cooper’s travels, Morse’s painting records the transformation in Cooper’s own aesthetic appreciation. It is unfortunate Cooper never fully realized his desire to be an art collector. Due to financial struggles, he sold off many of the works he acquired and/or commissioned. And tragically, several of the works noted here have been lost. Similarly, the many copies Morse created in Europe on commission remain unaccounted for today. And, while the Grand Gallery of the Louvre never received the acclaim Morse anticipated in his lifetime, it remains an achievement of his artistic career and continues to tour American museums as part of the Terra Foundation for American Art traveling exhibition series. Nevertheless, Cooper promoted an appreciation for art that helped imagine and legitimate a connoisseurship based on education and taste as well as travel and cosmopolitanism that spoke to a rising, commercial nation unencumbered by the class restrictions of the nobility and aristocracy. And, while the United States’ National Gallery was not established until 1930, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City was founded in 1870 on the very concept Cooper envisioned.


1 Pierre Bourdieu notes that “the aesthetic disposition demanded by the products of a highly autonomous field of production [in other words, by skilled artists working within the legitimate scope of artistic patronage] is inseparable from a specific cultural competence [determined by cultural, social, and educational histories]” (4). Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Richard Nice, translation. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984.

2 Bermingham, Ann. “Elegant Females and Gentleman Connoisseurs: The Commerce in Culture and Self-Image in Eighteenth-Century England.” The Consumption of Culture 1600- 1800: Image, Object, Text. Ed. Ann Bermingham and John Brewer. New York: Routledge, 1997. 489-513.

3 McCue, Maureen & Woodfield, Richard. British Romanticism and the Reception of Italian Old Master Art: 1793-1840. London: Ashgate, 2014.

4 Ibid.

5 Brownlee, Peter John. Introduction. Samuel F. B. Morse’s Gallery of the Louvre and the Art of Invention. Ed. Peter John Brownlee. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014. 15-30.

6 Ibid.

7 “the capacity to see (voir) is a function of the knowledge (savoir) ... that are available to name visible things ... programmes for perception” (Distinction 2).

8 Bellion, Wendy. “The Sculpture Club.” Samuel F. B. Morse’s Gallery of the Louvre and the Art of Invention. Ed. Peter John Brownlee. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014. 89-99.

9 Callow, James T. Kindred Spirits: Knickerbocker Writers and American Artists, 1807-1855. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1967.

10 For a full description of Morse’s frustrated attempts at gaining the Capitol rotunda commission see Silverman, Kenneth. Lightning Man: The Accursed Life of Samuel Morse. Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 2003.

11 The Disappearing Angel: Heemskerck’s “Departing Raphael” in Rembrandt’s Studio, at https://caans-acaen.ca/Journal/issues_online/Issue_XXVIII_2007/Golahny2007.pdf.