Light Upon the Glimmerglass: Cooper and the American Landscape Painters of Otsego Lake

Paul S. D’Ambrosio (New York State Historical Association)

Presented at the 8ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 1991.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art (No. 8), Papers from the 1991 Conference, State University of New York College — Oneonta and Cooperstown. George A. Test, editor. (pp. 67-84).

Copyright © 1991, State University of New York College — Oneonta and Cooperstown .

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

While the highly detailed, descriptive landscapes of James Fenimore Cooper have received significant critical attention, no study to date has focused specifically upon his delineations of the scenery closest to him; that of Otsego Lake and environs in New York State. Scholarly works have included a book by Blake Nevius on the importance of landscape in Cooper’s fiction, and the sources for his imagery. 1 Other studies by James Beard, James T. Callow, and Donald Ringe regarding social connections and stylistic techniques have linked Cooper to the painters of the Hudson River School, particularly Thomas Cole (1801-1848). 2 Yet a look at the development, over time, of Cooper’s attitude towards and treatment of Otsego Lake, his “Glimmerglass, may help to illuminate the author’s notions of landscape as art, and the role of the American landscape in providing a forum for meaningful, moral discourse.

Any study of Cooper’s Otsego Lake landscapes would be incomplete however, without an acknowledgement of their historical context and a comparison to the works of prominent American artists who also chose to depict the lake in their works of art. Such inclusions speak directly to the issues of Cooper’s relationship to contemporary reality and the existence of a Cooper-inspired, cultural and aesthetic tradition in the subsequently painted landscapes of the area by other individuals. They also provide a basis for comparison of artistic responses to the fixed external entity.

A detailed examination of Cooper’s three novels set in northern Otsego County, New York (The Pioneers, Home as Found, and The Deerslayer), and a number of major Otsego Lake landscape paintings by such recognized artists as Samuel F. B. Morse (1791-1872), Louis Remy Mignot (1831-1870), and Edward Gay (1837-1928), will show bow the qualities of this “beautiful sheet of water” inspired diverse artistic imaginations. This investigation will also serve to construct an artistic chronology of a locale, bringing to light the ever-changing aesthetic, thematic, and didactic concerns which transformed the lake into a vehicle for the expression of contemporary values and ideals. In short, it will explore the extent of the lake’s utility in nineteenth century American culture.

Assessing the usability of Otsego Lake requires an understanding of its geographic location and physical contours. This notion was not lost on Cooper, as he devoted his introduction to The Pioneers to a brief description and history of the region. The lake is situated in east-central New York state, about seventy miles to the west of the Hudson River Valley, and about thirty miles north of the last northern foothills of the Catskill Mountains. Twenty miles to the north of the lake lies the Mohawk River Valley, beyond which the Adirondacks stretch for some two hundred miles. This relatively isolated location served to reserve Otsego Lake nearly exclusively for {68} Cooper’s artistic use in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. While most artists and writers were plying the Hudson, or tramping through the more popular and accessible Catskill, Adirondack, or Berkshire Mountains. Cooper was left on his own to select important vantage points and sites around the lake, and to choose the appropriate manner for delineating his native region.

Being nine miles in length and between a half mile and a mile in width, the size of the lake was ideal for expressing both awe-inspiring.vistas and immediacy of action and impression. In The Deerslayer Cooper states; “The size of the lake brought all (natural impressions) within reach of human senses, while it displayed so much of the imposing scene at a single view.” 3

Of great thematic importance for Cooper is the contrast between the steep, forested eastern shore of the lake and its more gently sloped, settled western counterpart. This dichotomy is utilized consistently in all three novels to provide the viewer with access to experiences both picturesque and sublime. Cooper describes this contrast in vivid terms in The Pioneers; “There (eastern shore) the largest vessels could have lain, with their yards interlocked with the pines; while here (western shore) a scanty growth of rushes lifted their tops above the lake.” 4

Other characteristics of the lake became sources of artistic inspiration for Cooper’s imagination, including its propensity for becoming completely still and mirror-like (the inspiration for the name “Glimmerglass”), its alarmingly fast changes of wind and weather, and its ability to carry sound in the form of echoes rippling along the mountains to all corners of the lake. These qualities, existing in nature, are frequently manipulated by Cooper for artistic purposes such as anthropomorphization and transitions in the plot.

In his views of Otsego Lake, Cooper faced the same struggle between reality and imagination that pervaded all of his work. While the tone of his literary style is set by the subtitle of The Pioneers, “A Descriptive Tale,” he acknowledges in the introduction his efforts to balance the creative “delineations of principles, and of characters in their classes” to maintain “the charm of fiction” with “a constant temptation to delineate that which he had known, rather than that which he might have imagined” (p. v). He used the former — his imaginative powers — to construct the legends that would give the latter — particularly the landscape — historical significance and didactic power. Cooper was unequivocal in his assertion that in describing the landscape, he was firmly grounded in the reality of his environment. He states in the preface to The Deerslayer that while the characters are fictitious, the scenery “is as true to nature, as an intimate knowledge of the present appearance of the region described ... enabled the writer to render it” (p. 2). This rigid adherence to actual, recognizable scenery — a hallmark of the Hudson River School — was essential to Cooper in his efforts to ennoble the American landscape while simultaneously adhering to American taste.

In tracing the development of Cooper’s literary landscapes of Otsego Lake, it is necessary to examine the three northern Otsego County novels in the order in which they were written, beginning with The Pioneers (1823), continuing with Home as Found (1838), and ending with The Deerslayer (1841). This {69} progression, which charts the appearance and use of the lake from 1790 to the 1830s and finally to 1745, reveals how this body of water and its surroundings evolved in Cooper’s mind to become an increasingly powerful and significant, yet private space.

Cooper’s first landscape depiction of Otsego Lake appears early in The Pioneers, as the party of Judge Temple is descending a mountain to approach the village of Templeton. The view is described as “a scene which.was so rapidly altering under the hands of man” and rendered as follows:

Immediately beneath them lay a seeming plain, glittering without inequality and buried in mountains. The latter were precipitous, especially on the side of the plain, and chiefly in forest. Here and there the hills fell away in long, low points and broke the sameness of the outline, or setting, to the long and wide field of snow, which, without house, tree, fence, or any other fixture, resembled so much spotless cloud settled to the earth. A few dark and moving spots were, however, visible on the even surface, which the eye of Elizabeth knew to be so many sleighs going their several ways, to or from the village. On the western border of the plain, the mountains, though equally high, were less precipitous and, as they receded, opened into irregular valleys and glens or were formed into terraces and hollows that admitted of civilization. Although the evergreens still held dominion over many of the hills that rose on this side of the valley, yet the undulating outlines of the distant mountains, covered with forests of beech and maple, gave a relief to the eye and the promise of a kinder soil. Occasionally spots of white were discoverable amidst the forests of the opposite hills, which announced by the smoke that curled over the tops of the trees the habitations of man and the commencement of agriculture (pp. 36-37).

This panoramic vista, viewed from a high vantage point and emphasizing diversity, irregularity, and intricacy, is an excellent example of Cooper’s early picturesque and topographical “middle landscape.” Although Blake Nevius asserts that Cooper returned to America with notions of the picturesque from his European tour of 1826-1833, and that these ideas informed the remainder of his writings, such qualities are more clearly evident in The Pioneers than in The Deerslayer. 5

The chief characteristics of the landscape as presented in The Pioneers are its role as a backdrop to the action (rather than a determining factor, as in The Deerslayer), its transitory quality (“rapidly altering” from forest to farm and settlement), and its existence as a public space, an extension of the village (evident in the sleighs visible on the frozen surface of the lake). Its very recognizability as a natural feature is in question, since it is {70} presented in winter when it is both disguised as a “seeming plain” and in a state to be of greatest use to man.

In this composition, Cooper sweeps the viewer’s eye from foreground to background (the nearby mountains to the surface of the lake to the clearings and settlements beyond), and then focuses in on a large oak tree at the end of the most pronounced projection of land on the western shore. “Overhanging the lake, the oak’s gnarled and fantastic” branches are thrown around “in the wilderness of liberty.” This simple detail, later to become a conventional symbol in the Hudson River School paintings, is effective in its solitude as one of the last vestiges of unfettered wilderness on the lake. Its placement on the shore overhanging the water anticipates the association of the lake with freedom of movement and visual and psychological release from the dense forest that is so prevalent in The Deerslayer. 6 It is in contrast to the most pervasive symbol used by Cooper later in the novel; the ubiquitous tree stump dotting the many clearings in the forest, another motif employed by Cole and others of the Hudson River School of landscape painters. 7

Cooper completes this landscape by moving horizontally from right to left opening up a panoramic view of the Susquehanna River winding for miles through a “narrow but graceful valley” which stretched its way south “as far as the eye could reach” (p. 38). The most detailed section of this entire view is added last, as the reader’s eye comes to rest upon the village of Templeton at the foot of the lake, described meticulously down to its varied and multicolored buildings and revolving visually around the large dwelling of Judge Temple. This entire view is paradigmatic of the action in the novel, which centers around the mansion and the village, occasionally spilling out into the landscape surrounding the lake.

The significance of Otsego Lake as a natural wonder is largely subdued in The Pioneers, due to the author’s thematic emphasis on the encroachment of civilization. For example, upon viewing the lake on their descent from Mount Vision, Elizabeth Temple delights in seeing her still recognizable childhood home, while her father, Judge Temple, sees in the altered landscape “the result of his own enterprise” with “philanthropic pleasure” (pp. 43-53). There are passages, however, which dwell upon qualities such as luminescence, particularly on a morning when the trees surrounding the lake are covered with ice, seemingly “studded with diamonds” in contrast to the dark, icy “polished mirror” surface of the water (p. 203). Furthermore, the mystery of the aquatic world lying beneath the placid surface of the lake is first encountered in this novel, as it would continue to be, to a limited extent, in the other two. Exposure to this world, however brief, provides one of the few moments of sublime awe and terror in the novel. Fishing by torchlight one night, Elizabeth and Natty experience these emotions as conveyed by the narrator; “The curiosity excited by this unusual exposure of the secrets of the lake seemed to be mutual between the heiress of the land and the lord of these waters” (p. 257). Likewise, Benjamin Pump’s near drowning provides an intense, emotional moment for the heroine Elizabeth, as she catches a memorable glimpse — again by torchlight — of him underwater:

The form of Benjamin was lying, about halfway to {71} the bottom, grasping with both hands some broken rushes. The blood of Elizabeth curdled to her heart, as she saw the figure of a fellow creature thus extended under an immense sheet of water, apparently in motion, by the undulation of the dying waves, with its face and hands viewed by that light, and through the medium of the fluid, already colored with hues like death (p. 260).

When Cooper anthropomorphizes the lake, late in the novel, it is to communicate gaiety rather than solemnity or foreboding evil as seen in The Deerslayer. As Oliver and Elizabeth begin to consider their future — and that of Natty — after their marriage, they come upon a festive, panoramic view of the lake.

But when they gained the open fields, and her eye roamed over the placid lake, covered with wild fowl already journeying from the great northern waters to seek a warmer sun, but lingering to play in the limpid sheet of the Otsego, and to the sides of the mountain, which were gay with the thousand dyes of autumn, as if to grace their bridal, the swelling heart of the young wife burst out in speech.

“This is not a time for silence, Oliver!” she said (p. 427).

In dealing mainly with civilized issues such as law and order, ownership of property, and the use of natural resources in The Pioneers, Cooper shows Otsego Lake as belonging firmly in the middle group of his extended descriptive composition. The singular view of village and lake is pervasive, as is the undisputed (except for occasional protests by Natty) rights to the lake which the villagers enjoy. The viewer sees both explicitly in the following sketch (emphasis mine); “the village which beneath their feet like a picture, with its limpid lake in front, the winding stream along its margin, and its hundred chimneys of white bricks” (p. 296).

Home as Found (1838) has been called “America’s first extensive novel of manners.” 8 In this book, set in time nearly a half century after The Pioneers, Cooper explores comparisons of European and American customs, manners, and scenery through the eyes of Europeans, well-traveled Americans (“Hajjis”), and the local townspeople. He also includes sharp criticisms of the American public and its capacity to exercise power irresponsibly, particularly with respect to the notion of public versus private property. In his depictions of Otsego Lake, Cooper elaborates upon the picturesque style of The Pioneers, idealizing the beautifully diverse middle landscape rather than showing its emergence from the forest. Despite this obvious development and population growth, the lake assumes the character of a more private space, a pleasure-ground for the genteel inhabitants of “The Wigwam” (formerly Judge Temple’s mansion, refurbished by the Effinghams).

{72} In a manner similar to that in The Pioneers, Cooper places a major descriptive landscape early in the novel to orient the reader and provide a framework for the action and subsequent embellishments to the scenery. In Home as Found, the lake is also viewed for the first time by travelers on their way to Templeton, from atop an eastern mountain, and it reads as follows:

It is known that they were in a small open spot in a forest, and on the verge of a precipitous mountain. The trees encircled them on every side but one, and on that lay the panorama, although the tops of tall pines, that grew in lines almost parallel to the declivity, rose nearly to a level with the eye. Hundreds of feet beneath them, directly in front, and stretching leagues to the right, was a lake embedded in woods and hills. On the side next the travellers a fringe of forest broke the line of water; tree-tops that intercepted the view of the shores; and on the other, high broken hills, or low mountains rather, that were covered with farms, beautifully relieved by patches of wood, in a way to resemble the scenery of a vast park or a royal pleasure-ground, limited the landscape. High valleys lay among these uplands, and in every direction comfortable dwellings dotted the fields. The dark hues of the evergreens, with which all the heights near the water were shaded, were in soft contrast to the livelier green of the other foliage, while the meadows and pastures were luxuriant with a verdure unsurpassed by that of England. Bays and points added to the exquisite outline of the glassy lake (p. 125).

Everything about this landscape is friendly, peaceful, and accommodating, from the convenient spot Cooper provides for the viewers, to the “comfortable dwellings” and the soft contrasts of color. The language of the picturesque is particularly evident, in the emphasis on variety and irregularity (the broken line of water, and the far mountains “beautifully relieved” by patches of wood). 9 What is different from The Pioneers is the explicit comparison to England, an obvious result of Cooper’s European tour, and the characterization of the landscape as “a vast park or royal pleasure ground.” Such a comparison not only underscores Cooper’s taming of this area; it also betrays a desire to appropriate it for private, undisturbed appreciation.

Prominent in this landscape, “immediately under the eyes of the party,” lay the village of Templeton, “beautiful and map-like.” The village here has undergone the same transformation as the lake, characterized by its neatness, tastefulness (in the uniformly white or stone buildings), and general prosperity and refinement (“fully twenty” of the local dwellings “were of a quality that denoted ease in the condition of their occupants”). Cooper compares the cleanliness of the village to “the picturesque bourgs of Switzerland” (pp. 126-127). Lastly, in keeping with the parallel development {73} of the landscape in The Pioneers, the viewers’ eyes settle upon the Wigwam, newly refurbished in the Gothic style.

Later passages in the novel provide further evidence of Cooper’s gentrification of Otsego Lake. Comparisons to Europe reveal the author’s desire to enhance the picturesque quality of the lake with the addition of man-made objects of historical significance. At one point, Eve Effingham creates a fanciful European landscape, stating:

“Fancy the shores of this lake lined with villas, ... church towers raising their dark heads among these hills; each mountain crowned with a castle or a crumbling ruin, and all the other accessories of an old state or society, and what would then be the charms of such a view!” (p. 136).

Another example of this gentrification, and the attendant desire for privacy (particularly from the public) is the dispute over the ownership of a picturesque point of land on the western shore. This controversy was in fact autobiographical, mirroring Cooper’s own victorious battle with the residents of Cooperstown over Three Mile Point in 1837. The Point is described in the novel as a place which had been used by the Temples and Effinghams for private picnics, and which had been taken over by the public while the family was in Europe. The indignant response of the Effinghams to this development reveals the depth of Cooper’s increasing disillusionment with Jacksonian society and his growing desire to stake out his personal space. As John Effingham tells his cousin: “The public — the all-powerful, omnipotent, overruling, law-making, law-breaking public has a passing caprice to possess itself of your beloved Point” (p. 205). The battle is over more than private property, it involves the right of visual access to the landscape.

The structure of this access illuminates the manner in which Cooper reserves wild nature for comfortable, private enjoyment in Home as Found, and further underscores the real and symbolic dichotomy between the eastern and western shores of the lake. The western shore — including the Point — is for the refined enjoyment of friendly nature; an easy boat ride across the lake provides controlled encounters with wild, ancient nature and thoughts of the sublime. For example, the Effingham party takes in the sound-carrying effects of Speaking Rocks, musing poetically over the presence of the spirit of Natty Bumppo (a revealing contrast to the awesome, thunderous echoes in The Deerslayer), and the “solitary glory” of Silent Pine, described thusly;

For near a hundred feet above the eye, the even, round trunk was branchless, and then commenced the dark-green masses of foliage, which clung around the stem like smoke ascending in wreaths. The tall, column-like tree had inclined towards the light when struggling among its fellows, and it now so far overhung the lake, that its summit may have been some ten or fifteen feet without the base. A gentle, graceful curve added to the effect of this variation {74} from the perpendicular, and infused enough of the fearful into the grand, render the picture sublime (p. 202).

The sublimity of a single pine, enjoyed at leisure from the safe distance of a boat on the placid water, illustrates the extent to which Otsego Lake has taken on the characteristics of a private pleasure ground. It occupies a place of greater importance than in The Pioneers, while the village has been pushed further into the background of Cooper’s written landscape.

In The Deerslayer, all traces of man’s existence disappear from the landscape. Cooper accomplishes this by setting the novel in 1745, a half century earlier than The Pioneers. In so doing, he takes his appropriation of the lake to its logical conclusion, turning his back on the contemporary realities which he found unsavory and staking out the “Glimmerglass” as his literary property to manipulate as he wished. 10 The significance of the lake to the action in the novel is paramount, since it encompasses everything that transpires. It also shapes the plot, resembling in its characterization a huge arena within which combatants wage a bloody battle that cannot be escaped.

Cooper’s delineation of the lake in this novel emphasizes its overwhelming, majestic, and exotic qualities. The latter are evident to both the characters of the novel and the readers who, in 1841, had likely never directly experienced a scene such as Cooper describes:

On a level with the point lay a broad sheet of water, so placid and limpid, that it resembled a bed of the pure mountain atmosphere, compressed into a setting of hilts and woods. ... Of course its margin was irregular, being indented with bays, and broken by many projecting, low points. At its northern or nearest end, it was bounded by an isolated mountain, lower land falling off, east and west, gracefully relieving the sweep of the outline. Still the character of the country was mountainous; high hills, or low mountains, rising abruptly from the water, on quite nine-tenths of its circuit. The exceptions, indeed, only served a little to vary the scene, and even beyond the points of the shore that were comparatively low, the back-ground was high, though more distant.

But the most striking peculiarities of this scene, were its solemn solitude and sweet repose. On all sides, wherever the eye turned, nothing met it, but the mirror-like surface of the lake, the placid void of heaven, and the dense setting of wood. ... As if vegetation were not satisfied with a triumph so complete, the trees overhung the lake, itself, shooting out towards the light, and there were miles {75} along its eastern shore, where a boat might have pulled beneath the branches, of dark, Rembrandt-looking hemlocks, “quivering aspens,” and melancholy pines. In a word, the hand of man had never defaced, or deformed any part of this native scene, which lay bathed in sunlight, a glorious picture of affluent forest grandeur, softened by the balminess of June, and relieved by the beautiful variety afforded by the presence of so broad an expanse of water (pp. 36-37).

This landscape is more elemental than previous ones, consisting of basic form; “the mirror-like surface of the lake, the placid void of heaven, and the dense setting of wood.” It is also more imposing, due to the low vantage point.

In this passage, Cooper incorporates the language of the picturesque into a depiction of wild, unspoiled nature to provide a sublime encounter with God. 11 Rather than the terrible, horrifying sublimity of Salvator Rosa. Cooper renders a heroic, solemn and profound nature wherein the presence of the Deity is strongly felt. The diversity of natural forms present in the landscape, a prerequisite of the picturesque, are far too strange, pure, and exotic to be simply pleasing. In fact, the lake provides Natty with a revelation through distance and visibility, as he states; “The lake seems made to let us get an insight into the noble forests; and land and water, alike, stand in the beauty of God’s Providence!” (p. 37). Later Natty feels a soothing of the spirit from “the holy calm of nature” (p. 47). Indeed, the moralistic aspect of the landscape acts as both a background and a standard by which to judge the actions of the characters in this novel. This does more than bring the lake into the foreground; it raises the natural surroundings in status to that of the characters, and gives them the independent didactic power sought by Cole.

Despite Cooper’s continual affirmation of the smallness of man’s activities in comparison to nature (after the climax of the story, the Indian massacre, “When the sun rose the following morning, every sign of hostility and alarm had vanished from the basin of the Glimmerglass” p. 523), he aggrandizes the lake by adding traces of a heroic human past at the conclusion. His final landscape of Otsego lake, viewed by Natty and Chingachgook fifteen years after the events of the novel, is essentially unchanged except for the decayed remains of the Castle (“a picturesque ruin”), the Ark with the ribband of Judith (recalling “all her beauty, and we may add all her failings”), the occasional canoe and bleached human bones at the scene of the massacre (p. 546). After twenty years of writing about Otsego Lake, Cooper had finally put the finishing touches on his masterpiece, a landscape thoroughly wild and yet elevated by the historical associations of a noble past. Natty and Chingachgook are transported by the sight of this landscape, as it “carried back the minds of both to scenes of tenderness, as well as to hours of triumph,” (p. 547). To Cooper, the most elevated thoughts were born of tranquil, contemplative, and private moments, and he increasingly exercised his artistic freedom to transform the lake, his lake, into a private space for himself and his reading public.

A comparison with the works of mid-nineteenth century landscape painters who depicted the lake further clarifies the extent of Cooper’s imaginative transformations and departure from contemporary reality. While it is likely that Cooper’s fame had a role in drawing these artists to the Cooperstown area, their artistic response to the lake seems to have been influenced by different aesthetic and thematic concerns. None, for example, was explicitly moralistic or didactic; in this respect Cooper’s only peer was Thomas Cole. Instead, they followed the Hudson River School tenets as exemplified by Asher B. Durand, combining actual, recognizable scenery with picturesque conventions and a mood of pastoral simplicity and beauty. Likewise, none of the painters harbored any claim to the lake, but more likely followed the wishes of patrons from the village who had a more public conception of its importance. 12 Their paintings show a scenic area thriving with — but not overwhelmed — by commerce and agriculture, a pleasant landscape peaceably settled.

View from Apple Hill

Samuel F.B. Morse, Otsego Lake from Apple Hill, 1829. Private collection.

Samuel F. B. Morse’s 1829 painting, “Otsego Lake from Apple Hill” is the earliest known view of the lake and environs. Of all the works addressed here, it most closely approximates the conception of the lake (described in Home as Found) as a serene, natural wonder to be enjoyed from a private prospect. Choosing as a vantage point the property of a prominent local resident, Morse presents a smoothly painted, serene vista in which the entire length of the lake is foreshortened into a small area just beyond the edge of the village. The surface of the water is placid, and the hills wooded, as Cooper so frequently described, but here the lake serves chiefly as a decorative embellishment to the village and a subject for genteel appreciation. The figures on the bridge in the middle ground, for example, are too engaged in their labors to notice the landscape, while the two well-dressed young ladies in the foreground enjoy the view at their leisure. The thin, graceful tree to the right of the ladies is in sharp contrast to the Cooper motif of the large, wild, grand pine or oak that so often carried connotations of the distant past.

Louis Remy Mignot, Cooperstown from Three Mile Point, c.1855. Copyright © New York State Historical Association.

Two landscapes by Louis Remy Mignot, executed in the mid-1850s, further illustrate the painters’ concern with Cooperstown as a subject and the lake as a setting useful for the characterization of the village. In “Cooperstown from Three Mile Point” Mignot centers his landscape around the village, meticulously rendered and occupying the spot toward which the receding eye is drawn across the calm water and made to rest. Clearings on the hills surrounding the village graphically illustrate the use of the land as well as the vitality of the village in its growth and prosperity. Further indication of this well-being may be found in the overt reference to agriculture at the lower right, where a field of hops (Otsego County’s largest cash crop) is in plain sight; and in the leisure pursuits of the solitary fisherman in the foreground and the boaters on the lake at left. While there is a sense of solitude and private enjoyment of the lake in the figure of the fisherman walking along the path, the implication of the presence of other people in the boats on the lake and the village in the distance clearly indicates a sharing of the natural beauty of the area. In Mignot’s view, the lake is large enough to accommodate diverse predilections of work and leisure. The inclusion of {78} the large pine tree, to break up the horizon and add a picturesque variety to scene, again recalls but does not recapture the manner in which Cooper used the same motif to denote natural majesty and antiquity.

Three Mile Point

Louis Remy Mignot and Julius Gollman, Three Mile Point, c. 1855. Copyright © New York State Historical Association.

The second landscape by Mignot is entitled “Three Mile Point” and features identifiable full-length portraits of prominent Cooperstown residents (painted by Julius Gollman, a portraitist who was visiting the village in the mid-1850s) who are standing on the tract of land which was the subject of Cooper’s famous dispute with the village detailed in the novel Home as Found. It is doubtless the most explicit image of the lake as a public space. The Point, whose Literary history includes Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook’s rescue of Hist from the Mingo encampment, as well as Natty’s capture (The Deerslayer), and both a drinking party and genteel picnic (Home as Found), is here shown about four years after the death of the author, now firmly in the possession of the residents of Cooperstown. 13

Mignot and Gollman, probably acting on the wishes of one or more of the gentlemen in the painting, shows this possession as responsible, in contrast to the images of public vandalism in Home as Found. Indeed, the air is very much in keeping with formal portraiture, as the figures are shown stiffly posed in their fine clothes, on an immaculate beach, with the village, their village, reminiscent of a window vista, situated in the distance virtually “over the shoulder” of the sitters. Mignot’s artistic license with the landscape is evidence here, as the village appears much closer to the Point than in reality.

While the public conception of the landscape here is at odds with Cooper, certain features echo his compositions. The dichotomy between the settled and accessible western shore and the wild eastern hills is of particular importance in this work, as this small piece of land is celebrated as a vantage point from which to view nearly the whole lake. A number of the figures seem to survey the surrounding landscape, but the man silhouetted against the lake at the extreme left, pointing toward the east, communicates an appreciation of the vista similar to that in Home as Found. The fact that the most picturesque qualities of the landscape are not shown signifies the concession to portraiture in this painting.

Otsego Lake Looking North

Edward Gay, Otsego Lake Looking North from Two Mile Point, c. 1882. Copyright © New York State Historical Association.

A pair of paintings by Edward Gay, “Otsego Lake Looking North From Two Mile Point,” and “Otsego Lake Looking South From Two Mile Point,” (c. 1882) remind the viewer of the importance of visual vantage points, offered by such peninsulas, to both Cooper’s fiction and the works of these landscapists. These natural features provide access to the land from the water, and vice versa (as seen numerous times in the three Cooper novels) and, by leading the viewer out into the lake, they allow for the experience of broad and deep space necessary for the appreciation of a sweeping, panoramic view. Gay’s views from the shallow waters of the western shore contrast not just west from east, but also the northern and southern ends of the lake. In “Otsego Lake Looking North” the artist affirms the use of this point as a landing, placing figures in two boats at a dock in the foreground. In the distance, the densely wooded hills form a solid band across the center of the picture, their undulating outlines silhouetted against the sky. Aside from the figures in {80} the foreground, there is little evidence of man’s presence, although occasional specks of white paint on the distant shores suggest man-made forms. The atmosphere is one of quietude and reclusiveness, though mutually shared with companions.

Otsego Lake Looking South

Edward Gay, Otsego Lake Looking South from Two Mile Point, c. 1882. Copyright © New York State Historical Association .

In “Otsego Lake Looking South” the village of Cooperstown appears dwarfed by the dominating landscape, buried in the trees within the low valley at the end of the lake. Its dominion over the lake is indisputable, however, as two of its spires pierce the horizon, a column of smoke rises from the right, and a number of sailing and other vessels dot the lake from the shores of the village nearly up to the Point. Gay’s interest in the solemnity of the landscape is able to subdue, but not hide, the fact of its present service to man.

Both Cooper and his artistic counterparts manipulated the lake, choosing the transmission of personal or social values over the reproduction of actual circumstances. As Cooper turned his back on society, his values rested increasingly on the importance of the individual in his pursuit of moral truth. The use of the landscape to create a more private space met his need for an appropriate setting for this fictional quest. Cooper’s elevation of the American landscape, as the setting of heroism and history, helped to create the cultural climate necessary for the proliferation of landscape painting.

The landscapists who flourished largely because of Cooper, and were drawn to his home, for the most part did not share his aesthetic principles. They were more dedicated to the Ruskinian ideal of exacting truth to nature’s details. In many cases they did lose the forest for the trees.

Importantly, they also were patronized by a class of individuals who desired images of the positive effects of cooperative social behavior. Thus, an issue such as access to the water is transformed from a life-and-death circumstance in The Deerslayer to a summer picnic in the paintings. This is not to trivialize the paintings, for as the antebellum period drew to a close and Civil War loomed on the horizon, restful and harmonious images became more potent and laden with cultural meaning. Likewise, as land became over-populated and defiled, there arose a need for images of a more bountiful and commodious landscape.

Although, for the most part, specific references to Cooper are lacking in the paintings, the artists confirm Cooper’s pioneering assertion of the natural beauty of Otsego Lake. Like all cultural artifacts, this beauty was continually reshaped to meet the changing needs of artists, patrons, and the public.

Works Cited

  • Callow, James T. Kindred Spirits: Knickerbocker Writers and American Artists, 1807-1855. Chapel Hill, NC, (1967).
  • Cooper, James Fenimore. “American and European Scenery Compared,” Home Book of the Picturesque: or, American Scenery, Art, and Literature. New York, 1851.
  • ------. The Pioneers, Signet Edition, 1964.
  • ------. The Deerslayer, Penguin Edition, 1961, Introduction by Donald E. Pease.
  • ------. Home as Found, Capricorn Edition, 1961, Introduction by Lewis Leary.
  • MacDougall, Hugh Cooke. Cooper’s Otsego County, Cooperstown, New York: New York State Historical Association, 1989.
  • Nevius, Blake, Cooper’s Landscapes: An Essay on the Picturesque Vision. Berkeley, 1976.
  • Ringe, Donald A. “James Fenimore Cooper and Thomas Cole: An Analogous Technique,” American Literature 30, March 1958: 26-36.
  • ------. The Pictorial Mode: Space and Time in the Art of Bryant, Irving, and Cooper. Lexington, KY, 1971.

Paintings Cited

  • Samuel F. B. Morse. (1791-1872) “View From Apple Hill” (private collection) 1829.
  • Louis Remy Mignot. (1831-1870) and Julius Gollman (d. 11398) “Three Mile Point” (NYSHA) 1850s.
  • Louis Remy Mignot. “Cooperstown From Three Mile Point” (NYSHA) 1850s.
  • Edward Gay. (1837-1928) “Otsego Lake, Looking South From Two Mile Point” (NYSHA) c. 1882.
  • ------. “Otsego Lake Looking North From Two Mile Point” (NYSHA) c. 1882. NYSHA. New York State Historical Association.


1 Blake, Nevius, Cooper’s Landscapes: An Essay on the Picturesque Vision (Berkeley: 1976).

2 James P. Beard, “Cooper and His Artistic Contemporaries,” New York History XXXV (October 1954), pp. 480-495; James T. Callow, Kindred Spirits: Knickerbocker Writers and American Artists, 1807-1855, (Chapel Hill, N.C.: 1967); Donald Ringe, “James Fenimore Cooper and Thomas Cole: An Analogous Technique,” American Literature 30 (March 1958), pp. 26-36.

3 Penguin edition, 1987, p. 107. All subsequent page references are from editions cited.

4 Signet edition, 1964, p. 256.

5 Nevius, Cooper’s Landscapes, pp. 13, 91-93. Cooper reaches the height of his picturesque style in Home as Found before turning to wild and sublime imagery in The Deerslayer.

6 Nevius discusses this theme in Cooper’s Landscapes on p. 89.

7 See River in the Catskills, 1843. Museum of Fine arts, Boston.

8 Lewis Leary, in his introduction to the Capricorn edition, 1961, p. xxv. All subsequent page references are from this edition.

9 Nevius describes the effect of Cooper’s exposure to European thought on the picturesque on his native landscapes, in Chapter II of Cooper’s Landscapes.

10 For a discussion of the issues of property rights and their effect on Cooper in the writing of The Deerslayer, see Donald E. Pease’s introduction to the 1987 Penguin edition, pp. vii-xxv

11 Nevius sees his landscape as being thoroughly infused with picturesque theory, in Cooper’s Landscapes, p. 91.

12 A full analysis of the thoughts, motivations, and patronage of the Otsego Lake artists awaits further study not possible at this time.

13 Ownership of the Point passed in 1850 to William Storrs Cooper (1845-1914), due to Judge William Cooper’s wish that it be given at that time to the youngest family member by the name of William. It was leased by the younger William to the village in 1871, and purchased in 1899. Hugh Cooke MacDougall, Cooper’s Otsego County, (Cooperstown: New York State Historical Association, 1989), p. 84.