James Fenimore Cooper and the Art of the Erie Canal
Presented at the 11ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 1997.
Copyright © 1999, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.
Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art (No. 11), Papers from the 1997 Cooper Seminar (No. 11), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Hugh C. MacDougall, editor. (pp. 32-38).
[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]
After decades of criticism and seven years of construction, the Erie Canal was completed in 1825, connecting New York City and Lake Erie by water. On October 26 of that year, New York Governor and Canal sponsor, DeWitt Clinton left Buffalo with two barrels of Lake Erie water which he emptied into New York harbor nine days later. The success of the opening of the canal was reported in newspapers around the world and began to draw curious visitors to the state to travel on the waterway which opened the Atlantic Ocean to boats from the Great Lakes. Those who had claimed that the Erie would never be built were wrong, and most of the publicity centered around the canal in the late 1820s was favorable.
As soon as the Erie opened to passenger, or packet, boats as they were known, it attracted many important and famous visitors to the region. Many locations in Western New York which were inaccessible in 1820 became immediate attractions in the latter half of that decade. Most popular were Little Falls, Trenton Falls, and Niagara Falls, and the villages of Rochester, Utica, and Auburn. Travelers from all over North America and Europe marveled at these sites, and many of them published accounts of their travels once they returned home.
One of the earliest and most successful of these accounts of canal travel was a description of LaFayette’s travels in America in 1824 and 1825, which included a brief trip on the Erie, written by his personal secretary, Auguste LeVasseur. The book was first published in this country in 1829, following both French and English editions. 1 Although LeVasseur was often critical of America and American culture in this book, he was highly complimentary of the voyage on the canal. In summary, he said, “We had been able to travel, since leaving Lockport, for nearly 300 miles on the canal, and had been able to judge of the beauty and utility of this great channel of communication, executed in eight years by the state of New York alone, unassisted by foreign aid.” 2 For future travelers, of which there would be many, LeVasseur described the beauty of Niagara Falls, Rochester, Syracuse, Rome and Utica and New York in general as follows: “This journey confirmed us in the opinion, that no part of America, or, perhaps, the whole world, contains so many wonders of nature as the state of New York.” 3
If LeVasseur was impressed by the scenery and engineering feats of New York State, he was also less than impressed with other aspects of the voyage, commenting on the current state of relations with both the Indians and Slaves in much of America and with certain American manners and customs, which differed from those he had been used to in France. LaFayette in America was not without its critics, including the American writer, James Fenimore Cooper, who first met LaFayette in New York in 1824 and remained a friend until the General’s death in 1834. 4
Encouraged by LaFayette to present an American reply to the publication of LaFayette in America, Cooper would write a similar work addressing his views of American culture and progress in the first three decades of the 1800s. The book has also been seen by some American critics as a response to several patronizing and uncomplimentary books about travels in America written by British authors, including Basil Hall, published in the 1820s. 5 Cooper attempted, in this work, to present an American view of the Americas free of both French and English bias. In structure, it borrows heavily from both Hall and LeVasseur’s volumes, the latter of which Cooper must have read after his arrival in Paris in 1826.
Like LeVasseur, Cooper was impressed by the Erie Canal and wrote of it favorably in his work, Notions of the Americans: “On our return east, we followed the line of the great canal as far as Utica. ... Mr. Clinton, the present Governor of this State, is the only highly responsible man who can justly lay claim to be the parent of the project ... [although] the plaint of some Indian that nature had denied a passage to his canoe from the Mohawk to a stream of the lesser lakes, has probably given birth to them all.” 6 This observation was in response to claims by LeVasseur and others that Washington had, in fact, first thought of the idea of a great canal connecting the Hudson with the Great Lakes. 7
Cooper was writing satire in Notions of the Americans and some of his literary devices were hard to follow for the average reader. His use of a dialog between a Belgian tourist and a New York “guide” known as Cadwallader is seen as weakening the overall theme. 8 The book was, not surprisingly, poorly received in Britain, both for its criticism of books popular in England and for its idealistic view of rural America.
 Most American readers, many of whom had not read Hall or LeVasseur, did not understand the work. 9 Few agreed with his view of the Indian population or his views of rural centers of learning and commerce, such as described in this work. Not surprisingly, Cooper chose Cooperstown as the ideal American community, describing it as follows, “Cooperstown is the largest place in the County. ... The village is neat, better built even than is common in America, which is vastly better, (for villages) than any thing of the sort in Europe.” This was not a popular opinion among many of Cooper’s readers in both European and American cities. Cooper adds, “The admixture of civilization with these wild looking memorials of a state of nature, is indeed, the chief distinctive feature between a landscape in the newer districts of America, and one in our own Europe.” 10 Cooper felt that American cities would remain this close to nature, as centers of agriculture and learning.
Notions of the Americans described an America that Europe wanted to see. Like Hall and LeVasseur before him, these authors made New York and its natural scenery an attraction to visit and be seen by Europeans; even if they did not agree with the philosophy of these writers, the Erie Canal became a destination for most visitors to this country. Between 1820 and 1850, many other travelers came from Europe to America, including Charles Dickens, Fanny Kemble (the British actress), Jenny Lind, George Combe (the phrenologist), and Frances Trollope. All of these later travelers owed something to Cooper and encouraged additional works about Erie Canal travel to be published. 11
Most important of these later works to be printed was a volume entitled American Scenery written by (William) Nathaniel Parker and illustrated by William Bartlett. The book included almost 140 prints of various places in America based on a trip the author and illustrator undertook to America in 1836 and 1837. The pair traveled the length of the Canal in the summer of 1836 and prints of Albany, Little Falls (4 total), Utica, Trenton Falls, Rochester, Lockport, and Niagara Falls were produced. The book was immediately popular. In 1838, the first of several printings of Bartlett’s engravings of the trip was released. The book was printed in a serialized version by subscription in that year as well. All told about 50 versions of the prints were issued in book or unbound formats. 12
The book made the Erie Canal, one of the most frequently illustrated of the American canals, even more popular. In the 1830s and 1840s, many illustrators, including Bartlett, continued to feature the canal in book and magazine engravings. Paintings and drawings by William Rickerby Miller, Old Mixon and Walter Oddie all were originally produced as book or magazine illustrations and were among the first artistic renditions of the canal. 13 Cooper’s publication of Notions of the Americans was among the first descriptions of the waterway and encouraged later authors and illustrators to focus on this subject in their works. An 1852 anthology entitled Home Authors and Home Artists; or American Scenery, Art and Literature included essays by Cooper, Washington Irving and William Cullen Bryant, among others, who had promoted American landscape painting and engraving was published by Levitt and Allen in New York. Cooper’s essay was taken in part from Notions of the Americans. 14
Cooper’s support of the canal may also be explained in his conclusion to the 1838 work The Chronicles of Cooperstown in which he avoids blaming the development of canals and railroads in other parts of the State, but not near his hometown, as a factor in its noticeable lack of population growth after 1820. Instead he explained that the loss of new residents after that time would be replaced with a gradual growth of prosperity in the town, as a center of tourism not unlike the English or Swiss Lakes. He adds, “To conclude, Cooperstown is evidently destined to occupy some such place among the towns of New York, as is now filled by the towns on the shores of the lakes of Westmoreland, in England, and by the several bourgs on those of the different waters of Switzerland.” 15 His vision included a village filled with “the increasing taste for boating, for music, the languages, and other amusements and accomplishments of the sort, that bespeak an improving civilization.” 16 This hamlet of culture would need the canal or railroad to transport people to its shores. Perhaps, he envisioned a feeder canal or branch railroad bringing these people to the region, as they did to Saratoga Springs and Auburn-two popular attractions in the State in the 1830s and 1840s.
Another American author, Nathaniel Hawthorne, wrote of the canal and its appeal to artists. In his “Sketches from Memory. By a Pedestrian.” published in the New England Magazine in 1835, the author writes, “’The Afternoon Scene’ and ‘The Night Scene’ (two parts of the article) will, we trust, suggest subjects to our landscape painters. The former, which has the mellow richness of a Claude, might be exquisitely done by Doughty; and the young Brown (M. E. D. Brown), whose promise is as great as the hopes of his friends, could employ his glowing pencil upon no subject better adapted to call forth his genus than the latter.” 17 His description of a canal voyage unlike any other written at the time is artistic in nature, using to describe the land many of the same words a reviewer of art exhibits might have used to describe the canvases of Cole or Church. Some examples include: “It holds its drowsy way through all the dismal swamps and unimpressive scenery. ... The wild Nature of America had been driven to this desert place by the encroachments of Civilized man ... the air being a sunny perfume, made up of balm and warmth and gentle brightness ... , but had become picturesque by the magic of strong light and deep shade.” 18 Writing which would challenge these artists. Several American landscape artists would, in fact, paint the canal in the 1820s, 30s and 40s.
 Cooper also was an important influence on these artists. He was a friend of Samuel Morse, who in addition to inventing the telegraph, was a landscape and portrait painter. While a resident of New York City, Cooper also met several of the Hudson River School artists through his membership in the Bread and Cheese Club and through common friends such as Luman Reed, one of the early supporters of Thomas Cole and Asher Durand. 19
After the publication of his Leatherstocking Tales in general and The Last of the Mohicans in particular, many of these artists used Cooper’s story as the setting of imaginary landscapes portraying Romantic “Noble Savages” similar to Cooper’s Uncas in their paintings. Rejected by many Americans as unrealistic, the Leatherstocking Tales appealed to New York artists, who shared a similar view of these Indians. Thomas Cole painted three versions of a painting entitled The Last of the Mohicans in 1827. Today, these paintings are owned by the New York State Historical Association in Cooperstown, Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford, Connecticut and Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Virginia. All three are scenes from the book painted with landscapes based on a trip Cole made to Lake George in 1826. 21 Asher Durand also painted a version of The Last of the Mohicans now owned by the White House dated 1857. A George Inness painting usually called Landscape and Forest dated 1857 was sometime mistakenly called “Last of the Mohicans” but unlike the other two is not a scene from the novel. 21
The Hudson River School artists had developed a concept of the pre-Revolutionary War Indian which was similar to that of Cooper as written in the Leatherstocking Tales. To these artists, the Indian of the British Colonies was enlightened in traditional wisdom; knowledge that Europeans had forgotten long ago. In the painting of Cole, Wyant and Durand in particular, the Indian is shown as an integral part of the forest where he lives and survives, while the European needs to alter nature, often shown by the use of cleared fields, railroads or canals, to live in the wild. These artists appear to want to join the Indians in these paintings, even if they can only do so in their imagination. 22 Cooper’s writing in The Last of the Mohicans parallels this view: “It was a feature peculiar to the colonial wars of North America, that the toils and dangers of the wilderness were to be encountered, before the adverse hosts could be met. The hardy colonist ... frequently expended months in struggling against the rapids of the streams, or in effecting the rugged passes of mountains. ... But, emulating the patience and selfdenial of the practiced native warriors, they learned to overcome every difficulty, and it would seem, that in time, there was no recess of the woods so dark, nor any secret place so lovely. ... ” The words of Cooper almost challenge an artist to paint this native, wild scene. 23
Several New York artists also painted Cooper’s portrait, including one by Albany landscape and portrait artist Asa Twitchell, now owned by the New-York Historical Society, and Charles Loring Elliott painted two, one now owned by the National Portrait Gallery and the other by the Sleepy Hollow Restoration in Terrytown. Asher Durand also painted Cooper; that work is owned by the White House. Two portraits, one by John Nagle and the other by John Wesley Jarvis are owned by Yale University. Elliott, Twitchell and Durand all were closely allied with or known as Hudson River School artists. Cooper’s friend, Samuel Morse also painted a portrait of “Marmaduke” Cooper, one of James’s characters and probably modeled by one of his brothers. That canvas was owned by the Cooper family as late as 1932. 24
Morse would also paint other canal related paintings, including both DeWitt Clinton owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and General LaFayette owned by the City of New York. Both works were completed in the mid-1820s and a sketch of LaFayette is owned by the New York Public Library. As a landscape painter, he would also paint Niagara Falls in 1835. That work was the only painting of a landscape made popular by the canal completed by Morse and is now owned by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. 25 The painting of their mutual friend LaFayette appears to owe more to Cooper than does the Niagara Falls landscape which lacks any reference to any of Cooper’s books. Notions of the Americans in fact only makes limited references to Western New York.
Both M. E. D. Brown and Thomas Doughty appear to have listened to Hawthorne’s suggestion that they paint the Canal. Most of Brown’s landscapes are located near Utica, his home, and are presently owned by the Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Museum, Utica Public Library and private collectors. It is not known if he was aware of either Hawthorne’s or Cooper’s work but they do not appear to be a direct influence on his known works. 26 Doughty made a trip on the Canal in 1836, painting Niagara Falls, Trenton Falls, “Anthony’s Nose” near Canajoharie and another entitled Along the Mohawk. The University of Southern California at Los Angeles and Memphis Art Museum own two of these four paintings. The others are in private hands. 27 Doughty’s paintings from this trip appear to mirror the Hawthorne descriptions of his work, but it is more likely that Hawthorne was describing already extant Doughty paintings in his text, rather than Doughty being influenced by Hawthorne’s writing.
Thomas Cole would paint many of the most famous of these Erie Canal sites. His most famous series of these works entitled The Voyage of Life was painted as a series of Graeco-Roman inspired myths featuring the four ages of man from Youth through Old Age. Both of the two versions of this work he painted, now located at the Munson-Williams-Proctor art museum and the National Gallery of Art, feature the Genesee River near Rochester in their background landscapes. 28 Cole would feature Indians in other canal related paintings including A View on the Schoharie painted in 1826 and owned by the New York State Historical Association in Cooperstown. Other paintings of Niagara Falls and the Genesee Falls now owned by the Art Institute of Chicago, Rhode Island School of Design and Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. All show Indians thriving in nature puzzled by the approach of Europeans. 29
At times Cooper’s words in The Last of the Mohicans appear to be describing the land that the Hudson River School artists were painting. Not the topography that these people saw during their lifetimes but the land they imagined existed prior to Europeans having ever seen the region. Cooper states, “The party had landed on the border of a region that is, even to this day, less known to the inhabitants of the states, than the deserts of Arabia, or the steppes of Tartary. It was the sterile and rugged district, which separates the tributaries of the Champlain from the Hudson, the Mohawk and of the St. Lawrence. Since the period of our tale, the active spirit of the country has surrounded it with a belt of rich and thriving settlements, though none but the hunter or the savage is ever known, even now, to penetrate its wild recesses.” 31 In geography, he is referring to the Adirondacks but in mental concept he is reminding his readers of any land which has not yet been settled by the Westerners. Those are also the scenes painted by many of the earlier Hudson River School artists.
Two of the most rugged of these paintings were completed by Alexander Wyant in 1865. Except for a brief period of time in 1866, when the works were known as Tennessee, both of the paintings were called The Mohawk Valley by the artist. Wyant probably visited the region near Canajoharie, New York between 1861, when he established a studio in New York, and 1863, when he traveled to Germany to study art in Munich. The use of a southern location for the paintings in 1866 appears to have been inspired by his plans to exhibit the works in Paris and London, which were both pro-southern in the Civil War, rather than his actual visiting of any rivers in that area. Not only would it have been hard for Wyant to have traveled to Tennessee from Saint Louis, where he did visit to paint some landscapes in 1861, but the landscape depicted in this scene, including a terminal moraine of a glacier, did not exist near where he would have been able to visit. 31
Not that the Mohawk Valley appeared in the 1860s as Wyant had painted it. Logging and farming had taken most of the trees in the entire region and replaced them with fields, farms and meadows, but Wyant was not undertaking an accurate landscape here. His goal was to show the region as it appeared prior to European settlement and for that he added literally thousands of trees to a scene which appears to include both the Canajoharie Falls and the Noses near Sprakers, New York. No other region of the Mohawk Valley has the right landmarks for this painting, and none in Tennessee appears to be accurate. 32 The wildness of the scene owes much to both Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales and to the teachings of German artists, who stressed the painting of landscapes as the artist thought they should appear not as they were seen.
Asher Durand also painted the Erie Canal. A painting of the Rochester area known as Genesee Oaks is owned by the Memorial Art Gallery at the University of Rochester and was completed in 1860. Another painting entitled Scene on the Erie Canal is presently unlocated. The role Cooper may have played in the development of either of these paintings is minimal and would be traced to his writings about Indians and the Canal in works discussed earlier. 33
More interesting is his painting, Progress depicting canal, railroad and a curious Indian watching the development and “progress” of civilization. In this painting, Durand and Cooper are in agreement about the Indians’ wisdom and understanding of nature contrasted to the European need to dominate it. In many of these paintings, including Progress, the viewer must look hard to observe the Indians in the scene. They often are all but hidden in trees, whereas Europeans are always shown in clearings, assisted by tools and machines even in the least developed of areas. The railroad and canal in this painting is seen as a necessary link for Europeans to experience nature; not, as later scholars would suggest, as an inherent contradiction to it. Cooper and Durand objected to man’s clearing of the wilderness; not the transportation which enabled him to reach it in the American West, which by the mid-1850s was the other side of the Mississippi River. 34
Frederick Church, also of the Hudson River School, and other later landscape artists, such as George Inness and Albert Bierstadt, would all paint scenes along the Erie Canal. All would paint Niagara Falls. Church would paint the Schoharie Creek and Bierstadt the Erie Canal near Rochester, but they did not share Cole, Durand and Wyant’s view of nature and the American’s role in the West. By the mid-1850s, with the improvements to transportation and travel developed by the railroad, these artist saw nature as an approachable muse, not a worthy adversary. By depicting nature as a servant to man, these artists were not influenced by the writings of Cooper but rather of Mark Twain, Charles Dickens and Herman Melville, the next generation of 19ᵗʰ Century writers.
- Anderson, Patricia. The Course of Empire: The Erie Canal and the New York Landscape. Rochester, New York: Memorial Art Gallery, 1984.
- Cooper, James Fenimore. The Chronicles of Cooperstown, in A History of Cooperstown. Cooperstown. New York: New York State Historical Association, 1976.
- ------. The Last of the Mohicans, in Blake Nevius, editor, The Leatherstocking Tales. New York: The Viking Press, Vol I., 1985.
- ------. Notions of the Americans: Picked Up by a Travelling Bachelor. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991.
- Crawford, James. “The Art of the Erie Canal,” in American Art Review, Vol. XIII, No. 1, February-March 1996, pp. 100-105.
- Des Grange, Jane, ed. Wondrous Spaces: New York State Landscapes from New York Museums. Oneonta, New York: The Museums at Hartwick, 1990.
- Grossman, James. James Fenimore Cooper. The American Men of Letters Series. New York: William Sloane Associates, 1949.
- Hall, Basil. Travels in North America in the Years 1827 and 1828. 3 vols. Edinburgh: Cadell and Company, 1829.
- (Hawthorne, Nathaniel.) “Sketches from Memory. By a Pedestrian.” New England Magazine IX (December 1835), pp. 398-409.
- LeVasseur, A., LaFayette in America in 1824 and 1825; or, Journal of A Voyage to the United States. Philadelphia: Lea and Carey, 1829.
- Long, Robert Emmet. James Fenimore Cooper. New York: Frederick Unger, 1990.
- National Museum of American Art. Smithsonian Institution. Inventory of American Paintings and Sculpture Completed Before 1914. Washington, DC.
- Schweitzer, Paul, ed. Masterworks of American Art from the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute. New York: Harry Abrams, 1989.
- Sternberger, Robert. Lecture entitled The Hudson River School and Territorial Expansion. Presented at the Canajoharie Library and Art Gallery, October, 1996.
1 For this paper, I have utilized the later or American edition of the work: A. LeVasseur, Lafayette in America in 1824 and 1825: or, Journal of a Voyage to the United States, Philadelphia: Lea and Carey, 1829, for all quotes and citations.
2 A. LeVasseur, Layfayette in America, 1829, p. 199.
3 Ibid, p. 193.
4 James Grossman, James Fenimore Cooper. New York: William Sloane Associates, 1949, pp. 59-60.
5 Robert Emmet Long, James Fenimore Cooper. New York: Frederick Anger, 1990, pp. 23-24.
6 James Fenimore Cooper, Notions of the Americans: Picked Up by a Travelling Bachelor , Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991, pp. 207, 115
7 Washington, in fact, had been a supporter of an earlier, 1790s, canal known as the Western Inland Lock Navigation Canal Company, which built a series of smaller 2 or 3 mile canals in Rome, Little Falls and Herkimer to aid river navigation on the Mohawk and Wood Creek route to Lake Ontario. These statements appear to have been misinterpreted as support for the Erie Canal, which Washington probably would have opposed for its use of public funds.
8 In fact, the works he was satirizing were not published in America until 1829 for LeVasseur (although a French edition had been published in 1827) and 1830 for Hall. Cooper must have read some of the serialized work published in chapters in London in 1828 to have been aware of Hall’s writings which he did satirize in his 1828 work.
9 James Grossman, James Fenimore Cooper, p. 66.
10 James Fenimore Cooper, Notions of the Americans, pp. 216-217.
11 For a comprehensive bibilogarphy of accounts of written descriptions of the canal see Patricia Anderson, The Course of Empire: The Erie Canal and the New York Landscape. Rochester, New York: Memorial Art Gallery, 1984, pp. 81-83.
12 Jane Des Grange, ed. Wondrous Spaces: New York Landscapes from New York Museums. Oneonta, New York: Museums at Hartwick, 1990, pp. 36-40.
13 Ibid, p. 39.
14 Home Authors and Home Artists; or American Scenery Art and Literature. New York: Levitt and Allen, 1852, p. 72.
15 James Fenimore Cooper, The Chronicles of Cooperstown, in A History of Cooperstown. Cooperstown, New York: New York State Historical Association, 1976, p. 43.
16 Ibid, p. 43.
17 “Sketches from Memory. By A Pedestrian.” New England Magazine IX, (December, 1835), p. 398.
18 Ibid, p. 408.
19 Robert Emmet Long, James Fenimore Cooper, p. 21, and Lecture by Robert Sternberger, The Hudson River School and Territorial Expansion, Canajoharie Library and Art Gallery, October 1996.
20 National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Inventory of American Paintings.
21 Conversations with curators of painting at the various museums listed above.
22 Robert Sternberger, Lecture, October, 1996.
23 James Fenimore Cooper, The Last of the Mohicans , in Blake Nevius, editor, The Leather Stocking Tales. New York: The Viking Press, 1985, Volume 1, p. 479.
24 Inventory of American Paintings. The painting has not been located in more recent times. It is not listed in either Paul Staiti’s checklist of works by Morse nor is it illustrated in William Kloss’s monograph on the artist. Although I am relying on the authentification of the curators at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1932, I believe that it is likely a work by him. More problematic is the identification of the sitter as” Marmaduke”. James Fenimore Cooper did have a grand-nephew by that name and according to Staiti, Morse did paint one of Cooper’s nephews, Goldsborough Cooper. It is more likely that the 1932 owner, the author’s grandson, also known as James Fenimore Cooper had a painting by the artist of a closer family member. Perhaps, as I have suggested, the subject of the painting could have been a character from one of Cooper’s novels. In all probability, the painting is either of Judge Temple, of William Cooper (painted posthumously) or of one of the author’s brothers. I have chosen Judge Temple as the subject as the most logical explanation for the confusion.
26 Both Brown and Doughty exhibited paintings in New York and Boston in the 1820s and 1830s where Hawthorne must have seen them.
27 Inventory of American Paintings.
28 Paul D. Schweizer, editor, Masterworks of American Art from the Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute. New York: Harry Abrams, 1989, p. 43.
29 Inventory of American Paintings.
30 James Fenimore Cooper, The Last of the Mohicans, p. 605.
31 The Inventory of American Paintings lists several 1861 paintings completed by Wyant on or near the Ohio and Mississippi rivers as far south as Saint Louis, but no works from that time period were completed in the Southern States.
32 The painting was exhibited in the 1970s at the Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Museum, incorrectly identified as Trenton Falls, even though the painting has a stream flowing in the exact opposite direction from the Black River at Trenton Falls.
33 Robert Sternberger, Lecture, 1996.