A Chance Encounter: Sarah Haven Foster, Susan Fenimore Cooper, and Rural Hours

Alvin L. Hall (The Union Institute)

Presented at the 12ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 1999.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 1999 Cooper Seminar (No. 12), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Hugh C. MacDougall, editor. (pp. 33-35).

Copyright © 2000, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

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


[to a proposed publication of Foster’s illustrations]

{33} Over the last twenty-five years, the two research topics I have found most rewarding have both resulted from serendipity, “chance encounters,” if you please, the fine art of being in the right place at the right time, of finding something unexpected while looking for something else. The first involved the Confederacy’s most prolific, and worst, composer, Charles de Nordendorf. I stumbled across de Nordendorf when a colleague discovered a piece of sheet music with his name and imprint on it.

De Nordendorf was born Karl Sauer Csaky, edler von Nordendorf, in Vienna. He emigrated to the Confederate States of American in 1862, became an ardent patriot of the “lost cause,” and wrote and published over 80 songs with titles like “The Sword of Robert Lee” and “The Stonewall Jackson Quickstep.” All were bad, but de Nordendorf wrote more songs than any other Confederate composer, an achievement the Virginia State Library considered worthy enough to merit a short article in its quarterly journal Virginia Cavalcade. The title was “Charles Chakey de Nordendorf: Soldier- Songster of the Confederacy.”

The second chance encounter involved Sarah Haven Foster, a painter who lived in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in the nineteenth century, and her older contemporary, Susan Fenimore Cooper, a nearly lifelong resident of Cooperstown, New York. These two remarkable women came together in a unique set of Cooper’s Rural Hours.

I first encountered Sarah Foster’s work in the Portsmouth Public Library. Working with a group of students on researching local history, I was in the library listening to the archivist talk about document preservation. She brought out a folio-sized volume entitled Scenes of Portsmouth, N.H., consisting of 174 watercolors of landscapes and buildings in the towns of southeastern New Hampshire and southern Maine. There were also several paintings from Lake George, New York; Deerfield, Massachusetts; and two rather incongruous paintings — St. John’s Church and the Confederate Monument in Hollywood Cemetery, both in Richmond, Virginia.

The preservation issue was straightforward. The artist had used a small dab of hide glue on each corner as adhesive in placing the paintings in the volume. The glue was causing the paintings to deteriorate. But my interests lay elsewhere.

None of the paintings in the volume was larger than a postcard, yet each had exquisite color, as fresh as the day they were painted. When I asked the archivist what she knew about the artist, she pointed me to a three by five card on the inside cover — “Sarah Haven Foster, daughter of John Welch and Mary Appleton Foster, 1827-1900.” “That’s about all we know about her.” As I turned to leave, she continued, “Oh, by the way, you might be interested to know that the library has five other volumes of Sarah Foster’s paintings and a set of watercolors of wild flowers.” I was hooked.

The outline of Sarah Foster’s life is quite simple. Born in 1827 to John Welch and Mary Appleton Foster, her father was one of the most respected members of the community, a bookseller and printer, founder of the Portsmouth Athenaeum, member of the school committee and board of selectmen, founder of the Sunday School at the South Church, Unitarian. When he died, all businesses in Portsmouth closed for a day so that people might attend his funeral. Her mother was born in Baltimore and was a member of the Appleton family long associated with the history of Cambridge and Harvard. Sarah had an older brother, Joseph Hiller Foster, and a younger sister, Mary Appleton Foster. Joseph founded Portsmouth’s most important bank. Mary was active in civic life and charitable groups and, during the Civil War, became a nurse. The family was quite comfortable financially, sufficiently so that Sarah and Mary could travel extensively, usually to Europe for two or three months each year. They even lived abroad for four years in the late 1880’s. Neither sister ever married. Following their father’s death in 1852, they continued to live with their mother until her death and together after that.

{34} There is almost no record of Sarah’s early life. I can speculate that she attended Portsmouth’s public schools, since both her father and brother served on the school committee. However, since a female relative operated a female academy, it is also possible that she took her education there. From an early age, she was an active and devoted Unitarian.

She was a writer. During the Civil War, in response to a contest sponsored by the Unitarian Universalist Society, she wrote a volume of children’s Bible stories entitled Watchwords for Young Soldiers. It won first prize. In 1876, she wrote and published a Guidebook to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, modeled after the walking tours she had encountered in Europe. For years, this was attributed to her brother because her name appears nowhere in the volume while Joseph was listed as the publisher. This volume went through four editions and remains one of the major sources for information on Portsmouth in the nineteenth century. She also wrote and published poetry on topics that included nature, religion and the Civil War.

But most of all Sarah painted. There are nearly 800 watercolors inn the collection in the Portsmouth Public Library, divided into three distinct groups. The first is the volume that introduced me to Sarah. The second is a group consisting of five volumes of painting from her European travels. The largest number are from Germany, France, Switzerland, Italy, Spain and the British Isles. Like the Portsmouth volume, these consist mainly of buildings and landscapes. The third collection is a series of seventy-five individual paintings of wildflowers. I have found only one painting by Sarah outside the Portsmouth Public Library.

I suspect others exist. The volumes of European paintings are numbered I, III, IV, VII, and XI indicating that at one time there were volumes II, V, VI, VIII, IX, and X. Furthermore, one of the few letters I have found from Sarah was written from Norway. There are no Scandinavian paintings in the Portsmouth collection and I cannot imagine Sarah travelling without painting. Where are they? Since those in the library were a gift from Sarah’s sister, just before she moved to California following Sarah’s death, I suspect they are in some California library or museum, awaiting another chance encounter.

Sarah Foster died in 1900, the victim of a tragic accident on the Portsmouth Electric Railroad. Hard of hearing and with her sight failing in her advanced years, she stepped into the path of a streetcar one Sunday evening and never regained consciousness.

Enter Susan Fenimore Cooper. In my search for Sarah’s papers, I tried to locate her family. My task was complicated by the fact that her sister, Mary, moved to California in 1903, to live with Joseph’s daughters. There appeared to be no descendants left on the East Coast. Through correspondence with some very helpful librarians in San Rafael and San Francisco, I succeeded in tracing the only surviving relatives. They had just moved back to Boston a month before, after my search had been under way for some time. I went for a visit. To my disappointment, they had no family papers nor did they know of any. However, as I was preparing to leave, my host said to his wife: “Do you suppose he would be interested in Sarah’s book?” I thought he was referring to the Guidebook and said I had already seen it. No, that was not the book he had in mind. Since they had not yet finished unpacking, I had to wait until the located the volume. They handed me two volumes entitled Rural Hours by “A Lady.” These volumes were exquisitely bound in leather and contained 129 individual watercolors of wild birds, wild flowers, and other natural objects and over 500 pages of text.

The family had been living with the illusion for over a hundred years that Sarah Foster was the author. It took me five minutes in a good research library to determine that “A Lady” was none other than Susan Fenimore Cooper.

Susan Fenimore Cooper was an older contemporary of Sarah Foster’s, was born in Scarsdale in 1813, and lived most of her life in Cooperstown. Although Susan, like Sarah, lived in the shadow of her father, she made an important literary contribution of her own. She wrote introductions to an edition of her father’s works, at least one novel that was at first attributed to James Fenimore, and biographical pieces. However, her most famous work during her lifetime was Rural Hours, an excerpt from her diaries that traces the changing seasons in and around Cooperstown in 1848 and 1849. Susan took daily walks in all seasons. She recorded her observations of natural things — birds, wildflowers, Lake Otsego (James Fenimore’s Glimmerglass) — as well as passing events in her diary. She was a keen observer and superb writer.

First published in 1850, Rural Hours had an interesting publishing history. Prior to its publication, Susan’s father cautioned her not to have great expectations. In one letter, he noted that while the English liked this sort of thing, Americans did not. This probably led to a first edition limited to a few hundred copies. But Rural Hours proved more popular than even this experienced writer imagined. By 1851, it was in the fourth edition and eventually saw at least eight editions in the United States and England. However, it has been out of print for over one hundred years, except for an abridged edition prepared by Susan in 1887 and reprinted by Syracuse University Press in 1968, until the University {35} of Georgia Press published a scholarly edition of the original text in 1998. The fourth edition was the first one to be illustrated, with twenty-one hand tinted lithographs. I do not know how Sarah Haven Foster came to replace these original illustrations with 129 of her own. However, I can make a calculated judgement.

Picture, if you will, a young woman, Sarah Foster, an accomplished artist, looking through the new stock in her father’s Portsmouth, New Hampshire bookstore late in 1851. Her eyes fell on a new “fine” edition of Rural Hours, a hot seller that no less a figure than William Cullen Bryant called a “great book — the greatest of the season.” “What a fine gift this would make for Joseph! But I can illustrate it better.” And she did. Sarah Foster took a copy of the illustrated edition, replaced its twenty-one colored lithographs with 129 of her watercolors, had them rebound with the original text, and gave it to her brother. The volumes used for this publication are inscribed to “Joseph Hiller Foster, 1852.”

I have run across no indication that Sarah Haven Foster and Susan Fenimore Cooper actually met. However, Sarah’s paintings from the Lake George region are a source of tantalizing speculation.

A few notes about the paintings. I have referred to them as watercolors. On the other hand, experts in painting, especially nineteenth century American painting, have suggested that they may be casein, similar to watercolor but with a milk base. The color white, where used, is more opaque than with watercolor. These same authorities have also suggested that the colors remain so vivid because the paintings have remained within the volumes out of the sunlight for nearly one hundred fifty years. Exposure to light, especially sunlight, causes watercolors and casein to fade rather quickly.

Readers of this volume who are familiar with nineteenth century art and natural history will also notice a similarity between Sarah Foster’s wild birds and those of James Audubon. When I first noticed this, while looking at the wood duck in its unusual position, I knew I had seem something very similar. A quick check in the library confirmed my suspicion. Sarah Foster painted most, if not all, of the wild birds from an edition of Audubon’s Birds of North America. I went to the records of the Portsmouth Athenaeum, of which Sarah’s father was a founder and her brother a member, and found that, in 1851-52, the library had possessed a first edition. Sarah could not be a member, she was a woman, but her father had checked out the library’s copy in 1852, shortly before his death. Sarah did make changes. She replaced the plants used for backgrounds with plants native to New England.

This discovery led to a concern that she might also have copied the wildflowers. A day at Harvard’s Gray Herbarium dispelled this fear. After looking through dozens of volumes of flora from the 18ᵗʰ and 19ᵗʰ centuries and working with a historical botanist, I concluded that the flowers were done from life. By comparing these paintings with those of wildflowers in the Portsmouth Public Library, it is certain that both came from the same paintbrush and palette.

The Foster volumes of Rural Hours contain some other interesting features. Sarah replaced the original table of illustrations with a hand-written table. Comparison of this writing with the few known examples of her writing indicate that she was the writer. She also labeled each painting with its common name and included a page reference to help the reader locate the text. Finally, she had dividers printed for “Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter,” and painted a wreath of seasonal flowers.

For text, I have selected only those passages that relate to specific illustrations. They are arranged largely in chronological order, beginning with the Spring of 1848. To be completely enjoyed, they should be used in conjunction with the complete edition of Rural Hours published by the University of Georgia Press in 1998.

These volumes are truly a unique set of an important American work of literature, natural history writing and painting. This publication will allow a much wider audience to enjoy them and will assure their preservation.

Four subjects illustrated by Sarah Haven Foster for Rural Hours, with references to Susan Fenimore Cooper’s discussion of them (page numbers from University of Georgia edition):

Passenger Pigeon: Rural Hours, Monday, March 27 (pp. 16-17)

White Breasted Nuthatch: Rural Hours, Saturday, April 8 (pp. 34- 35)

Apple Blossoms: Rural Hours, Monday, June 22 (p. 82) and Tuesday April 11 (pp. 36-37)

Trailing Arbutus (Epigaea repens) : Rural Hours, Tuesday, May 24 (pp. 45-47)