Notable American engraver John Casilear took on various projects, including vignettes for book illustrations. In 1839, he worked on the designs for The Token and Atlantic Souvenir, an annual gift book whose contributors at the time included Nathaniel Hawthorne. But in 1840 he embarked on a new adventure, assuming the life of a painter, which began with a trip to Europe to sketch scenery and study the work of the Old Masters.
His companions on the journey were portrait artist Thomas Rossiter and Casilear’s two best friends, John Kensett and Asher Durand. All would one day be identified as artists of the Hudson River School.
They traveled on the world’s largest steamship, the British Queen, and spent much of their time in the countryside on sketching trips, plus viewing the works of European artists at every opportunity. Among the cities they visited were London, Rome, and Paris. Experts later noted the influence of France’s Claude Lorrain as evident in many of Casilear’s landscapes.
Kensett and Rossiter remained overseas until 1847, while the others returned to America in 1843 with two summers’ worth of sketches. Before year’s end, one of Casilear’s paintings was included for sale in the Apollo Association’s catalog, which was distributed to members, a common method of selling artwork. It was an important first step towards success.
Just as Durand had traveled north in the 1830s with Thomas Cole, generally regarded as a founder of the Hudson River School of landscape artists, Casilear accompanied his mentor, Durand, on sketching trips to upstate New York in the 1840s, ranging as far north as the Adirondacks and Lake Champlain. This required taking a steamboat on the Hudson to Albany, then a stage to Whitehall at the foot of Lake Champlain, and a boat to a landing place on the western shore, possibly at Westport, before heading inland to Elizabethtown. Travel could be slow and laborious, but it was worth it to access scenes of unparalleled natural beauty that, through paintings, they could share with the public.
While developing his skills by turning sketches into paintings, Casilear continued working as an engraver, which provided a substantial income. One of the largest works he produced was 1847’s A Sybil, a painting by Daniel Huntington. Such was the quality of his engravings that the American Art Union offered Sybil prints as a reward for annual subscribers, and as a recruiting incentive for new members. “This year each member will receive two large engravings: The Jolly Flatboatmen, now being engraved by Donney … and a Sybil, now being engraved by Casilear.” It was an efficient fundraising system employed by many such organizations: membership dues were used to purchase paintings, have them engraved, and provide quality prints to members. Financially, plenty was at stake: membership fees the previous year totaled the 2018 equivalent of $685,000. The offering of two works in 1847, including a Casilear, to nearly 10,000 members generated more than twice that amount, today’s equal of $1.5 million.
His reputation as an engraver was also in the news for another reason. It was revealed that during the past decade, frustrated counterfeiters who were stymied in attempts to copy Casilear’s bank-note work had resorted to purchasing or stealing the original plates to produce unauthorized notes. Such extreme measures emphasized just how valuable men like Casilear were to banks and other institutions. The best engravers were the most difficult to copy, making their clients the least susceptible to counterfeiters.
For those same reasons, top-grade engravers were critical to stamp production as well. When the US government postage-stamp contract (1847 to 1851) expired, the firm of Toppan, Carpenter, Casilear (he joined in 1850) and Company of Philadelphia signed a lucrative, exclusive contract to produce stamps for the next decade. New postal rates were established, guiding the company’s production of five previous denominations and three new ones during the next ten years. The engravings copied paintings of 200 subjects, including portraits of famous American politicians.
To handle the increased work volume, the firm took on more engravers and opened offices at 29 Wall Street in New York City. Needing still more space, they moved to the Trinity Building on Broadway in 1853, occupying the huge fifth floor and offering rental space there “suitable for artists.” At the same time, and for at least four more years, Casilear was still providing bank-note engraving services from the office on Walnut Street in Philadelphia.
As the company prospered, so did John Casilear’s life as an emerging artist. After his best friend, John Kensett, returned from Europe in 1847, they had begun traveling north on sketching expeditions. In 1849, reporting on a typical jaunt, the Spirit of the Times in Philadelphia noted in its “Movements of Artists” column: “Kensett, and his old companion Casilear, are sketching among the rocks and falling waters of Greene County, in this state, and the wild scenery of that neighborhood.”
By 1850, more art catalogs featured Casilear’s paintings, including View in Ulster County and View in Switzerland, the latter from a sketch during his trip years earlier to Europe. The following year he was granted full academician status by the National Academy of Design. At that point, his work was valued commercially, and also showed staying power. In 1853, six years after his engraving of A Sybil, 11 x 16 proofs and prints were still being advertised in newspapers — proofs for $1.25 ($41 in 2018) and prints for 75 cents ($25).
In 1854, Casilear opened a studio in New York City and began painting landscapes fulltime, an effort that bore fruit the following year at the Exhibition of the National Academy of Design. An expert reported the results in the New York Tribune:
“The Landscapes … seem to us the most interesting portion of the Exhibition. If, in fact, America is destined to have a school of painting all her own, it will necessarily be that of Landscapes…. Mr. J. W. Casilear has a fair share of the honors of the Exhibition. His Early Autumn is one of the best of its pictures. The ensemble of this production is good; its dispositions happy and natural. Everything in it is well-placed; and behind the groups of trees, largely-handled, is a beautiful distance finely toned. Sun, shade, and atmosphere are all here. His Showery Day is of very good color and well-rendered effect.”
His location — on the fourth floor of Waverly House, at the corner of Broadway and Fourth — became an artists’ enclave of sorts, where many others rented studio space, including his closest friend, John Kensett. An art connoisseur in 1856 wrote in the Cortland County Republican about visiting the site. “The cool, clear, harmonious landscapes of Casilear are produced in this place.” The NAD also praised his work that year, adding, “Mr. Casilear holds the popular admiration. He seems to have hit a warmth of color and indistinctness of form which charm everybody. No. 155 is admirable both in its execution and effect.”
Next week: a whirlwind life in the arts; commercial success.