In the mid-1850s, John Casilear’s career of more than 30 years as an engraver was gradually coming to an end, leaving him financially comfortable and free to focus on painting. He did just that by taking a second trip to Europe in 1857 to compile a fresh collection of ideas and sketches for future subjects, and to paint. While he was away, pieces of his artwork appeared in the 1858 National Academy of Design (NAD) Exhibition in New York City and earned praise from high sources.
Harper’s Weekly glowed: “Mr. Casilear’s power is in exquisitely delicate, vignette-like sketching…. A dreamy tranquility of atmosphere, with delicate-hued hills, a thoughtful spire, a gleaming brook — beauty in repose, and in detail — these are the subjects in whose delineation Mr. Casilear is so eminently successful.”
Regarding one Adirondack painting, the New York Times said: “The inevitable slender tree on the left of the foreground, and the softly composing lights of the middle distance, tell us quite as much of the artist himself as of Lake George. The picture is eminently agreeable and is therefore a favorable specimen of Mr. Casilear’s particular merit.”
After two summers of sketching, primarily in Switzerland, he returned to America in late 1858 and moved to the third story of the just-completed Tenth Street Studio building, where many artists set up shop, including six others on the same floor. There he painted and, said the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, displayed “his studies from among the Alps, and various other interesting localities.”
During the 1860s, when he was in his fifties, Casilear remained a busy man. Each year he produced new works for the NAD annual exhibition; he donated paintings to help fund the Union effort during the Civil War; his engravings were added to a catalog featuring the nation’s best works in that category; his paintings were added to exclusive catalogs; he produced pieces that were purchased by several prominent collectors; he worked constantly in support of the NAD; he took sketching trips each summer (including to the Adirondacks) to obtain material for future paintings; and before the decade ended, he married and became a father (he was wed to Helen Howard in 1867; they had a son, John, born in 1868). Another highlight that year was the display of two Casilear works at Exposition Universelle (the World’s Fair) in Paris, which in seven months was visited by nine million visitors from 41 countries. His paintings there were joined by six others produced by his best friends, two by Durand and four by Kensett.
If it were possible, he was even more involved in the world of art for the next couple of decades. His annual sketching escapades included a trip out west, including Colorado, but most of them were to New England locations and the Adirondacks, Catskills, and Finger Lakes in New York State. He served terms on the Artists’ Fund Board of Control, and as president, and donated paintings annually to support the Artists’ Fund Society. He also served on the NAD Council and the Hanging Committee, playing an important role in the academy’s ongoing displays of artwork. His own paintings were exhibited by a plethora of galleries and organizations, the most prominent of which were the Yale School of Fine Arts, the Brooklyn Art Association, and the Academy of Fine Arts. He donated paintings to fundraisers for widows and orphans of artists, the Peabody Home for Aged Women, and the relief auction for victims of the Great Chicago Fire. His paintings were exhibited in many cities, including Albany, Chicago, Cincinnati, Louisville, Milwaukee, and St. Louis. Among his works displayed at Chicago was Glimpses of the Adirondacks, and at Milwaukee, Lake Champlain.
His View of the White Mountains was included in a Christmas gift book of notable paintings, and after serving as a pallbearer when his best friend, John Kensett, died in 1872, Casilear, whose own works were often very similar in style, completed an unfinished Kensett piece. The following year, at a sale of 113 Kensett paintings, it fetched the top price of $1,600 — equal to $33,100 in 2018!
Casilear, an impressive talent and prodigious worker, was popular across the board — with other painters, the public, and serious collectors. He enjoyed regular sales of works that generally averaged the 2018 equivalent of $2,000 to $6,000. Some went for much higher prices, including one in 1881 for $19,400, and another in 1888 for $31,200 (both in 2018 amounts).
Many of his works were of Swiss and Alpine scenery, but as a landscape artist, he was beguiled by one particular North Country location. This can lead to confusion while perusing some of his works, for among the numerous scenes he painted of northern New York, several were titled, “Lake George,” and were created over a span of 15 years or more. He was known to have visited the lake from the 1840s into the 1880s, often with Durand or Kensett, both of whom also produced paintings of Lake George scenes.
Critics and connoisseurs writing for major publications frequently praised his work. “Casilear sends [to the David Matthews Art Gallery] an October landscape of rare beauty” (New York Evening Post, 1874).
“Moonlight in the Glen is as impressive in its solitude as the Riverside is expressive and sparkling in light and aerial effects. Even in the moonlight view there is a precision of drawing shown in the tree-forms which suggests Mr. Casilear’s conscientiousness, but its most poetical feature is the strong feeling of solitude with which the scene is invested. Mr. Casilear is now in the full maturity of his powers” (The Art Journal, 1876).
“Representing the name of Mr. Casilear, there is a charming landscape view entitled A Distant View of the Catskills. Like all of this artist’s work, it is pervaded by a silvery tone [Luminism] which is very attractive” (Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1876).
“J. W. Casilear is putting the last touches on a view from Burlington, Vermont, looking over Lake Champlain to the Adirondacks. There is a fine luminous sky, throwing well-rendered lights upon the lake, and a good foreground” (New York Herald, 1878).
Next week, the conclusion.
Photos: John Casilear portrait by Asher B. Durand, circa 1840 (gift of Mrs. Lucy M. Durand Woodman to the NY Historical Society Museum & Library); Tenth Street Studio Building (The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library); Lake George by Casilear (American Gallery website); Saratoga Landscape by Casilear, 1877 (Artnet website)