After a stellar 30-year career as a professional engraver of bank notes, artwork, and other items, John Casilear had left the industry to become a fulltime painter, and a very good one — a creator of lovely, detailed landscapes epitomized by artists of the Hudson River School. Even as the popularity of that genre faded and the American art world followed new paths, he was still the frequent recipient of praise and admiration. General assessments of his artistic capabilities were positive, and even glowing.
“There are very few artists belonging to the American school of landscape painters who have achieved such widespread popularity as John W. Casilear…. Mr. Casilear is a great lover of pastoral scenes, and some of his most notable pictures of this character have been drawn from the neighborhood of Lake George, and the Genesee Valley…. His pictures when sent from the easel are as harmonious as a poem, and it is this perfect serenity in their handling which is so attractive to connoisseurs…. He is one of the most popular landscape painters of the day” (The Art Journal, 1876).
“The sale of Mr. Robert Olyphant’s gallery will witness the dispersal of one of the most notable collections of pictures by American artists every brought together in this country…. More than 60 artists have contributed to the Olyphant gallery.… Landscape is evidently Mr. O’s penchant, and next to Kensett, Casilear and Cropsey seem to have been his favorite painters in this department. Both artists are certainly seen here at their best” (New York Sun, 1878).
“Mr. J. W. Casilear’s Long Island Scenery after Rain is an excellent picture, painted in the old-fashioned manner, careful in drawing, colored methodically, and pleasing in every way” (Brooklyn Union, 1883).
“Mr. Casilear, Dean of the Faculty in the Tenth Street studio building … established his quarters in a large room on the top floor of that somber and monastic structure as soon as the bricks in it were dry, and there he remained until last Thursday, a period of 25 years…. His soft and silvery summer landscapes, charged with light and pervaded with a sense of warmth and peace and fruitfulness, are familiar to habitués of the Academy and Artists’ Fund exhibitions…. More than one struggling student and painter has had cause to bless him, not merely for criticism and counsel, but for assistance that implies more when bread, not advice, is needed” (Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1885).
“The strictly American school — that of Casilear, Kensett … the school of self-educated nature lovers … aimed to reproduce what charmed them most in men and landscapes. They were the pioneers of American art” (Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1887).
“The age limitation of the Hallgarten prizes [Casilear was 77 at the time; the donor stipulated that recipients must be 35 or younger] tends to prevent their award for the best landscape work. Artists under 35 years of age very rarely succeed in producing anything that would not be ashamed of itself if hung beside Mr. Casilear’s View Near Peconic. A more charming, restful, and yet varied rural scene is seldom put on canvas with so delicate an appreciation of its spirit” (New York Press, 1888).
Even while recovering from a hand injury suffered in 1890 when, at the age of 79, he fell down a flight of stairs, Casilear continued to paint into old age — and his love for the Adirondack region never waned. Capital Region galleries exhibited and sold his paintings, many of which were based on nearby natural beauty. His many renditions of Lake George scenes suggested it might have been his favorite subject, even after visiting, sketching, and painting landscapes of the Colorado Rockies and the Swiss Alps. He was a frequent visitor to Saratoga Springs, and one of countless New York City celebrities mentioned in the social pages as a patron of the famed and grand hostelry, Congress Hall.
It was, in fact, at Saratoga Springs where John William Casilear, 82, passed away after suffering a stroke in August 1893. Perhaps fittingly, after travels to Europe, the American West, the New England states, and living in New York City most of his life, the end came within 20 miles of his beloved Lake George.
As a respected artist and stalwart of the National Academy of Design for half a century, he was aptly eulogized by the organization at a memorial service in New York City. “In certain tender silvery effects of light over quiet woodland and river scenes he was especially happy, his works being charged by a certain refinement of color and softness of atmospheric effect that won for him considerable distinction. Those of us who have been associated with him for so many years will always remember his cheerful, manly ways, his bright conversations, and keen interest in art, so that our sense of loss can hardly be conveyed by a formal resolution.”
As happens in the world of artists, fame and lucrative sales often come well after death. But in Casilear’s case, he had long been financially sound, and although his career as a painter consumed less than half his life, he was openly admired by critics, collectors, and fellow artists alike. Still, when any artist of note expires, the value of their work increases in part because there will be no more new works produced. Galleries and collectors position themselves, choosing which of his paintings they wished to purchase at sale events that would inevitably follow.
Scores of Casilear’s works, ranging from one to several, exchanged hands at art auctions and estate sales during the decade following his death. Bulk offerings were made as well, including the Fifth Avenue Art Galleries’ sale in 1897 of 85 Casilear landscapes, which sold for the 2018 equivalent of prices ranging from $1,500 to $7,800. That same year, the Metropolitan Museum of Art accepted from his niece the donation of a work titled In the Pasture.
In 1905, the New York Herald addressed the Metropolitan’s latest plan: “Now it is proposed to make the American exhibit in the museum the best in the United States, which would mean the best in the world…. There are now at the museum no fewer than ninety-three American artists represented” — including Casilear and his two best friends, Asher Durand and John Kensett.
Periodically, from the early 1900s to the present, his (and their) work has been featured in articles, books, and exhibitions of Hudson River School painters, considered by many experts the first uniquely American art movement (Encyclopedia Britannica calls it “the first native school of painting in the United States”). Among the many institutions that own Casilears today are the Brooklyn Museum, the Princeton University Art Museum in New Jersey, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Met in New York City, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.
Casilear, while not considered the best of the Hudson River genre, was very good — talented enough that as recently as 1986, a New York City art dealer seeking 19th-century landscapes ran newspaper advertisements promising “outright purchase, immediate payment” of “over $10,000” for his paintings. Yes, he was very good.
Good enough that in 1915, Mrs. Morris K. Jesup, one of the wealthiest and most prominent socialites among New York City’s elite, and owner of a spectacular art collection, included among her donations to the Metropolitan Museum of Art a work by Casilear, titled — what else?—Lake George.
Photos: John Casilear self-portrait, circa 1840 (gift of Mrs. Lucy M. Durand Woodman to the NY Historical Society Museum & Library); Lake George by Casilear (American Gallery website); advertisement, New York Evening Post (1897); advertisement, Wilton (Ct.) Bulletin (1986)