Stalking Deer, 1860
Oil on canvas
14½ x 23 inches
Katherine G. Ordway Fund Purchase, 1990
Essay by Spencer Wigmore
Carleton College, Class of 2011, intern at the Joslyn Art Museum, Lincoln, Nebraska
Born in Rossville, New York, in 1823, Jasper Cropsey originally trained as an architect but soon turned to painting, studying at the National Academy of Design in New York City. He would eventually come to receive both national and international acclaim, exhibiting several works at the Royal Academy in London. Cropsey is one of the better-known artists of the Hudson River school, a group of landscape painters who painted in the Northeast during the second half of the nineteenth century and developed a uniquely American style of painting.
Stalking Deer depicts a Native American hunter hidden deep within a wild forest blazing with rich fall color. Nearly invisible amongst the foliage, he kneels on a fallen tree, aiming his bow at several deer on the far bank. The exact location of the scene is unknown, but the mountains in the background are most likely New Hampshire’s White Mountains—which, along with Greenwood Lake, New Jersey, were usual settings for Cropsey’s landscapes.
Although famed for his fidelity to nature, Cropsey would have painted Stalking Deer in the studio. Like nearly all of his contemporaries in the Hudson River school, he took detailed studies of the trees and topography of the Northeast and combined them into an artificially arranged composition. This painting is not characteristic of Cropsey’s mature work of this period, most of which is bright and luminous, maximizing the colors of the fall foliage. Here the strong yellows and reds on the right of the composition are overshadowed by the grey and black clouds. The stormy sky harkens back to the sublime works of Thomas Cole (1801–1848), Cropsey’s main artistic influence, whose style he would emulate before establishing his own artistic identity. It is possible that this unsettled sky allegorically represents the tumultuous political climate in America before the Civil War, in a manner similar to paintings such as Frederic Edwin Church’s Twilight in the Wilderness (1860).
The painting is further removed from its location because it was painted in the studio Cropsey established in Kensington, England, in 1856. In the nineteenth century, artistic pilgrimages to Europe were considered a rite of passage for the aspiring American artist. Nearly all of the American landscape painters of that period traveled to see the works of the Old Masters at some point during their careers. Cropsey made two trips to Europe, his first between 1847 and 1849, and his second from 1856 to 1863. During the first visit, he spent most of his time travelling throughout Italy, much like Thomas Cole. Cropsey’s second trip was confined to the vicinity of Kensington, where he came in contact with an English public eager for stories and scenes that confirmed their vision of an untamed American wilderness.
The visual narrative of the hunting Native American would have been an exciting image to a European audience. Authors like James Fenimore Cooper had spread the nearly mythological status of the American Indian across the Atlantic in books such as The Last of the Mohicans (1826). Given that by 1860 Native Americans had been driven almost completely out of the White Mountains, this work also contains a tone of melancholy and nostalgia for the increasingly rare indigenous American woodlands.
The bold autumn reds and yellows of regions like the White Mountains were unseen in Europe, which lacked America’s diversity of deciduous trees and had seen many of its forests removed due to industrialization and agriculture. In fact, the strong fall colors of Cropsey’s trademark style seemed so exaggerated to Europeans that he went as far as to include dried leaves alongside his canvases to prove that the colors were drawn from reality. Cropsey even claimed to have dulled the colors of the paintings so that the English would be more receptive to them.
Popularly known as America’s “Painter of Autumn,” Cropsey’s images of the brilliant fall colors of the American landscape astonished the English, but received positive reviews. This is especially true of his most famous work, Autumn on the Hudson River (1860), about which one London critic wrote: “It is scenery on a scale as to size, and in its other essential characteristics of colour and atmosphere, unfamiliar and even startling to an Englishman. But the artist has so managed his interpretation of it as to awaken interest rather than to shock prejudices.” Autumn on the Hudson River drew large crowds when exhibited at the Royal Academy, where Cropsey would exhibit numerous works throughout his career, and at the Great London International Exposition of 1862. His paintings were equally popular in the United States, where they sold for some of the highest prices of the late nineteenth century. Whether exhibited in Europe or America, works like Stalking Deer demonstrate how Jasper Cropsey used his appreciation and love for the autumn landscape to create a unique vision of the American wilderness.
 Peter Bermingham, Jasper F. Cropsey, 1823–1900: A Retrospective View of America’s Painter of Autumn (College Park: University of Maryland Art Gallery, 1968), 26.
Detail of Stalking Deer, 1860