"When and how, therefore, did the generations perceive that the Cropseys, generically speaking, wouldn't do? When and how, still more, did they begin to perceive that the Hudson River wouldn't, and doesn't?"
So inquired writer Henry James about the events by which, in the nineteenth-century, the Hudson River School—which he personified as "the Cropseys"—became passé.
A poignant moment in their decline was captured in the diaries of artist Jervis McEntee, which are online and browsable at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art. It is the kind of first-hand historical account that was previously accessible only on microfilm, but is now increasingly available on the Internet.
American landscape artist William Louis Sonntag (1822-1900) had arrived at the National Academy of Design in New York on April 2, 1877, to see the one and only painting he submitted to the annual spring exhibition. It was, by tradition, the most important venue of the year and an important sales opportunity for American artists.
Sonntag would not have known where to find his painting. The Hanging Committee, at the time an appointed group of three artists, was in charge of placement.
Prime spots were "on the line", at eye level, in the main galleries. As an established artist, a full member of the Academy for almost sixteen years and a member of the Academy’s governing council, Sonntag would have scanned the line, expecting to recognize his 30 by 50 inch landscape somewhere through the milling crowd (an example of Sonntag's art is shown above, courtesy Questroyal Fine Art).
Not spotting it, he might have stepped from room to room. Perhaps there was a moment when he thought, “Where could it be?”
Then he saw it—high above a door. In effect, a cast-out.
I can imagine Sonntag, rooted to the floor, clutching his hat in front of him with both hands, mindless of the surrounding bustle, staring up at his forlorn painting.
Sonntag had titled his landscape "Deserted," not thinking it would embody the term.
Other artists were nearby, including Jervis McEntee. "His eyes filled with tears as he saw it," McEntee wrote that night in his diary, back in his Tenth Street studio.
"This year the new men have fairly carried the exhibition and the world by storm," declared an art critic in Scribner’s Monthly that June. Fresh, young, European-trained painters had sailed back to the States, and in 1877 they found a sympathetic hanging committee ready to move aside some of the old to make way for the new. McEntee wrote, "There was a general feeling of indignation among the [older] Artists, even among those whose pictures are well hung."
Sonntag’s career was not over by any means. Whether or not he sold his "Deserted" at the National Academy that year, he continued to exhibit there annually until his death in 1900. However, the years of glory had passed—the "Cropseys", as Henry James put it, would no longer do.
Of Sonntag McEntee wrote, "we all sympathised with him and made him feel better." He might have felt better, too, if he could have foreseen the major museums that would eventually acquire his work. And that one day, one of his landscapes would enter the art collection of the White House.
James, Henry. William Wetmore Story and His Friends; from Letters, Diaries, and Recollections. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co, 1903.
Jervis McEntee papers, 1796, 1848-1905. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Moure, Nancy Dustin Wall. William Louis Sonntag: Artist of the Ideal, 1822-1900. Los Angeles: Goldfield Galleries, 1980.
Naylor, Maria. The National Academy of Design Exhibition Record, 1861-1900. New York: Kennedy Galleries, 1973.
Scribner's Monthly, Volume 14 Issue 2 (June 1877) p.263.