Rare Book Monthly

Articles - April - 2010 Issue

Frederick Copley: the passing glance


Newburgh Bay. October 27, 1849

In that era watercolors are an ascendant medium. Several attempts at organizing watercolor societies had taken place in New York in the 1820's and in the 1850's The American Society of Painters in Water Colors takes hold, in a few years to become The American Watercolor Society that continues today. Serious and amateur artists, in the era, are painting in water color, often in a style that begins as an extension of drafting and evolves into more artful and free expression as the decades progress. The first half of the 19th century, it turns out, is the moment when watercolor becomes established in America. Toward the end of era, in the last moments of pre-industrial America, Frederick Copley, perhaps to develop the artful hand he'll need to be a hydrographer in the family business, begins to gather the evidence that today convey clear impressions of many out-of-the-way places, some of which have since declined, a few that prospered, others that simply aged. Better artists painted better pictures. Few painted so many pictures of so many places in New York and New England during this formative period. For this reason the material is unique, possibly important, certainly useful. In many cases his watercolors and sketches are the only visual records we have of these places in that period.

As to the portfolio this is the way many painters kept water colors, often retaining them for decades. It simply mattered more to them than it did to others and such material was not yet collected by institutions. That day would, for the early leading lights, come early, even in their lifetimes during the second half of the 19th century. For Frederick Copley and others who painted without recognition it would be left to generations hence to decide if the perspective and art warrant assessment. For Mr. Copley, these many years his work lost to view, that moment arrives. What he saw on summer days we now see as history.

For each drawing there must have been a ritual, packing them up for the trip on or home. In time what were random efforts became a collection, a personal history of youth and travel. That is what we have today, a window, his window on a passing moment.

Leaf through his watercolors to see what he saw: an America on the verge. To paraphrase John Adams, "Copley lives."

About his work

Written in an elegant hand on the back of watercolors mounted in a folio volume is the name Frederick S. Copley, the oldest examples dating to 1847. These images, 150 watercolors and 30 pencil sketches, range from discarded studies to detailed images, 3" by 5" to 9" by 12." More than sixty are large, most of the others about 5" by 8". The sizes are uneven, the sheets of apparently hand cut.

Mr. Copley, long forgotten if ever known beyond a close circle, emerges through his watercolors as fresh perspective on an extraordinary moment in the history of the Hudson Valley, New York and New England: the years 1848 to 1852: America in the embrace of the industrial revolution and incipient social upheaval. In these few years he captured the details of daily life, busy river settings, villages and towns, boats, horses, canals and people - then the pedestrian that today has become historical perspective. Mr. Copley's America is one of youth and expectation, a nation of farmers soon to become a country of burgeoning towns and cities.

Rare Book Monthly

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