Wednesday, March 17, 2010


West Point, from above Washington Valley, looking down the river
by George Cooke ; engraved by William James Bennett
New York : Published by Parker & Clover, c1834.

This year’s Hudson River Valley Red label art is by artist George Cooke. His West Point, from above Washington Valley is one of the most famous and oft used paintings/prints that highlights the Hudson River. Cooke was a famous portraitist and landscape painter, and eventually became known as a great painter of the south after he accepted a patronage position from Daniel Pratt, a southern aristocrat and entrepreneur.

“Born in eastern Maryland in 1793, Cooke taught himself to paint in the flat, linear manner often found in American art in the early decades of the nineteenth century. By the early 1820s he was executing portraits in Washington, D.C., and northern Virginia. His first formal training was with Charles Bird King (1785-1862), a respected portraitist and painter of Indians and humorous scenes of everyday life,” wrote Donald D. Keyes, of the Marietta/Cobb Museum of Art, in The New Georgia Encyclopedia.

Cooke and his wife Maria Heath spent six years in Italy, England, and France from 1826 to 1832. Like many touring artists of the time, Cooke copied classical sculpture, prints after Greek and Roman art, Italian Renaissance and baroque paintings, and modern Neoclassical and Romantic paintings.

“These included Théodore Gericault's The Raft of the Medusa (1830, New York Historical Society) and Transfiguration (early 1830s, private collection) after Raphael's celebrated painting. Cooke's largest and best-known painting is Interior of St. Peter's Rome (1847, Chapel, University of Georgia, Athens),” added Keyes.

Cooke’s version of The Raft of Medusa became something of a cause celebre both it it’s day and recently. The work was controversial in its day as it depicted the horrific conditions of the wrecked sailors of the French frigate Meduse’, who were shipwrecked and resorted to cannibalism before being rescued. It was an international political scandal of the period. The painting itself was well received, and it made Cooke famous.

“Eventually, the painting ended up as the property of Uriah Phillips Levy, a former American admiral turned prosperous New York real estate magnate, who bequeathed it to the New York Historical Society in 1862. It then vanished from public and private view,” wrote art journalist Sue Moncure in Novemeber 2006. “Detective work and perseverance by Nina Athanassoglou-Kallmyer, UD professor of art history, have brought about the discovery of an important American painting…At some time in the past, the painting was mistakenly attributed to famous, early American artist Gilbert Stuart and consequently was not catalogued correctly.”

“Almost 150 years later, enter Kallmyer, who was carrying out research on the original Raft of the Medusa and the copy by Cooke for an upcoming book on Géricault, which will be published by Phaidon Press in London. Her research indicated that Cooke's copy was held by the New-York Historical Society, but because of the early error, the society's cataloging system recorded no works by the artist. Curator Marybeth De Filippis, however, decided to try one last time to comb the historical society archives by description rather than by artist, and discovered the painting depicting the Medusa raft and contacted Kallmyer,” continued Moncure. “When Kallmyer went to New York to see the painting, she knew her quest was successful and that this was the copy by Cooke she had sought for so long.”

“Many American artists of the period, including Cooke, found outlets for their work in prints. His most notable series was done in 1832 for the British illustrator William James Bennett (ca. 1787-1844),” wrote Keyes. “These four views of American cities—Washington, D.C.; Richmond, Virginia; West Point, New York; and Charleston, South Carolina—typify the picturesque mode of American landscape painting that came immediately before the Hudson River school, the first native school of art.” This not with standing, by the 1840s, Cooke was considered one of the best portraitists of the South, and attained a certain amount of fame.
Cooke’s life was mostly that of an itinerant artist. In 1844 in New Orleans, Cooke started what would become his most important professional relationship when he met Alabama industrialist Daniel Pratt. Pratt was immediately drawn to Cooke's work, and decided to give the artist two floors in one of his warehouses for Cooke to use as a gallery and studio. After a few years, Pratt decided to take the unusual step of adding a separate gallery to his home in Prattville, Alabama, solely to house Cooke's art. Pratt also commissioned Cooke to paint what would become his best known work, the Interior of St. Peter's Rome, a giant painting based on a smaller piece that Cooke had previously painted during his travels in Europe.

In 1867, Pratt donated Interior of St. Peter's Rome to the University of Georgia, where it still hangs today in the University's chapel. At 17 by 23.5 feet, the work was said to be the largest framed oil painting in the world at the time of its donation, and it still ranks among the world's largest.

George Cooke's health had never been very good, and in 1849 in New Orleans, he contracted cholera and died rapidly of the illness.

Print of West Point Courtesy of Library of Congress.


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