Jasper Francis Cropsey, Mount Jefferson, Pinkham Notch, White Mountains

Jasper Francis Cropsey, Mount Jefferson, Pinkham Notch, White Mountains, 1857, oil on canvas, 80.01 x 125.73 cm (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts)


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Key points

  • Jasper Francis Cropsey painted this autumnal scene of the White Mountains of New Hampshire at a time when the United States’ identity and future were being fiercely debated. In the years just prior to the American Civil War, issues such as westward expansion and the legality of slavery strongly divided voters.
  • The landscape of the United States was deeply entwined with these issues, both as a symbol for the nation’s unique identity–as distinct from Europe–and as a specific topic of debate. Thomas Jefferson’s idea of the United States as an agrarian republic, supported largely by small farms and industries that drew on the nation’s rich and varied natural resources, was being tested in the wake of mid-19th century tensions around the addition of new territories and states as the boundaries of the country moved further west. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1836 book, Nature, also had a strong influence on the ways artists, writers, clergy, politicians, and others who helped to shape popular opinion thought about the role of a rural way of life, and of nature itself, in defining national identity.
  • In his painting, Cropsey cleverly used the symbolism of the landscape to convey a sense of hope for the republic in the face of the tensions of the time. The contrast of the brilliantly colored autumn leaves and the blasted tree in the foreground with the lush, summer greenery carpeting Mount Washington reminded viewers that the nation had entered a new season, metaphorically, and that challenges lay ahead. The lumber mill positioned in a timber-filled landscape, however, symbolizes the promise of the burgeoning nation to literally construct a thriving republic in this land of abundance.

Go deeper

Learn more about Jasper Francis Cropsey from the National Gallery of Art.

Compare Cropsey’s symbolic use of landscape to convey his hopes for the American republic in 1857 with that of Frederick Edwin Church from 1852.

Consider Cropsey’s painting alongside other artworks that reflect the imagining of the West, territorial expansion, and the politics of slavery in the years leading up to the United States Civil War.

Learn more about White Mountains history and culture from the U.S. Forest Service.

More to think about

To our modern eyes, the degree of symbolism embedded in 19th century landscape painting might seem far-fetched. Cropsey’s painting may simply read to us as a beautiful fall scene, richly observed and recorded. However, today we too associate the values and ideals of our personal, cultural, and national identities with elements of the natural world. What are some of these modern associations and how do they contrast with those in Cropsey’s painting?

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

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Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.