Artistry — in terms of painting, drawing, sketching, etc. — escapes me. While I admire and enjoy it, the combination of vision, creativity, and especially ability seems foreign, even though I lived with it while growing up. Through learning to read and constantly employing skills in that area, I gradually developed a certain comfort in the world of words, but none of it came to me magically, which is how I viewed the artistic capabilities of two of my siblings: without any lessons or instructions, they could just do it.
While I joked that I could hardly draw a straight line even with a ruler, they could look at panels in daily newspaper comics, for instance, and within minutes recreate what in my estimation were perfect replicas. Sure, they got better at it over the years and created many beautiful paintings using various media, but I marveled at how they started with an inherent level of talent. Today, my youngest brother, Skipp, has branched out into something very different: spray-paint art. Check out some of his videos here. You’ll be amazed to see something of great beauty created in minutes right before your eyes, and all of it using cans of spray paint. My mind remains boggled.
Recently, while viewing Adirondack-related works of art, I was completely taken by a landscape painting from the 1860s. It just seemed so perfect, so idyllic, that I kept going back to it, and finally felt compelled to know more about its creator, John William Casilear. Among other things, I discovered that it was one of many of his paintings bearing the same simple title: Lake George. His work proved to be great advertising for the wonderful scenery of northern New York.
Although his surname suggests English or perhaps French origins, his grandfather, Francisco Cassileur, emigrated from Spain to New York City in the late 1780s. Our subject, John, was born there in 1811. In 1827, at the age of 16, he apprenticed with Peter Maverick, one of the best-known engravers in the country. Engraving was a critical process in the world of business, for among the works created by engravers were the master plates for printing bank notes. (Before the federal government first began printing paper money in 1861, some states allowed banks to issue their own currency, referred to as bank notes. About 7,000 firms did so.)
For savvy criminals, this presented an opportunity. Counterfeiters attempted to duplicate the notes to produce funny money, and the best guard against fakery was adding elaborate, original designs that were difficult to copy. This included ornate vignettes that foiled even the best counterfeiters. In the early 1800s, Peter Maverick was an excellent and prolific engraver. (One of his works, Ticonderoga (1828), shows the old ruins of the fort, and is the property of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.)
The skills required for the job were likewise suited to painting, and many artists paid the bills by maintaining day jobs at engraving firms. Among the painters to apprentice alongside Casilear was John Kensett, who became a close friend.
Under Maverick’s tutelage, Casilear displayed outstanding talent and became a top-rate engraver. In 1831, the master craftsman, Maverick, died, at which point Casilear began working under a well-known artist and former Maverick protégé, Asher Brown Durand, who was 15 years his senior. The trio of Casilear, Kensett, and Durand gradually established a lifelong friendship.
How good was Durand? In 1823, after three years of work, he published an engraving of Declaration of Independence, a John Trumbull painting that would soon after be displayed in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington. It depicts a draft of the declaration being presented to the Continental Congress. A copy from the engraving, gifted to Thomas Jefferson, hangs in Monticello, and more famously, it graces the back of America’s $2 bill.
Working under a pair of masters, first Maverick and then Durand, Casilear became one of the nation’s elite engravers. Besides bank notes, certificates, and other items, he also produced steel engravings of paintings (sometimes on steel-coated copper). The plates enabled wide distribution of prints, allowing the public to purchase fine copies of popular works. In 1834, the New York Mirror heaped effusive praise on Casilear’s engraving titled The Presidents of the United States, featuring the seven national leaders that had so far served the country. Commissioned by the Mirror, it was an original work composed of paintings from different artists.
Said the paper’s editors: “Nearly two years have elapsed since the first step in its preparation was taken…. The whole [all seven portraits] have been transferred to the steel plate by Mr. Casilear, with a truth, softness, and grace which leave nothing to be desired. The printing has been executed by Casilear, Durand and Co. under the constant inspection of the engraver; and this, not one of the least delicate or important parts of the work, has been accomplished with perfect success.”
Today it hangs in the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution. In recent months, an original Presidents print rated as “used,” with some imperfections, was offered at $750.
A couple of years before producing The Presidents of the United States, Casilear had begun submitting engravings to the National Academy of Design (NAD). The following year, 1833, he was elected an associate of the academy and played an active role in that organization for the rest of his life.
By 1835, the firm of Casilear, Durand, & Co. had become Casilear, Durand, Burton, and Edmonds, which was hired to produce bank-note engravings for the Northern Bank of Kentucky. The intricate designs they created, including a locomotive and rail cars, were strong deterrents to crime according to the Lexington Observer & Reporter: “The vignette [rail cars, etc.] is executed with uncommon beauty. The machine work is extremely elaborate, and will throw great difficulty in the way of counterfeiters.” It was unlikely to be successfully duplicated — the hallmark of a good engraving — which is why Casilear was hired to work on their bank notes over a span of at least 20 years.
In 1836, Casilear and Durand, with an eye towards a future life of painting, left the company. Casilear had begun displaying his oils at the NAD, and late in the year he published an engraving of Durand’s painting, Wrath of Peter Stuyvesant. New York critics applauded the results, including the Mirror, which criticized the work of several artists and engravers, but in the same column called it “a capital picture, and well engraved; Casilear has done it full justice, and both painting and engraving teem with merit.” He and Durand were looked upon as two of the best engravers to be found anywhere, but despite that assessment and continued commercial success, both men began focusing most of their time on painting. And for Casilear, that meant landscapes.
Photos: Lake George by Casilear, 1860 (Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Ct., bequest of Clara Hinton Gould); back of US $2 bill; The Presidents of the United States, 1834, by Casilear; Bank Note for Northern Bank of Kentucky, 1856 (Smithsonian National Museum of American History)
A version of this story first appeared on the Adirondack Almanack.