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The Cooper Screens

Hugh C. MacDougall

© 1996 by James Fenimore Cooper Society
[may be downloaded and reproduced for personal or instructional use, or by libraries]

Originally published as James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers No. 8, September 1996.

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An Inventory of

Pictures, letters, invitations, cards, and other items mounted on two room divider screens, prepared by James Fenimore Cooper and his family, primarily as a reminder of their seven years' sojourn in Europe (1826-1833)

Table of Contents

Introduction

by Hugh C. MacDougall, Secretary/Treasurer, James Fenimore Cooper Society

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The American novelist James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851) travelled with his family in Europe from 1826 to 1833.

The nephew had been brought along as a secretary to transcribe and correct Cooper's manuscripts; he died in Paris.

The family headquarters was in Paris, but the Coopers spent over a year living and travelling in Italy, as well as two summers in Switzerland. Accompanied by various family members, Cooper made business trips and tourist excursions to England, Germany, Belgium, and Holland. The family returned to New York City at the end of 1833. Cooper then bought back and remodelled Otsego Hall in Cooperstown, built by his father William Cooper in 1798. In May 1836 the family moved back to Cooperstown for good.

The Coopers brought home many commercial prints of European buildings, scenery, and costumes, bought in Paris and London, often in sets. On their way home from Paris in 1833, the family stopped over in London for five weeks to await their sailing ship across the Atlantic (Cooper also had to proofread a new English edition of his early novels). Like many travellers about to return home, they suddenly realized that this was their last chance for souvenirs, and seem to have rushed out to buy pictures whether or not they were of places they had actually seen.

Shortly after the Coopers' return to America, whether before or after they moved to Cooperstown we do not know, James Fenimore Cooper acquired two room divider screens on which to display mementos of the family's European sojourn. Each screen consisted of five hinged sections, measuring 78 by 19 inches, divided into three panels. Made very simply of pine strips, painted black, they are covered with a coarse cloth on which the family memories are mounted. Reminders of Europe were supplemented with prints from American periodicals and giftbooks.

As described by Cooper's great-nephew George Pomeroy Keese:

"A large folding screen occupied one corner of the room [the library at Otsego Hall], upon which were pasted a collection of engravings representing scenes known to the family during their tour and residence in Europe; and also containing a number of notes and autographs from persons of distinction, mostly French. A similar screen was in the hall."

Not all the pictures bought in Europe by the Coopers ended up on the screens. There survive examples from several series of prints, of England and Russia, that were evidently considered too large to display on these screens.

The Italian Screen

On each panel of the first screen, now known as the Italian Screen, James Fenimore Cooper mounted large prints, acquired in Paris, of places in Italy he had visited and particularly liked. The end sections of this screen (far left and far right) have been lost, but of the nine prints that remain, six are of the Sorrento Peninsula outside Naples where the Coopers lived from August-November 1829, and the remaining three are from Rome, where the family spent the following winter. The prints are from two series, published in Paris -- legends on several of them are dated 1828. Home-made yellow paper mats frame each print in a shield-shaped opening. At some time several dozen other prints were pasted, more or less at random, around the margins over the yellow mats. There is no direct Cooper attribution, but the screen is physically identical with the Memento Screen (see below), and several series of prints can be found on both. The screen is backed with several layers of wallpaper.

Cooper's Love for Italy: For James Fenimore Cooper, as to many other artists and travellers, the scenery of Italy held a special charm that remained with him for the rest of his life. After his sojourn there from October 1828 to May 1830, he described his feelings in a number of letters: "Italy...haunts my dreams and clings to my ribs like another wife" (1833); "Italy! The very name excites a glow in me, for it is the only region of the earth that I truly love" (1836); "My heart is in Italy, and has been ever since I left it.... I wish I could die in Italy" (1838).

In Italy, it was Cooper's three month sojourn in Sorrento, overlooking the Bay of Naples, that meant the most to him. The family had rented the huge "Casa Tasso" overlooking the Bay, which was reputed to have been the birthplace of the Italian poet Torquato Tasso (1544-1595). On its terrace Cooper wrote most of The Water Witch (1830), in which a character reminisces fondly: "No spot has yet presented, in a single view, so pleasant a combination of natural objects, mingled with mighty reflections, as that lovely abode on the Sorrentine cliffs.... Though many years are gone...I can recall the beauties of that scene as vividly as if they still stood before the eye. Our abode was on the verge of the cliffs. In front lay the deep-blue water, and on its further shore was a line of objects such as accident or design rarely assembles in one view...." When he was not writing, Cooper and his wife and children explored, by boat and donkey, all the many villages and sights of the Sorrento Peninsula. When, in 1838, he turned his Italian experiences into a travel book, he wrote of the the Bay and the Peninsula:

"These elements of beauty might have been assembled elsewhere, though scarcely in such numbers and in so much perfection;...besides the vessels, their varieties, the boats, the unison of sublime land and glorious water, there was also a coast teeming with places over which history, from remote antiquity, had thrown its recollections and its charms. That bewitching and almost indescribable softness...., a blending of all the parts in one harmonious whole, a mellowing of everything unseemly or out of keeping, threw around the picture a seductive ideal, that, blended with the known reality in a way I have never before witnessed, nor expect to witness again."

From Sorrento, the family moved on to Rome for the winter, where Cooper explored the city and the surrounding countryside on horseback.

Provenance: During Cooper's lifetime, the Italian Screen was kept in the central hall of Otsego Hall, where it could be admired by visitors. Following Cooper's death and the sale of Otsego Hall in 1852, the screen disappeared; its two end sections were removed, probably damaged beyond repair. It seems most probable that it was given in 1852 to Theodore Keese, a nephew-in-law of the author who lived at Edgewater (built by Isaac Cooper in 1813), about a block from Otsego Hall. Theodore's son, George Pomeroy Keese, presumably gave it to his own daughter Anne Treadway Staats when she moved in 1882 to a newly-renovated house on Lake Street across from Edgewater. A 1939 inventory of the house contents includes a "screen" in a third-floor storeroom. Waldo T. Ellsworth, who bought the house in 1940, suspected that the screen might have a Cooper connection; he stored it along a wall in a downstairs workroom, carefully shielded by other objects. There it was found in 1992 by Hugh C. MacDougall of the James Fenimore Cooper Society, following the death of his mother-in-law. When he identified its origin, the screen was donated to the New York State Historical Association by the Ellsworth children, Robert and Paul Ellsworth and Eleanore Ellsworth MacDougall.

The Memento Screen

The second screen, now called the Memento Screen, has retained all its original five sections. According to family tradition, the Memento Screen was prepared by James Fenimore Cooper's children. It is crammed with prints, letters, notes, invitations, calling cards, and other mementos of the Coopers' European sojourn, as well as a miscellany of American prints of the 1830s. Although some of the larger prints have been centered, most of the objects on this screen seem mounted at random, entirely filling the available space. There has been no effort to frame or mat them; used as backing were some European maps, published in Weimar, Germany in 1830. It seems probable that the Memento Screen began as the children's imitation of their father's project; they started with a few left over Italian scenery prints, but quickly went on to mount all kinds of mementos the family had brought home with them, as well as various prints available in Cooperstown. The screen was deemed complete only when there was no more room on it, and even then the children--perhaps to their father's annoyance--expanded onto the margins of the Italian Screen he had prepared. Long afterwards, indeed, someone added a few Confederate postage stamps!

The reverse side was used, perhaps at a later date, to mount a set of hand-colored prints of picturesque European peasants, and for some treasured family letters and documents, framed in orange and black:

This screen, according to George Pomeroy Keese, was kept in Cooper's library at Otsego Hall, and it remained in the Cooper family until it was donated to the New York State Historical Association by Dr. Henry S.F. Cooper in 1977.

Acknowledgments

I wish to thank all those at the New York State Historical Association who helped make this inventory possible: to President Kent Barwick and Museums Director Dr. Gilbert Vincent for authorizing publication of the screen documents; to Curator C.R. Jones, for conserving and restoring the screens and preparing them for exhibition, and for giving me access to examine and transcribe them; and to Paul D'Ambrosio of preparing their exhibition in Fenimore House. My thanks also to Henry S.F. Cooper, Jr., for his encouragement of this project.

The Cooper Screens are displayed in the Cooper Room of the Fenimore House Museum of the New York State Historical Association, on Lake Road in Cooperstown, New York. The Museum is open to the public from April through December.

References to Cooper's writings

Text Legends

Location of Documents

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Texts of Documents on the Cooper Screens

Letters and Notes

America -- before 1826

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Europe -- England

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Europe -- France

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Europe -- Italy

America -- after 1834

Invitations and Announcements

America -- before 1826

Europe -- England

Europe -- France

Europe -- Italy

Calling Cards

Europe -- England

Europe -- France

Europe -- Switzerland

Europe -- Italy

Europe -- Other

America -- after 1834

Source unknown

Prints

Europe -- England

British Buildings Series 1
(1 5/8 x 2 3/8,with border--legend in small letters)

Publisher's notice attached below one group of above prints:
"Published by W. Marshall, No 1\Holborn Bars, London. Where are on\sale upwards of 300 different Views" M-RT

British Buildings Series 2
(1 5/8 x 2¼, with border--legend in capital letters)
British Buildings Series 3
(ca. 3 x 5, no border--legend in capital letters)
Engravings of Paintings
Other Prints -- Scenic Views

Europe -- France

Historic Costume Series
Hand colored prints of period costumes
Scenic views by Couché fils
Parisian Buildings Series
(line drawings; legend above or below)
National Leaders Series
Album of Férogio Series
Large hand-colored prints, with "L'ALBUM DE FÉROGIO" above.
Life of Napoleon Series
(Prints depicting career of Napoleon Bonaparte (1½ x 3), with Year and location above, and appropriate quotation below)
Pictures by Jules David
Other French Prints

Europe -- Switzerland

Europe -- Italy

Scenic Views by Langlume
(Two of these prints were chosen by Cooper for the Italian screen)

Scenic Views by Delpech
(Seven of these prints were chosen by Cooper for the Italian screen)

Other Italian Prints

America -- after 1834

From Gift Annuals
Other Prints

Source Unknown

Miscellaneous

America -- before 1826

America -- after 1834

Source Unknown

THE END

Compiled by Hugh C. MacDougall
Cooperstown, August 1996