In The Spirit of War, a rugged mountain landscape provides the backdrop for a medieval wartime scene, all bathed in an eerie, fiery light: knights on horseback ride into battle, a distant settlement burns, and a mother and child cower on the ground. A medieval castle rises from the jagged rocks, its looming tower framed by gathering storm clouds that portend destruction. The artist himself described the fraught scene as "promising naught but the uncertain and gloomy future of warlike times." By contrast, its companion piece The Spirit of Peace (Philadelphia, Woodmere Art Museum), shows an Arcadian landscape with tiny figures engaged in various pastoral pursuits. The center of the composition is anchored by a circular temple containing symbols of peace. Clear skies, the soft light of sunset, and placid waters convey tranquility and prosperity. Praised for their narrative clarity and displaying Cropsey's fondness for detailed nature studies, the allegorical pair went on to become the most exhibited of his works.
The paintings' twinned themes of war and peace expressed as historical allegories would have had an immediate emotional significance for Cropsey's audience. The recent Mexican War (1846-1848) and the subsequent debate over whether the western territories would join the nation as free or slave states contributed to the strained national atmosphere in the decade preceding the Civil War. First shown as his New York studio, this allegorical pair were shown seven times between 1852 and 1857. In this carefully constructed tour de force the earnest young artist created a powerful and lasting image of the fear and hopelessness brought about by war, eerily foreshadowing the bloody conflict that would envelop his country in the following decade.
More information on this painting can be found in the Gallery publication American Paintings of the Nineteenth Century, Part I, which is available as a free PDF at https://www.nga.gov/content/dam/ngaweb/research/publications/pdfs/american-paintings-19th-century-part-1.pdf
lower left: J.F. Cropsey 1851
Sale of Cropsey's work, New York, April 1856; John Rutherford, New Jersey; sold by May 1856 to Joseph Harrison, Jr. [1810-1874], Philadelphia; by inheritance to his wife, Sarah Poulterer Harrison [1817-1906], Philadelphia; her estate; (her estate sale, M. Thomas & Sons at Philadelphia Art Galleries, 12 March 1912 [postponed from 26 February], no. 8); Thomas E. Kinsey, Philadelphia. Joseph T. Kinsley, Philadelphia, by April 1915; (sale, Hiram Parke New Galleries, New York, 15-16 March 1916, 2nd day, no. 175); (J.G. Leroy, agent). (sale, Philadelphia Art Galleries, 7 February 1917, no. 1485). (sale, Philadelphia Art Galleries, 29 May 1917, no. 767). Sarah Clark Goodman, New York and Newport; (her sale, Plaza Art Rooms, Inc., New York, 13-15 November 1919, 3rd day, no. 499); Herbert Kaufman. Adele Gardiner, Tarrytown, New York, 1929; private collection, from 1929; acquired 1977 by (Vose Galleries, Boston); purchased 23 February 1978 by NGA.
- Annual Exhibition, National Academy of Design, New York, 1852, no. 48.
- The Washington Exhibition in Aid of the New-York Gallery of the Fine Arts, American Art-Union Gallery, New York, 1853, no. 58.
- Annual Exhibition, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, 1854, no. 326.
- Boston Atheneum, 1855, no cat.
- Annual Exhibition, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, 1856, no. 308; Fall 1856, no. 99.
- Annual Exhibition, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, 1857, no. 250.
- Loan for display with permanent collection, Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut, 1990.
- Jasper Francis Cropsey's "The Spirit of War" and "The Spirit of Peace", National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1994-1995, brochure, color repro. (detail on cover; inside cover).
- Focus Exhibition, The Woodmere Art Museum, Philadelphia, 1995, no cat.
- Rave Reviews: American Art and Its Critics, 1826-1925, National Academy of Design, New York; Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa; Indianapolis Museum of Art, 2000-2001, no. 19, repro. (shown only in New York).
- "Fine Arts." Home Journal 2 (27 December 1851): 5.
- "Fine Arts." Literary World (13 December 1851): 471.
- "The Chronicle: Art and Artists in America." Bulletin of the American Art-Union (1 December 1851): 149.
- "Fine Arts." Home Journal 2 (8 May 1852): 6, 7.
- "Fine Arts." New York Herald (7 February 1852).
- "Fine Arts." New York Tribune (24 April 1852): 5.
- "Fine Arts: The National Academy of Design." The Albion 2 (24 April/8 May 1852): 201.
- The Crayon (11 July 1855): 24.
- ["Cropsey sale."] Statten Islander (12 April 1856).
- Home Journal 1 (26 January 1856): 1-4.
- Tuckerman 1867, 535-536.
- Sheldon, George William. American Painters. New York, 1879.
- Bermingham, Peter. Jasper F. Cropsey: A Retrospective View of America's Painter of Autumn. Exh. cat. University of Maryland, College Park, 1968: 13.
- Talbot, William S. Jasper F. Cropsey 1823-1900. Exh. cat. National Collection of Fine Arts, Washington, D.C., 1970: 28-29.
- Talbot, William S. Jasper F. Cropsey, 1823-1900. New York, 1977: 106-111, 365-367.
- American Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1980: 141, repro.
- Wilmerding, John. American Masterpieces from the National Gallery of Art. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1980: 11, 15, 19, no. 29, color repro.
- Williams, William James. A Heritage of American Paintings from the National Gallery of Art. New York, 1981: 114-115, repro. 115.
- Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 547, no. 823, color repro.
- Foshay, Ella M., and Barbara Finney. Jasper F. Cropsey, Artist and Architect. Exh. cat. New-York Historical Society, New York, 1987: 25.
- Wilmerding, John. American Masterpieces from the National Gallery of Art. Rev. ed. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1988: 11, 18, 22, 110, no. 32, color repro.
- Kopper, Philip. America's National Gallery of Art: A Gift to the Nation. New York, 1991: 293, color repro.
- American Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 154, repro.
- Miller, Angela. The Empire of the Eye: Landscape Representation and American Cultural Politics, 1825-1875. Ithaca, New York, 1993: 68-69, 107, 122-123, 125.
- Kelly, Franklin. "American Landscape Pairs of the 1850s." Antiques 146 (November 1994): 650-657.
- Kelly, Franklin. Jasper Francis Cropsey: The Spirit of War and the Spirit of Peace. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1994: fig. 1.
- Kelly, Franklin. Thomas Cole's Paintings of Eden. Exh. cat. Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, 1994: 45, fig. 45.
- Kelly, Franklin, with Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr., Deborah Chotner, and John Davis. American Paintings of the Nineteenth Century, Part I. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1996: 110-114, color repro.
The moderately heavy, twill-weave fabric support has been lined and mounted to an old stretcher. Over a thin red ground, the paint layer was applied in a medium paste with low and free brushstrokes. An old, 7.5 cm tear near the top right corner has been repaired. A few small, scattered losses appear throughout.