Picture Perfect

It is a view looking west ... and the picture is now considered very valuable.
– Ann Arbor Courier
  1. Chapter 1 Sold

    On a Tuesday morning in late September 1863, people gathered outside the President’s House looking for a bargain. Henry Tappan, the University of Michigan’s first president who was beloved by students and loathed by regents, had vacated the home after being summarily fired three months earlier. Now, aside from what he and his wife packed up when they left town, everything in the Tappan household was up for sale.

    Mattresses and beds. Chairs and lamps. Clocks, jelly bowls, slop jars, bookshelves and a half-cask of vinegar.

    Lot No. 140 was a pair of oil paintings. One of the works depicted the University’s Detroit Observatory, located a half-mile away from the campus and opened in 1854. The other was a panorama of the young university, with several buildings sprouting from what had once been farmland.

    We don’t know who felt compelled to buy the paintings or what he or she paid for the artwork. But for purposes of University history, the purchase was invaluable.

    The paintings were the creation of Jasper F. Cropsey, an artist from the Hudson River School known for his realistic landscapes. Cropsey was friends with Tappan and his wife Julia – they were all native New Yorkers – and came to Ann Arbor in the fall of 1855 at their request.

    Cropsey’s landscape of the campus, in particular, is the first painting to capture the University in its entirety. After it was completed, the painting was reproduced for all manner of campus publications and letterheads, and regularly appeared in national publications that wrote about U-M. It was, for all intents, the accepted and definitive view of the campus.

    “The painting was an excellent one,” declared editors of one of the first student newspapers, the University Castalia, when they reproduced the artwork in 1869. “The scenery around was wild and rugged and it is said that our brethren of those days partook somewhat of the character of their surroundings.”

     Cropsey was 32 at the time he painted the landscape. A student of both architecture and art, he was firmly established as one of the country’s finest landscape artists.

    “Although predominantly a painter of nature, Cropsey was also interested in man-made structures and considered them worthy subjects for his paintings,” writes Anthony M. Speiser, director of the Newington-Cropsey Foundation. “Perhaps because of his architectural background, he often depicted buildings and other structures, elements that were usually incorporated into his landscape compositions in a manner that blended them into the natural setting.”

    This mix of nature and buildings made the early U-M campus a perfect fit for Cropsey. This is what he saw.

    • Jasper Francis Cropsey was known best as a landscape painter.
      Jasper Francis Cropsey was known best as a landscape painter.
  2. Chapter 2 The Grounds

    Imagine standing outside Stockwell Hall, a bit south of Palmer Field, and looking to the west. This was, roughly, Cropsey’s vantage point.

    He worked with oils, and painted on paper that was glued to pulpboard.

    His painting offers a vista of the campus in its entirely in 1855. At a time when photography was in its infancy, the painting captures, for the first time, the whole of the university with all of seven buildings. Even then, one building is missing, hidden by Cropsey behind trees that were so troublesome to grow.

    A student of the mid-1850s, William F. Breakey, wrote that the campus reminded him of a small farm, which, in fact, it had once been. It was “spacious for college grounds compared with anything I had seen in the East and unlikely ever to be crowded with buildings.” One wonders what Breakey would make of the 600-plus buildings that comprise today’s campus.

    The overall scene cast by Cropsey has a pastoral feel. Greens and golds fill the frame to depict the young university, which was established in Ann Arbor in 1837 following two decades in Detroit. Cows and sheep graze in the foreground. The entire top half of the painting is devoted to sky and clouds – natural features Cropsey believed too many people, artists included, overlooked. “Men go to and from their daily cares, but never seem to regard for a moment those alternate patches of blue and cloud that glisten from above chimney-tops, and around the corners of our aspiring brick and stone mansions,” he wrote weeks before arriving in Ann Arbor.

    On the eve of its opening in 1841, the University bragged about its appearance in a Michigan newspaper: “When the entire plan of building shall be carried out, and the grounds, romantic even in their natural wildness, covered with trees and shrubbery, they [will] be pronounced by good judges, persons of taste, decidedly superior to those of Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, Union or any other American college.”

    By 1855, as Cropsey worked on a hillside, the plan remained a work in progress.

    History Professor Andrew D. White found the grounds to be a jumble when he arrived in Ann Arbor in 1857; there’s no reason to believe the campus was any tidier when Cropsey was painting two years earlier

    “It was a flat, square inclosure of forty acres, unkempt and wretched. Throughout its whole space there were not more than a score of trees outside the building sites allotted to professors,” White recalled. “Unsightly plank walks connected the buildings, and in every direction were meandering paths, which in dry weather were dusty and in wet weather muddy.”

    Even so, the planked walks were an improvement. Faculty had lobbied the regents to do something about the condition of a campus evolving from farmland that once bore wheat and peaches. “No walks have been made across the campus,” said Daniel Whedon, the president of the faculty, in 1847. “At some seasons of the year the professors are obliged before the clear day light to wend their way to their recitations through darkness and mud.”

    This muddy, uneven mess, laced with footpaths and wooden planks, was the seed of today’s Diag.

  3. Chapter 3 Faculty Housing

    When the University moved to Ann Arbor from Detroit in 1837, the regents who governed the institution selected a 40-acre parcel that was largely farmland dotted with tree stumps. They knew they would need a few years to erect the first buildings before classes could begin. The first order of business was to construct four identical houses that would be home to faculty.

    The houses – “of a substantial, appropriate, and classical model” – were built on the northern and southern edges of the campus, a pair along each side. The two-storied buildings each had a stucco exterior, a terrace, and a separate woodhouse that held the fuel for cooking and warmth.

    Not everyone was impressed with the first wave of campus construction. In 1842, just as the inaugural students and faculty were settling in, Gov. John S. Barry criticized the Board of Regents for how much it was spending on new facilities.

    “The large and commodious buildings, that have been constructed with so much expense, will doubtless, at some future period, be wanted for occupation and use,” Barry wrote, “but the paucity of the university fund, and the present and prospective limitation of its availability, should have postponed their erection for many years.”

    The houses faced inward, overlooking the wheat and grass that grew in the center of campus. There was no water on the campus, only wells, and no sewage system. Cropsey used his brush to obscure any outhouses.

    By the time of Cropsey’s painting, one of the two houses along South University Avenue – the southwestern structure – had become home to the first president, Henry P. Tappan. In the painting, it is the second structure from the left, its white-columned porch providing shelter and shade for the Tappan family. Tappan and his wife Julia moved into the house in 1852.

    Tappan’s next-door neighbor when Cropsey was painting was Professor Erastus Haven, who taught Latin, English and history. In addition to receiving a house on campus, Haven was paid $1,000 annually; faculty who did not live on campus received an additional $150 for housing. Haven would leave U-M in 1856 for a newspaper job in Boston, but returned to Ann Arbor in 1863 to become president and the second occupant of the President’s House.

  4. Chapter 4 Healing and Death

    The most dominant structure in Cropsey’s painting is the Medical Building, with its Greek Revival features, large, white columns, and a glass dome rising over the campus. Unlike other buildings, it faced away from the campus, its doors opening to the east.

    The three-story building opened in 1850 to welcome the inaugural class of medical students. Almost immediately, the building was too small for students learning the science of anatomy. The dissection rooms were crowded and poorly ventilated – a bad combination for working with corpses in a time before refrigeration. In 1855, the building’s attic was renovated and the dome added, providing more space and light for medical students and faculty. Cropsey’s landscape was the first image to showcase the dome.

    If the students inside the Medical Building were focused on the art of healing, Cropsey made certain to include a reminder of sickness and death at the rear of the building.

    Here stood the Professors’ Monument, a limestone-and-marble cenotaph honoring faculty members who died in the early days of the University. Its lone, stone pillar was broken and jagged at the top, signifying a life cut short. Regents ordered the monument in 1845, after Joseph Whiting, one of the first two professors to teach in Ann Arbor, died just weeks before the first class of students graduated. Months after Whiting’s death, Professor Douglass Houghton disappeared during a storm while sailing on Lake Superior. Hired as a professor of chemistry, mineralogy, and geology, Houghton never taught a class but his name was added to the memorial.

    A third name was added to the monument months before Cropsey’s arrival: Edward Fox, the only person to be a professor of agriculture at U-M, who died of cholera in 1854.

    When regents first established the memorial in 1845, they also intended to create a campus cemetery near the Medical Building. Those plans never materialized, and the Professors’ Monument remained the lone tribute to fallen faculty.

  5. Chapter 5 Living-Learning Spaces

    A pair of identical-looking buildings, standing stoically alongside the western edge of campus, represented the academic heart of the University of Michigan in 1855. They are the most institutional of the structures on campus, and are at the center of Cropsey’s work.

    Looking at the painting, the building on the left is South College, with Mason Hall to the right. Mason is the older of the two, opened in 1841 as U-M’s first academic building and known then as the blandly-named Main Building. “Mason” was affixed to it two years later to honor Michigan Gov. Stevens T. Mason. The building was covered “handsomely and durably” in stucco to give it the grander appearance of granite.

    Mason Hall was the students’ world. It had two-man suites (all the students were male), with two bedrooms and a shared study space. “They had the care of their own rooms, and were instructed to sweep the dust and dirt from their rooms into the hall, where it was collected by a janitor, or, in student dialect, by the ‘Professor of Dust and Ashes,’” wrote Elizabeth Farrand, a librarian who penned one of the first histories of U-M.

    There were classrooms for lectures and recitations. There were natural history collections for research: 6,000 mineral specimens, an herbarium with 1,500 specimens, and a thousand specimens of birds, fish, reptiles and four-legged creatures,. Mason Hall also was home to the University’s library, which had some 6,000 volumes and never enough space. “Never quite sufficient for the demands made upon it,” Farrand wrote, “it was yet like a vigorous child ever outgrowing its clothes.”

    The University chapel was inside Mason Hall, and students were expected to attend every morning except for Sunday, when instead they should be in church. The almost-constant use had taken its toll by 1853, when Edmund Andrews, the superintendent of grounds, asked the regents for permission to spruce up a sanctuary that had become “dingy and dismal.”

    “It is questionable, he said, “whether the aspect of the place suggests mere thoughts of Heaven or of the other place to the students who assemble there.”

    South College was built in 1849 and, like its twin, featured student housing and classrooms. It also was home to the first student organizations, two literary societies.

    When Cropsey was at work in the fall of 1855, there were about 390 students attending U-M. But none appear around the academic buildings or, for that matter, anywhere else in the painting.

  6. Chapter 6 “They Will Add Much Beauty”

    John P. Stoddard, who came to campus as a 20-year-old in the fall of 1855, made his first visit to Ann Arbor four years earlier and was underwhelmed by the campus. “I distinctly remember,” he recalled, “how lonely and unkempt was the whole outfit.”

    It was a perpetually empty landscape.

    Getting trees to take root and grow had been a perennial challenge in trying to beautify the campus. Locust trees often were put in the ground, only to be destroyed by insects within a year or two. In 1854, faculty, students and local residents came together to execute a landscaping plan drawn up by Andrews as superintendent of grounds.

    His blueprint called for more than a dozen different species: maples along the walkways that separated the campus from the village; groves of oak, whitewood, wild cherry, Balm of Gilead, chestnut, horse chestnut and mountain ash. There would be smaller groupings of weeping willows, evergreens, maples and more mountain ash. And to provide some diversity in the treeline, Andrews recommended slender, fast-growing Lombardy poplars.

    All told, some 1,365 saplings went into the ground. There’s no real evidence of these plantings in Cropsey’s painting. Most of the trees he painted are mature; small but full ones fill the center of campus.

    “The trees have been carefully boxed and in other ways suitably cared for,” Andrews told regents. “In a few years they will add much to the beauty of the University grounds.”

    Andrews was quick to add a proviso: “I beg leave to add that not being a professional Landscape Gardener, I cannot recommend this plan as being the best that can be made.”

    Edmund Andrews was, first and foremost, a physician and a member of the Medical School faculty – “a demonstrator of anatomy,” to be precise. His experience working in the soil had a far different objective.

    “The chief end of my official existence,” he recalled years later, “was to buy, steal, dig up, or in any other manner procure subjects for the dissecting room. To instruct the students was deemed meritorious, if I could get time for it, but by no means as important as getting the subjects.”

    Within four years of Andrews’ landscaping plan, most of the campus trees were as dead as his anatomy subjects.

  7. Chapter 7 Professor’s House

    On the northern edge of campus, Cropsey painted only one of the two professor’s houses that sat along North University Avenue.

    The northwest house is tucked behind a large tree. The northeast house is partially obscured by tree limbs and leaves. Its occupant was one of the University’s sternest professors.

    James Robinson Boise, chair of Greek studies, lived on campus with his wife Sarah, and their three daughters. He was a small, stern man who had high expectations of his students. Discipline ruled his classroom. “It was a common remark among the students of those days that whatever else they might not do, the lessons assigned in Greek had to be learned,” recalled alumnus Martin L. D’Ooge. “Probably no teacher of those days got so much downright hard work out of his pupils as the Professor of Greek.”

  8. Chapter 8 The Cat Hole

    Cropsey made certain to include one of the most mysterious features of the greater campus when he placed, in the lower right-hand corner of his painting, the Cat Hole.

    The Cat Hole was a natural depression in the area of today’s Power Plant, where Washtenaw Avenue bends to the west to become Huron Street. In the summer, it sprouted weeds and scum. In the winter, it froze over and students sometimes skated upon it.

    Whether viewed as a pond, a swamp or a ditch, most saw the Cat Hole as an eyesore. It was a brackish dumping ground for trash and dead animals, with a name that may have evolved from the cattails that surrounded it. In Cropsey’s version, the Cat Hole appears rather idyllic.

  9. Chapter 9 Cropsey Today

    As 1855 closed out, the Board of Regents paid Jasper Cropsey $25 “for sketches of the University grounds and buildings”; Cropsey’s own account book indicates he received $50 from Tappan. He returned to New York, and both his campus and Detroit Observatory paintings were hung in the parlor of the President’s House.

    That building is the only structure from Cropsey’s landscape that remains today. Since Henry Tappan took up residence in 1852, it has been home to 13 of U-M’s 14 chief executives. (Harry B. Hutchins opted to remain in his Ann Arbor home after being elevated from law dean to president in 1910.)

    The Professors’ Monument also still stands. As the campus grew, it was moved several times to make way for new buildings. Its last placement was in 1918 at the southeast corner of the Hatcher Graduate Library, not far from where it first was erected in 1846.

    All other buildings in the painting are gone, as is the wheat, the peach trees and the Cat Hole.

    After the 1863 auction at the President’s House, the Cropsey painting and its unknown owner seemed to have vanished. More than a quarter-century later, the landscape surfaced in the Ann Arbor studio of Herbert Randall, who dealt in photography and art work.

    “It is a view looking west, the one from which the early steel engravings of the University were made, and the picture is now considered very valuable,” noted the Ann Arbor Courier in the spring of 1890. “It seems as though the University should own the picture.”

    An early critic of the campus’ appearance made such ownership a certainty. Andrew D. White, the professor who once called the campus “unkempt and wretched,” was the first to find success with growing trees on campus, and some of his plantings still shade today’s Diag. After teaching in Ann Arbor, he went on to become the first president of Cornell University and an ambassador to Russia. In June 1890, he returned to Ann Arbor to give the commencement address. He also gave President James B. Angell his blessing to purchase both Cropsey paintings, which White then donated to “this beautiful spot,” the University of Michigan.

    Today, Jasper Cropsey’s campus landscape, as well as his colorful rendering of the Detroit Observatory, hangs at the U-M Museum of Art.


    Sources: “Jasper Francis Cropsey: Painter of Faith” by Anthony M. Speiser, Jasper F. Cropsey: Catalogue Raisonne, Volume I, 1842-1863; A Creation of His Own: Tappan’s Detroit Observatory, by Patricia S. Whitesell; “Up Among the Clouds,” by J.F. Cropsey, The Crayon (Aug. 8, 1855); Aspirations for Excellence: Alexander Jackson Davis and the First Campus Plan for the University of Michigan, 1838, by Julia M. Truettner; Autobiography of Andrew Dickson White; The University of Michigan by Wilfred Shaw; Jasper F. Cropsey, 1823-1900, a dissertation by William Silas Talbot; “The Department of Medicine and Surgery in the Fifties,” by Dr. W.F. Breakey, The Michigan Alumnus (April 1901); A Memorial Discourse on the Life and Services of Henry Philip Tappan, by Henry S. Frieze; “Professor James Robinson Boise,” by Martin L. D’Ooge, The Michigan Alumnus, (October 1905)