Elizabeth Fenimore Cooper

Elizabeth Fenimore Cooper
Watercolor portrait of Elizabeth Cooper seated in Otsego Hall. With the exception of the artist's earliest recorded likenesses of members of his family, George Freeman sought to attract only prosperous or well known clients. During the summer of 1816, in search of portrait work through central New York, he stopped in Cooperstown to draw this ambitious and accomplished portrait of Elizabeth Fenimore Cooper, widow of Judge William Cooper (1754-1809) and mother of novelist James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851). The portraits of two other prominent Cooperstown residents, Catherine A. Russell and Rensselaer W. Russell, also are believed to have been drawn by Freeman during this visit. These renderings and the appearance of the artist's name cited in the October 3, 1816 issue of the Cooperstown "Watch Tower" among those people with letters remaining at the post office are the only evidence of the artist's visit to town. While little is known of Freeman's early artistic training, the considerable ability with which he created the illusion of depth in this composition suggests that Freeman had more than a casual understanding of drafting techniques. Like many portraitists, he probably based the interior scene on visual observation of the room rather than exact measurements. It is therefore not surprising that the walls in this scene are not parallel, as Freeman must have struggled to reconcile reality with a pleasing composition. Using short, precise brushstrokes, Freeman adeptly contoured Mrs. Cooper's facial features to render this compelling portrait of a mature woman. The sculpted folds of her dress, created by the artist's experienced use of cross-hatch markings and dark lines of blue watercolor, skillfully communicate her imposing figure. Seated on a chair in the main hall of her home, Otsego Hall, Mrs. Cooper is depicted by Freeman as a woman of taste and refinement. Her appearance and disposition are portrayed in a manner similar to a later description of her recalled by a granddaughter: ------She always wore sleeves to the elbow, or a little below, with long gloves. She took great delight in flowers, and the south end of the long hall was like a greenhouse in her time. She was a great reader of romances. She was a marvelous housekeeper, and beautifully nice and neat in all her arrangements.------- To the right of Mrs. Cooper, located in the shadow at the base of her chair, appears the curious pentimento of a drawn outline of a cat curled up by her feet. The flowering plant at Mrs. Cooper's knee, the gauze-wrapped chandelier, and the chintz fabric covered sofa are interior details included by Freeman to interpret this rendering as a summer scene. Interestingly, inclement weather conditions experienced during this particular summer could explain why the large plants potted in boxes with handles located at the far end of the hall were not carried outside. Elizabeth Fenimore Cooper was born on June 11, 1751 to Richard and Hannah Allen Fenimore of Rancocas, New Jersey. On November 12, 1774, she married William Cooper in Burlington, New Jersey. The couple resided in Pennsylvania until 1780, when they returned to Burlington where William Cooper became involved in land speculation. While living there, Elizabeth Cooper gave birth to eleven of their twelve children. In 1790, William Cooper moved the family and their household including five servants and two slaves to Cooperstown, the village he founded in the wilderness of central New York. There, the couple lived for almost twenty years, residing at Otsego Hall, the home Cooper had built for his family. Elizabeth Fenimore Cooper died on September 13, 1817 and is buried in Christ Church Cemetery in Cooperstown. The black man portrayed standing in the doorway to the far left of the scene is Joseph Stewart. Born a slave, Stewart worked as the Coopers' free servant for over twenty years. Among Cooper family members, he was known as "the Governor," a name bestowed by William Cooper's sons. He died in July 1823 and is buried in the Cooper family plot in Cooperstown. From Paul S. D'Ambrosio and Charlotte M. Emans, "Folk Art's Many Faces: Portraits in the New York State Historical Association," Cooperstown: NYSHA, 1987, pp. 83-85.
Physical dimensions: 
height 25 in ; width 30.25 in