Many who visit the Cantor Arts Center must have wondered where the trompe l’oeil paintings of the magnificent jewelry displayed in the first galleries originally came from. Now, “Astley D. M. Cooper and Mrs. Stanford’s Jewels,” at the Cantor Arts Center, explores the life of this now little known artist. The show features 15 works from painter Astley D. M. Cooper, including Wild West scenes, landscapes, oddball portraits, a few seascapes, a giant buffalo head and his famous still life of Jane Lathrop Stanford’s jewelry collection. Some of the pieces on display were even a surprise to the show’s curator, Annie Ronan, who just finished her Ph.D. in Stanford’s Department of Art & Art History. “I didn’t realize he painted landscapes,” Ronan said. “He’s mostly known as a Western painter. It turns out he was working in all these different genres. And the cool thing is that he’s also directly referencing cinema in a lot of ways.”
Nationally recognized during his time but largely forgotten in our own, painter Astley D. M. Cooper (1856–1924) used a faux Egyptian temple as a studio, paid off bar debts with paintings, and threw the wildest parties that San Jose, California had ever seen. With their luscious colors and trompe l’oeil trickery, his landscapes, portraits, and wild western scenes aimed to both please and astonish. To this day, he has a following among those who collect early California art.
The namesake painting in the show, “Mrs. Stanford’s Jewel Collection” (1898) is owned by Stanford University. As the story goes, Jane Stanford commissioned Cooper to paint a still life of her jewelry, but the teetotaller did not approve of Cooper’s lifestyle. She insisted he show up nicely dressed and sober. As a result, he bailed from the scene and finished the painting at home before displaying it in a local saloon. Stanford later dispatched an assistant to fetch the painting.
Astley David Middleton Cooper was born in St Louis, Missouri on December 22, 1856, the son of Fannie Clark O’Fallon and Dr. David M. Cooper, an eminent surgeon. At an early age, A. D. M. Cooper was fascinated with the Indian paintings of George Catlin, a close friend of the Cooper family. After attending Washington University, he traveled throughout the West as an illustrator for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. At age twenty he was in the West at the time of the Custer massacre and became famous as a painter of the Old West and Indians.
In 1879 he moved to San Francisco and became active with the local art association. Upon establishing a studio, he was in demand as a portraitist and painted several studies of General U. S. Grant. In 1883 he moved to East San Jose where he later built a unique studio-home in Egyptian style, entertained lavishly and became known for his wild parties.
As well as a painter, he was also an accomplished violinist and often sat in with local orchestras. In his later years he painted allegorical scenes with semi-nude women and several trompe l’oeil studies. On rare occasions he signed his paintings “A. Dubernet” or “David Middleton.” In his more lucid moments, Cooper was capable of producing masterpieces; however, due to his affinity for alcohol his paintings are uneven in quality. “We hear the story, ‘Oh, this guy was drunk all the time, he put paintings in bars,’ but here was a serious artist who really defined what kind of art was being done in this area,” Ronan says. “And speaking in a very clear voice. You get a lot of his personality in his works.”
This exhibition, curated by Annie Ronan, PhD, Department of Art & Art History, explores Cooper’s life as well as the Bay Area bohemia out of which he first emerged.
Also on view at the Cantor: Now masterworks from the 15th through the 20th centuries—accompanied by new research and fresh insights. “500 Years of Italian Master Drawings from the Princeton University Art Museum” show the foundation of Western artistic practice through drawings which are still fresh and compelling, 500 years after the artists first put pencil to paper. Closes August 24.