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Ashley David Cooper was a famous San Jose, California artist and bon vivant, who chronicled the passing of the frontier with canvases of grand style. He thumbed his nose at upper crust society and, leading a Bohemian life style, paid his bar bills with his paintings of nudes. Many years after his death, he remains a legendary local figure, whose reputation for Bohemian excess outstrips his artistic achievements, which included more than 1000 paintings during his lifetime.
In the spring of 1898, Jane Stanford, wife of railroad magnate Leland Stanford, commissioned Cooper to paint a still-life study of her large collection of diamonds, rubies, emeralds and sapphires which she planned to auction off to raise money for Stanford University Library. She wanted this record for posterity. She also wanted Cooper to conform to her behavior code.
Notoriously proper and aristocratic, not to mention a staunch advocate of temperance, Stanford demanded that Cooper dress in formal attire and refrain from drink while he accomplished his task. Irked by her pretensions, Cooper stormed out of the Stanford mansion before completing his work. Back in his studio, he precisely added the final touches to the painting from memory, then placed his study in the window of a downtown San Jose saloon for public view.
Upon learning of Cooper’s indecorous gesture, Stanford ordered her driver down the peninsula to retrieve the painting, which was then prominently displayed in the Leland Stanford Room of the Stanford Museum. “What a sad thing,” Lady Stanford reportedly opined about Cooper. “All that talent–dulled by John Barleycorn.”
By the time of his imbroglio with Jane Stanford, A.D.M. Cooper had already achieved an international reputation for his grand and romantic renderings of American Indians, buffalo herds and frontiersmen–as well as his idealized portraits of partially clad young women. That Cooper’s talents had been “dulled by John Barleycorn” remains open to debate, but he was most certainly an incorrigible carouser and lover of the night life, often to the consternation of San Jose’s more polite society circles.
“Of the 16,000 artists I’ve chronicled,” declares Edan Hughes, author of the definitive reference book, ARTISTS IN CALIFORNIA 1786-1940, “none was as colorful as Astley David Middleton Cooper. That man knew how to live. He was a true Bohemian, and he loved to have a good time. He knew how to party. And paint. And then party some more. He had a zest for life unmatched in the artistic annals of California.”
Named after a fabled British scientist, Astley D.M. Cooper was born on December 23, 1856, in St. Louis, Missouri, then the gateway to the American West. His father, David Middleton Cooper, was a prominent Irish-born physician, while his mother, the former Fannie Clark O’Fallon, was the daughter of Major Benjamin O’Fallon, a well-known figure in the American Indian wars, and a grandniece of the legendary Louisiana Territory explorer William Clark.
The O’Fallons, Clarks and Coopers counted among their friends George Catlin, the most regaled painter of American Indians in the 19th century. Between 1830 and 1836, Catlin became so intimate with certain Native American tribes that he was one of the first–and only–European Americans to witness what he describes as sacred sexual and warrior rituals. The young Cooper was fascinated by the stories and paintings of Catlin, who would hold a lifetime influence on his talented protege.
Cooper attended Washington University in St. Louis, where he studied European art and showed early promise in portraiture and landscape drawing.
At the age of 20, before completing his degree, he embarked on a journey through the West that saw him follow in the footsteps of his mentor Catlin. He lived with Indian tribes throughout the region, earning their respect; and him, theirs. He viewed the war being waged against them by the U.S. government as a terrible tragedy, and could never shake off the events such as the Battle of the Little Big Horn, which took place in 1876 while Cooper was still on his journey..
Settling down for a two-year stint in Boulder, Colo., Cooper took a position as an illustrator for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper and soon achieved national attention for his depictions of American Indians and frontier landscapes. His life as an artist was cast.
At the age of 24, Cooper arrived in San Francisco, where he assumed the pose of a Bohemian artist on the city’s Barbary Coast. Establishing his first studio in the city’s Latin Quarter, his reputation continued to soar, and he was commissioned to paint an official portrait of President Ulysses S. Grant. By the early 1880s, his paintings were being marketed throughout the United States and Europe.
In 1883, his ability to make a living secured, Cooper decided to move south to the agriculturally rich Santa Clara Valley, settling into a home at 250 S. 19th Street in East San Jose. His widowed mother eventually followed him. Cooper assimilated into the cultural life of his burgeoning adopted city.
By most accounts, Cooper took San Jose by storm. Handsome, debonair and charming, he was also a renowned ladies’ man when he first arrived and a frequent imbiber at local saloons. Local legend has it that Cooper paid many a bar tab with one of his paintings. It was a rare drinking establishment from San Francisco to Santa Cruz that didn’t have a Cooper nude hanging from its walls. At least one local bar, the Louvre, was said to have dozens of Cooper’s paintings on display.
Cooper was an accomplished violinist and occasionally sat in with local orchestras. According to Clyde Arbuckle’s History of San Jose, he often invited visiting vaudeville troupes and opera singers to his home for after-hour performances and raucous parties.
All the while Cooper maintained a furious painting schedule. He was never a “struggling artist.” He commanded a high income throughout his life, during which he completed more than a thousand paintings. One of his works, “Trilby,” named after a 19th-century novel by George DuMaurier–reportedly sold for $62,000 in the 1890s, while another, “The Story of the Evil Spirits,” sold for $20,000, both extraordinarily high prices for their day. He expanded his repertoire beyond the Western genre scenes that made him famous to include classical allegories, religious and historical depictions, portraits, and landscapes.
Cooper’s early compositions were representational and linear, much like Catlin’s. In the mature stages of his career, he frequently invoked a more impressionistic style that hinted at the tonalism of painters like James Abbott McNeill Whistler and Arthur Davies.
Using broad brush strokes and dark backgrounds, Cooper often imparted somber moods to his paintings, even to the point of being macabre. Unlike the tonalists, however, he infused his works with action and drama, and an underlying political commentary. For Cooper, Indians and buffaloes were symbols of a great American tragedy. Throughout his life, he portrayed their passing as paradise lost.
Although Cooper was a contemporary of California painters like William Keith, Arthur Matthews and Xavier Martinez, he seems never to have been a part of the so-called California Movement, which flourished in the decades straddling the turn of the century. He was rarely mentioned in California art books of the time, and is rarely included in contemporary exhibitions of the genre.