Last week, I posted the first part of my research into John W. Casilear’s 1847 engraving, A Sibyl, after Daniel Huntington, discussing how it came to be produced and disseminated by the American Art-Union. This week, I continue to explore Casilear’s print, framing it in the context of his career as a whole.
John W. Casilear was born in New York City in 1811. In the 1820s, he studied reproductive engraving, first with the well-known printmaker Peter Maverick (1780-1831) and then with Asher B. Durand (1796-1886). Casilear and Durand became friends and colleagues as they both pursued successful printmaking careers in the 1830s; but Durand was increasingly attracted to painting. After making landscape painter Thomas Cole’s acquaintance in the mid-1830s, Durand turned to painting full-time—and he encouraged Casilear to do the same. Reproductive printmaking was a reliable source of income for Casilear, however, and critics consistently praised the engraver for demonstrating unusual skill and sensitivity in the medium. “One of our best,” summarized a 1908 exhibition catalogue published by the Grolier Club in New York.
A Sibyl, in particular, was called out as a superlative example of the genre. “Like his master, Durand, J. W. Casilear began his career as an engraver,” recorded Samuel Greene Wheeler Benjamin in 1879, “and the success he achieved in this department is attested to by his very clever engraving of Huntington’s ‘Sibyl.’” The adjective “clever” was often applied to the art of engraving, reflecting the challenges faced by artists as they translated painted textures and colors into black and white patterns of line.
An earlier biographer was less reserved in his praise: Henry Theodore Tuckerman wrote at length in 1867 of Casilear’s entry into the engraving profession and his subsequent triumph. “The only support of a widowed mother and several brothers and sisters, he labored with assiduous skill,” Tuckerman noted. The skill and practice paid off: Casilear worked for many years for the American Bank-Note Company, acquiring, according to Tuckerman, “a handsome competence.” The American Bank-Note Company was founded in 1795 and printed stock and bond certificates as well as paper currency for the nation’s state-chartered banks. The United States’ federal government didn’t issue paper money until 1861, but some states gave private banks the right to issue their own currency. Thousands of designs were printed, many of which were designed by Casilear.
Casilear’s success in the field of currency design throughout the first half of the nineteenth century led him to become a principle partner of the Philadelphia-based engraving firm Topper, Carpenter, Casilear and Co. in 1851. Shortly thereafter, the firm put in a bid to design the first federally issued postage stamps.
Casilear only stayed with the company for a few years. Like Durand before him, the artist eventually gave up reproductive printmaking and engraving in order to focus on painting—particularly landscape. Casilear had traveled to Europe on a sketching and study trip with Durand, John Frederick Kensett, and others in 1840, and with his increasing financial security by the mid-1850s felt “free to engage in the pursuit he loved.” According to Tuckerman, Casilear “made frequent summer excursions,” eventually finding “a congenial life-companion in the mountains of Vermont. He opened the studio of a landscape artist in New York.”
Tuckerman felt that Casilear’s landscape paintings were competent but not particularly daring. “The rectitude of his character and the refined accuracy of his original profession are exhibited in his pictures. They are finished with great care, and the subjects chosen with fastidious taste; the habit of dealing strictly with form, gives a curious correctness to the details of his work; there is nothing dashing, daring, or off-hand; all is correct, delicate, and indicative of a sincere feeling for truth, both executive and moral; not so much a passion for beauty as a love of elegance, is manifest; the precise, the firm, and the graceful traits of artistic skill belong to Casilear.”
Tuckerman is eager to see the influence of Casilear’s engraving practice in the aesthetics of his landscapes, and we learn as much about audiences’ expectations for reproductive prints as we do for the mid-nineteenth-century taste in landscape painting from Tuckerman’s comments.
 Grolier Club, Catalogue of an exhibition of early American engraving upon copper, 1727-1850. New York: The De Vinne Press, 1908: 13.
 Samuel Greene Wheeler Benjamin, Art in America: A Critical and Historical Sketch (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1880 [originally published in Harper’s magazine, 1879]: 73.
 Henry Theodore Tuckerman, Book of the Artists: American Artist Life. New York: G. P. Putnam and Sons, 1867: 521.
 Tuckerman, 521.