The following information was submitted in July of 2006 by Vivian F. Zoe, Director of the Slater Museum:
The Slater Museum is fortunate to have in its collection a number of fine paintings, mostly oil on canvas, by John Denison Crocker. Some are portraits of people important to the development of the Norwich Free Academy and captains of the city’s industrial revolution. Still others are landscapes which document the original nine-miles-square of Norwich and its rural environs with unparalleled clarity and affection.
Paintings including Mill Dam on the Upper Shetucket; Norwich Landscape; Edward Tracy Farm, Lisbon, Connecticut; and New England Mill are infused with a sensibility typical of the late 19th century, looking back to the previous century with sentimentality and longing. The Capture of Miantonomo tells, in pictorial terms, an important historical legend of great significance and meaning to several Native American tribes of Eastern Connecticut and Rhode Island. The Capture of Miantonomo is inspired by the American narrative paintings of the west, reminiscent of Albert Bierstadt. On an aesthetic level, Crocker’s work is literally comparable to any of his era. In its historical value to southeastern Connecticut, the state and the region, Crocker’s work can be likened to that of Benjamin West, Thomas Cole and Frederic Church.
Much too little is known about John Denison Crocker, and even less written. Born in Salem, Connecticut in 1822, he spent most of his life in Norwich, dying here in 1907. At the age of nine, he was working for a wagon maker. At twelve, he was apprenticed to a silversmith and left that trade to work at the shop of a furniture maker and restorer. It was this coincidence which led him to be exposed to portrait painting. A portrait brought to the furniture shop for varnishing apparently captivated him and upon seeing it at the age of seventeen, he determined to become a portrait painter. Several sources allude to Crocker’s having sought advice, perhaps lessons or critique, from Charles Lanman of Norwich. A respected artist belonging to a prominent family, Lanman wrote for many publications, including British journals, about the wilds of the new world. Perhaps it was this influence which eventually led John Denison Crocker, essentially an autodidact, to attempt to document the rivers, harbors, trees, agricultural land and livestock of his native Southeastern Connecticut.
Yet another possible influence was the already established movement, once derisively, now commonly and affectionately, known as the “Hudson River School”. Founded by Thomas Cole in New York in the first half of the nineteenth century, the movement included a ritual wherein artists spent summers in the Catskill and Adirondack Mountains, absorbing and gaining inspiration from the wilderness. By the age of 25, around 1850, Crocker had moved (at least temporarily) to New York City and was here no doubt exposed to the growing movement. It was, in fact, a Connecticut Yankee, Daniel Wadsworth of Hartford, who supported and promoted Cole’s early work, so a style so associated with New York could be seen as having deep Connecticut roots.
In New York, Crocker roomed with two other artists, painter Joseph Dunn and lithographer A. Miller. As was the practice of the male painters of the era, it is likely that he spent time in a Catskill cabin with other artists. Immersed in the wilderness, they became familiar with the visual language of the flora, fauna, landscape and Native Americans of the region, developing a style that became ubiquitous from the Northeast to Ohio and from the middle of the 19th century into the early 20th century.
In addition to and before his landscapes, Crocker devoted his efforts to portraiture. Based upon portraits in the Slater Museum’s collection, here, too, he was a prolific documentarian. From members of his family to founders and leaders of the Norwich Free Academy, Crocker recorded the residents of Norwich in a professional studio in the city. From examining his painted portraits, one can conjecture that he used photographs as an aid to refresh his memory of a likeness and to present an accurate representation of clothing and accessories. Photographically aided or not, and like his views of Norwich vistas, Crocker’s portraits were marvels of documentation. His Harriet Elizabeth Dillaby Crocker (and child), painted in the mid-nineteenth century, and Celeste Lydia Kenyon Beckwith, c. 1876, depict brooches, lace, earrings, rings, a buckled watch strap and a gold watch-tie with nearly photographic accuracy. The portrait of his daughter Harriet Elizabeth (Daughter of the Artist) as a young girl has her encircled with an oval frame and necklace of leaves of both representational and fantastical qualities.
His skills and vision as a painter notwithstanding, Crocker propelled himself into the spheres of patent medicine and mechanical equipment. He created a cure-all called “Crocker’s Magical Stomach Powders”, a sample of which was donated to the Slater Museum by the inventor’s great-great grandson, Mr. Jim Bussey of North Stonington, Connecticut. The label (doubling as a wrapper) presents the philosophical, social and political opinions of the manufacturer and guarantees the contents to be “a sure cure for Indigestion and all Bowel Difficulties and Colds”. Further, the label claims that “If taken in time these powders will ward off all infections and diseases”. Anyone born in the second half of the twentieth century wondering about the origins of the arcane phrase “Take a Powder”, needn’t.
Crocker’s knowledge of herbs and plant extracts must have made it possible for him to produce and distribute several well received varnishes and coatings, including a boot polish and water-proofing agent. The Slater’s archives include a letter from Seymour J. Guy wherein he states “The varnish or gloss applied by you to my two little pictures is as far as I am able to judge of it in this short time, an excellent article for artistic use, both as a varnish and as a painting vehicle. In a few days it dries firmly with a desirable gloss, and the coloring of the picture is charmingly revivified. I shall not hesitate to use it for either of the above purposes.” The boot polish includes shellac, gum damar (a varnish), Gutta Percha and bees wax.
Riding the swelling wave of the industrial revolution, John Denison Crocker applied for a patent for his file cutting machine which, in his own words, “(would) closely imitate … cutting files by hand. My machine is constructed in such a manner that the chisel can be adjusted for cutting burrs or teeth on the edges of the files as well as upon the sides thereof.” Such inventions were spurred by new technologies and, particularly in the North, by the Civil War.
From medicinal cure-alls to boot water-proofing, Mr. Crocker clearly invested energy, skill and intelligence in improving daily life. His powers of observation in portraiture and landscape painting, as well as in researching materials and techniques for developing “modern” goods make him a clear product of the industrial revolution. Perhaps his realization that industrialization is partly what prompted him to record, and thus preserve, his fellow Norwichians and the city’s agrarian environs.