Julien Dupré worked in the late 1800s, part of group of French Realist painters that depicted the toils of peasants hard at work in the fields. His work became popular in America, and he was described by a critic of the day as "individual in his work, accurate as an observer, earnest as a painter, healthy in his instincts and intensely artistic in his impressions and translations of them. One cannot help but pay tribute to his immense talent in being able to recreate nature's light on canvas—a feat that many have attempted but few have succeeded in accomplishing. Whether it is the light filtering through a group of trees onto the figures and animals below or the warm effulgent sun bathing the lush French countryside, Dupré is always true to nature."
Much of the same might be said of New Jersey painter, John Crouse, although the light he recreates on canvas shines on scenes imagined in the hills of Hunterdon County. And, while Dupré received extensive training at Parisan academic studios, John's last formal art class was at Delaware Valley Regional High School in 1982.
"Dupré painted a lot of what I paint except obviously French landscape. Lots of milkmaids, cows and sheep and stuff like that. It just had a nice style to it. I remember that even from high school. It was considered realist art, which is a little bit looser brush, not as finely detailed as what I try to do. That's the only name I can remember. The Van Goghs, Renoirs, da Vincis didn't appeal to me. When I was in high school I didn't want to learn about art history. I just wanted to sit down and paint. The art teacher had a hard time with me, but she kind of let me do what I wanted to do just to keep me around. They would put up a sphere and a square in the middle of the room and say everybody sketch this. I thought 'Why do I want to draw that?' I wanted to paint a red-tailed hawk or a tractor."
Crouse grew up in Little York, a tiny hamlet between Bloomsbury and Milford. Less than a hundred people lived there, but he knows there was a zip code because his mother was postmaster. He spent lots of time at his grandfather's farm, which he now calls home. "I might as well have lived here because we got home from school a lot of times we got on our bike or walked up here. I baled the hay, milked the cows, shoveled the manure, dug the potatoes. We raised pumpkins, corn, hay, wheat, everything. We raised it all." Crouse also remembers his first grade teacher telling him he had something special—he could draw. John's mother remembers, "He drew on everything. He sketched and traced things when he was little. Eventually he went into lettering, and we had letters on things all over the farm; fictitious names, whatever he could think of."
When John got out of high school, he started his own sign business, "mostly race cars, small stuff." But the business got more commercial, and his clientele got away from pin striping and murals. Then computerized graphics arrived, and he had the choice of either continuing to paint signs in competition with the digital world. Or spending $50,000 on machines and doing what everybody else was doing. He got a job creating layout and design for outdoor advertising. But that company soon closed its doors as well. Computers made it possible for anyone to be in the sign business.
Crouse found work as a carpenter but did not forget his passion. He slowly began to realign skills that had become rusty over years of commercial sign painting. His subjects came from familiar sources, things he knew, but his paintings were realistic fantasies. "These places don't exist. I make them up," Crouse explains. "I know what a sheep looks like. Then I add the fields and some trees and whatnot in the background to balance everything out. I compose a painting the way I want to see it. I paint what I want to look at. Otherwise I don't paint it." Simple.
About twelve years ago, John began to show his work at a couple of private local art shows and was well received. He painted a picture of Alice's Store in Little York as it might have appeared in the 1960s, adding a Studebaker pick-up out front. He published 230 prints and sold them all. His career had legs, but the print business stalled. Big print publishers across the country had run into problems. Many were consolidating and few were taking on new artists. The art print "bubble" had burst, and even though Crouse published his own, the general situation did not help.
Down the road from Little York, Ron Kobli's Decoys and Wildlife Gallery, in Frenchtown, enjoys wide appeal for a notable collection of original carvings and wildlife art by artists from all over the world. Some of Kobli's customers sent Crouse to submit his work at the gallery. "My original reaction was to reject his stuff, because my gallery was strictly wildlife. John's work was more whimsical," says Ron. "So one day when I was getting ready for one of my open house shows, he came down to pick up his portfolio. We talked and I explained that I liked his work, but it just didn't fit in with the theme here. But I asked him to bring me down two or three small paintings of farm animals or songbirds. We hung them for the show and sold two out of the three. One just didn't have curb appeal."
The gallery took more pictures of farms, birds and butterflies. John would bring his paintings in on Friday and they would be sold by Monday. Part of the reason is that they were inexpensive; shoppers saw the value in is work. He couldn't make enough money to paint full time that way so the price has gone up over the years. "But he's still one of the least expensive, and the quality is as good as ever," Kobli explains. "Besides the obvious value in his work, I think John's personality is what makes his work popular. For many of my customers, face-to-face is important, and John is able to connect. He is very enthusiastic about his work, but entirely unpretentious; just an old farm boy. John has established a solid collector base, even though he is among the ten percent of artists here without a formal art education."
The process of painting is mechanical. The details in the way an artist organizes the landscape makes his mental universe worth exploring. Crouse estimates that before the year 2000 he had painted maybe fifty pieces. Since then he has finished at least five hundred. They come in all sizes, but his miniatures are quite popular. "Miniatures are obviously faster, and people have room for them. Bigger paintings take thirty to forty hours, sometimes two hundred. It just seems like it never ever gets done until the last few hours when it gets fun the finishing touches where a splash of white here and there can change the painting dramatically. That all happens in the last six or eight hours. But its nice to sit down and do something in a couple of days," says John. Butterflies, kittens, barn cats, dragonflies are all brilliantly rendered, all in remarkable detail. But farm scenes are Crouse's passion. "As an artist I am naturally observant and over the years I've painted many of the subjects and sceneries that I've observed on the farm. I see a rusted piece of machinery and I immediately recognize it as a sort of monument that symbolizes a time in America's history when hard work and perseverance were the rule of the day. The farmers of yesterday could tell stories that require few embellishments and minimal, if any, exaggeration. My challenge as an artist is to provide a visual backdrop for these stories and to take the viewer to a place and time where modern technology and industry cannot spoil the scenery."
Besides the continuous Crouse display at Decoys and Wildlife Gallery in Frenchtown, John's work is available on-line and by commission.