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Mountain Home Magazine

The Old Master Who Died Young

Nov 27, 2017 12:53PM

When the brilliant young landscape and marine painter Alfred Copestick, already hailed a genius in New York and Philadelphia, visited his father in Delmar Township in August 1859, he planned to make some summer sketches of the beautiful local landscape, and to go pigeon hunting.

At twenty-two years of age, Copestick had in the last year completed his classic painting, New York from the Harbor Showing the Battery and Castle Garden (today it hangs in The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York), exhibited four marine paintings at the National Academy of Design in New York, including The Abandoned Ship, Coast of Cuba, and was declared by art critics “a young man of rare promise...having given proofs of genius.”

But on Sunday, August 28, in Delmar, Copestick had just shot a pigeon in the woods, reloaded his gun, and stood talking with two friends, leaning on his gun as it rested on a log, when he slipped and the gun went off, shooting him through the heart. He died where he fell, half an hour later.

Now a century and a half later, the original Roan auction house in Cogan Station, Pennsylvania, will auction off the sprawling canvas of The Abandoned Ship, Coast of Cuba, and is advertising the auction widely in the New York and Philadelphia art worlds, hoping to draw attention to the old master who died young. The painting will be sold in the Roan gallery at 3530 Lycoming Creek Road on Saturday, December 16, the second day of Roan’s big annual two-day pre-Christmas auction.

“In the art world, artists often get famous when they’re dead, and there’s a story attached to them,” Ron Roan says. “It’s the eccentricities that make them who they are.”

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The auction house has sold paintings for hundreds of thousands, and Copestick’s unusual story and rare talent make him of interest to collectors all over, Ron says, but he adds “it’s anybody’s guess” what the painting will bring. The Abandoned Ship, Coast of Cuba haunted the auction house for some “forty, fifty years,” he says. Roan’s grandfather, Robert, founded the auction house, and his father, Richard, who died in May at age eighty-two, discovered the painting hanging in a Williamsport business some half century ago and kept his eye on it for decades, hoping it would become available. Recently the business closed, and the painting was auctioned off, but “didn’t get the exposure it deserved,” and the man who purchased it brought it to Roan, who advertised in the major antiques press and on the Web.

The Abandoned Ship, Coast of Cuba is a powerful scene of a shipwreck on the ocean, with the capsized hull and floating debris and a lighthouse and vast sky that evokes Winslow Homer’s famous seascapes, though Copestick had no formal training, and never saw a shore outside Coney Island. His other work shows the light brush strokes and dreamy aspect that anticipate the French Impressionists a decade or two later. “His untimely fate will be lamented by all who knew him,” wrote the Wellsboro Agitator, “and those who knew him not cannot but regret that one so promising should then be cut down in the flower of youth.”