Born in Philadelphia in 1856, Colin Campbell Cooper's formal studies commenced under Thomas Eakins at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Eager to cross the Atlantic, Cooper soon voyaged to Paris where he studied at the Académies Julian, Decluse and Viti and traveled extensively throughout Western Europe. Returning to America after several years abroad, Cooper took a teaching position at Drexel University in Philadelphia before relocating to New York City in 1902.
Almost immediately the artist began to engage with New York's emerging architectural landscape, which at the turn of the century was evolving into what would become a truly modern city. Painted in the Impressionist manner for which he is best known, New York Public Library renders New York's first major civic endeavor. Looking south down Fifth Avenue, Cooper depicts the grandness of the Beaux-Arts structure and the pedestrian bustle with a wondrous technical facility for which he was recognized in The Century years later: "Cooper...is pre-eminently the artist who has shown the modern world that there is beauty, even poetry, in its towering structures of steel, as well as old cathedrals laid stone by stone. He has transformed the canyons of New York for their denizens." ("Among Our Contributors," The Century, vol. 100, no. 6, October 1920, p. vii) The numerous American flags that color the scene lend it a patriotic air that further underscores the civic importance of this great institution.
Although Cooper's overall body of work is diverse in its character, the artist remained intent on rendering the major architectural monuments of New York's cultural and intellectual facets. In addition to New York Public Library, he completed major works on such civic achievements as the eponymously titled Flat Iron Building (1904, Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, Texas) and Grand Central Station (1909, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), which furthered New York's emergence as an urban center in keeping with its European rivals such as Paris and London.