The Hudson River School
Summary of The Hudson River School
Searching for a national style of art, the American landscape itself - large and untamed - was the primary focus of the Hudson River School painters. American expansion and Manifest Destiny imbued the untamed countryside with the symbolism of the country's promised prosperity and limitless resources. The terrain provided an alternative to European culture and history; it became a picturesque, patriotic, and inspirational theme. This loosely connected group of painters explored the nation, returning to their New York studios to paint large-scale works that thrilled audiences and celebrated the awesome power of nature and the progress of man.
- Long considered a profitable, but lowly, subject for serious artists (since it involved merely copying what was seen), landscape painting received new attention in the mid-19th century. Like Romantic painters in Britain and Germany, Hudson River School artists embraced the landscape as a meaningful subject, precisely as industrialization began to change terrains and reshape man's connection to his environment. The Americans both championed these forces of modernization and lamented what was lost in the name of "progress."
- Generations of American painters had returned to Europe for training and adopted the styles and subjects of Old World artists. The Hudson River School painters desired a more native tradition, painting recognizably American scenes. Personally and professionally, they formed networks with writers and philosophers to create a distinct American culture.
- Artists like Thomas Cole invested the landscape with symbolism, suggesting that these natural scenes could be transformed into meaningful allegories, as well as immersive and transformative experiences for the viewer. With their careful attention to realism and precise illusionism, as well as complex messaging and awe-inspiring vistas, the resulting canvases could be appreciated on both intellectual and emotional levels.
- The second generation of Hudson River School painters left the New York area to explore more far-flung regions of America. Their painting documented westward expansion and reinforced the concept of Manifest Destiny. During the Civil War, their majestic images of an unspoiled West provided hope for post-war reconciliation and the promise of expanses of wild country, full of promise and unscarred by battle.
Overview of The Hudson River School
The Hudson River School was neither a school nor art movement in the contemporary sense of the term, but a group of landscape painters who began working in the Hudson River Valley of New York State. The name for the group has been variously attributed to either the art critic Clarence Cook or the artist Homer Dodge Martin, but, in any case, it was coined as a disparaging term in the 1870s to suggest that the group's style and subject matter were passé and provincial.
Important Art and Artists of The Hudson River School
Kaaterskill Falls cascades through the center of the painting, while shafts of sunlight illuminate a rocky ledge, framed by red and gold autumnal trees. A single figure, a Native American, stands on top of an outcrop, profiled against the dark caverns in the cliff behind him. The effect feels spontaneous and timeless, capturing the beauty of the scene as a natural resource. Yet, trouble looms. The painting is composed as an inverted triangle: its apex sits at the break of the falls with diagonals along the rising slopes on either side to lead the viewer to the higher falls in the upper right. Beyond this, a dense row of pines stretches along the horizon, along with an anvil-shaped thundercloud that creates a sense of impending doom.
Cole revisits a subject that had previously gained him fame with his Kaaterskill Upper Fall, Catskill Mountains (1825), painted after his first visit to the area. The region, known for its natural beauty, was viewed as a kind of natural Eden, yet, at the time of Cole's first visit, railings and a bridge had already been installed for the safety of the many tourists. In his depiction, however, Cole erased these manmade elements and included a Native American (even though the indigenous people had been driven from the area by this time) in an attempt to reverse time and preserve the original landscape for posterity.
With ambitions to transform landscape painting into a more important and celebrated genre, Cole centered his five-painting series, Course of Empire, on an allegorical cycle of historical progress. This, the first painting of the group, depicts an unspoiled wilderness at dawn. On this site, Cole depicts the rise and fall of civilization, a narrative foreshadowed by the looming storm that casts the dense forest into shadow. This gloom speaks to the demise of the unspoiled world, an ideal state represented by the hunter with bow and arrow who pursues a deer, along with an encampment of tipis and a billowing fire at the right, but it also points to the ultimate destruction of all of man's civilizing endeavors.
The Course of Empire cycle, painted between 1833 and 1836, was Cole's most ambitious project to date, moving from this first work to the The Arcadian or Pastoral State, The Consummation of Empire, Destruction, and the final painting, Desolation. The same landscape, featuring the crag in the background, is portrayed in each work to convey the contrast between enduring nature and human transience.
Despite Cole's interest in an independent American culture, the series is steeped in European influences. In its prioritizing of natural order and the smallness of man's impact on the world, Cole draws from German Romantics like Caspar David Friedrich. The structures of his grand empire are based on classical Roman architecture, popularized in 18th-century prints by artists such as Giovanni Battista Piranesi. Cole took his title from British bishop George Berkeley's "Verses on the Prospect of Planning Arts and Learning in America" (1726). He was also inspired by the Romantic poet Lord George Gordon Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1812-1818), even quoting a verse in the promotions for the series:
There is the moral of all human tales;
'Tis but the same rehearsal of the past.
First freedom and then Glory - when that fails,
Wealth, vice, corruption - barbarism at last.
And History, with all her volumes vast,
Hath but one page...
With this series, Cole felt he had launched "a higher style of landscape," a historical and moralistic allegory. Indeed, Cole's reputation beyond a mere landscape painter was established: James Fenimore Cooper praised the series as not only "the work of the highest genius this country has ever produced," but "one of the noblest works of art that has ever been wrought." Although its display in New York was considered "the most successful exhibition of works of a single American artist, ever had in this city," Cole felt that his deeper message was overshadowed by praise for the pictorial qualities of the paintings. He would later simplify his symbolism for the Voyage of Life series to make it more easily understood by the general public.
Considered a masterpiece of American landscape painting from its first showing at the National Academy of Design in 1836, Cole layered geographical fact with allegorical symbolism to create a deeply meaningful landscape. Selecting a distinctive site, a bend in the Connecticut River often called "The Oxbow," Cole places the viewer in a precise location (Mount Holyoke) while alluding to the cyclical qualities of nature. The conflict between wilderness and civilization, a dominant theme in Cole's work, is portrayed in the contrast between the dense, stormy wilderness at the left and the sunlit, cultivated plains on the right. The s two worlds are bridged only by the artist's vision, represented here by Cole's minuscule self-portrait. Showing himself at work, Cole declares the artist to be a visionary, in harmony with nature.
The painting was calculated to convey both civilized expansion and the untapped resources of the American continent. Although the wilderness is presented as a forest to be tamed, the brewing storm clouds and lightning-split trees remind the viewer of the ultimate power of nature. Both halves are intended to inspire awe; Cole both demonstrates the progress of man and his smallness before nature. As a viewer, we are carefully positioned within the dense forest, inviting us to partake in the sublime as experienced by the artist. Indeed, Cole traced this view from Basil Hall's Forty Etchings Made with the Camera Lucida in North America in 1827 and 1828; Hall had criticized Americans as indifferent to their native landscape, so Cole quoted his print in a depiction of the American landscape as "a union of the picturesque, the sublime, and the magnificent."