The Hudson River School - History and Concepts
Beginnings of The Hudson River School
The Hudson River School: The Group and Term
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.
The earliest works that could be categorized as Hudson River School paintings were by Thomas Doughty, one of the first American landscape artists, who painted quiet lyrical scenes of the region. The most famous and influential of the group, however, was Thomas Cole; it was under his leadership that the group became well-known and respected and thus, he is most often credited as the group's founder.
Cole was largely self-taught, only receiving some basic training as a painter and youthful experience as a wood engraver. When he began painting and sketching outdoors, taking an excursion to the Catskill Mountains in 1825, he had no academic training. Yet, when he displayed three landscape paintings (based on his outdoor sketches) at William Colman's bookshop and picture gallery in New York, they were discovered by John Trumbull, William Dunlap, and Asher B. Durand. (Trumbull purchased Kaaterskill Upper Fall, Catskill Mountains, Dunlap bought Lake with Dead Trees (Catskill), and Durand acquired View of Fort Putnam). The discovery of Cole's groundbreaking mix of realism and idealism was notable enough to be covered in the New York Evening Post. Trumbull (regarded as the painter of the American Revolution due to works like his Declaration of Independence (1819)), and Dunlap (a pioneer of American theatre and history) brought Cole's work to the attention of important patrons. Durand became close friends with Cole, and an early member of the Hudson River School himself. Other artists, including Martin Johnson Heade and Jasper Cropsey, soon followed in Cole's footsteps, hoping to repeat his success by painting the landscapes of the Adirondacks, the White Mountains, and the Catskills in upstate New York. Most of these artists worked outdoors to create preliminary oil and pencil sketches, then returned to their studios in New York City to complete the paintings. The resulting landscapes were often composites, creating an imagined and idealized landscape to achieve a stronger emotional effect.
Bread and Cheese Club and the Sketch Club
The Bread and Cheese Club, also called the Lunch Club, was an intellectual and artistic group created by the writer James Fenimore Cooper. Running from 1822 until 1827, its members included American writers, scholars, and professionals interested in the arts, such as Cole and Durand. With its regular meetings in New York City, the group was a gathering place for the latest ideas about American art and culture. When it disbanded, the Sketch Club, formed by Durand in 1827, carried on the tradition.
A number of influential connections formed within this circle. Cooper was one point of focus; as one of the most famous American novelists, many artists illustrated or painted scenes taken from his works. In particular, Cooper considered Cole "one of the very first geniuses of the age," and Cole was deeply influenced by Cooper's writing. Cole would eventually paint four scenes from Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans (1826).
Other connections promoted more classicizing and idealizing influences on the Hudson River School artists. William Cullen Bryant, best known for his poem, "Thanatopsis," had close personal and professional relationships with Durand and Cole. Indeed, Durand's Kindred Spirits (1849) depicts Bryant and Cole as paired explorers. When Durand helped found the National Academy of the Arts of Design in 1836, Bryant was elected as its "Professor of Mythology and Antiquities." Durand paid homage to Bryant in his Scene from Thanatopsis (1850), taking to heart the poem's exhortation: "Go forth under the open sky and list/ to nature's teachings."
These associations shaped and developed American art and artistic institutions, especially when Church and Durand helped established the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York during the 1850s; the museum became the example for other collections throughout the country.
The Knickerbocker School and Magazine
Another forum for these nationalistic interdisciplinary connections between artists and writers was the Knickerbocker Group. Named for Washington Irving's Knickerbocker's History of New York (1809), the group included James Fenimore Cooper, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, J.K. Paulding, and William Cullen Bryant along with Irving himself. They hoped to establish a truly American culture, separate from European influence, with New York City as its center. (Knickerbocker was the name of Irving's fictional character; indeed, he has become a lasting part of the city's culture, reflected in the naming of the New York Knicks)
Many of the group's members contributed to the Knickerbocker Magazine (also called New-York Monthly Magazine), which was published from 1833 to 1865, circulating literary works along with essays and editorials on the fine arts. Often its contributions focused on America's "vanishing wilderness," an early environmental theme that emphasized the American national landscape. This interest created a natural affinity between its writers and the painters of the Hudson River School; they also shared the desire to create a uniquely American art and literature. Crossovers include Cole's first acclaimed masterwork Gelyna (View near Fort Ticonderoga) (1826), which was based on Gulian Verplanck's short story of the same title.
Largely influenced by European Romanticism, the Hudson River School intended to convey nature's sublime beauty. Cole's influential "Essay on American Scenery" emphasized the emotive possibilities for landscape painting, writing, "American Scenery is a subject that to every American ought to be of surpassing interest...it is his own land; its beauty, its magnificence, its sublimity - all are his; and how undeserving of such a birthright if he can turn towards it an unobserving eye, an unaffected heart!" To best convey the magnificence of the American landscapes, they favored views of rugged and remote wilderness or of idyllic and lyrical countryside. If man's presence was noted, it was most often favorably depicted as progress and yet dwarfed by the scale of raw nature.
The concept of the sublime is central to Romanticism, considered an ideal by its practitioners. Rejecting the more cerebral narratives of the Neo-Classical style, they calculated their compositions, palettes, and subjects to evoke strong emotions in the viewer. Although this emotional response could be geared towards fear or repulsion, landscape artists most commonly aspired to awe and wonder at the beauty of nature and humility before its power. The sublime was achieved in this direct appeal to the senses through representations of the extraordinary.
Unlike French Romanticism that was often connected to revolutionary impulses in society, Romanticism in the Hudson River School was more closely tied to contemporary German and British examples of symbolic and meaningful landscape painting. At the same time, however, the style was intrinsically nationalistic, connected to a rising sense of American identity by conveying the unique beauty of the native landscape. While painters could not rival the history of their European counterparts, their large paintings of expansive, untamed lands spoke of American potential and promise.
The Second Generation and Focus on Naturalism
When Cole died in 1848, leadership of the Hudson River School fell to Asher B. Durand. Influenced by the landscapes of the British Romantic painter, John Constable's landscapes, Durand shifted the group's style towards more naturalistic painting. As head of the National Academy of Design, he stressed careful observation and representation. He encouraged scenes of quiet communion with nature rather than dramatic allegory.
The second generation of Hudson River School painters centered around Durand, Albert Bierstadt, John Frederick Kensett, Sanford Robinson Gifford, along with Cole's only student, Frederic Edwin Church. Although they drew heavily from Cole's example, Church and Bierstadt began to explore other geographical areas, particularly in Church's landscapes of South America and Bierstadt's visits to paint the American West. Both regions were considered epic spaces of untapped potential and sublime wilderness and their work connected with American expansion and the concept of Manifest Destiny. The resulting large-scale landscapes were often composite or idealized scenes, calculated to create panoramic effects. Showmanship dominated the public display of these works, as dramatically staged, single picture exhibitions were enormously popular events. Church and Bierstadt became celebrities. Church continued to explore more exotic locations, eventually painting in the Middle East and the Arctic, as shown in his The Icebergs (1861) (which was directly influenced by the work of the Romantic German landscape painter, Caspar David Friedrich).
Other second generation artists, like John Frederick Kensett, developed new themes that would be labeled Luminism, emphasizing the effects of light in contemplative scenes of seascapes or other bodies of water. These artists created small intimate canvases that focused on familiar areas, a contrast with the dramatic sublime of their colleagues. The Luminists usually returned to the same areas again and again to study the shifts in light and atmosphere.
The Hudson River School: Concepts, Styles, and Trends
Following the early successes of his landscape paintings, Cole aimed to emulate history painters by layering his compositions with symbolic meaning. His The Course of Empire (1833-1836), five paintings depicting the rise and fall of a civilization, exemplifies this turn to allegorical or metaphorical painting. Indeed, a number of Hudson River School painters developed an allegorical theme in their works in order to convey more complex messages. Albert Bierstadt's Last of the Buffalo (1888) is both an accurate depiction of the topographical features of the Great Plains and an imagined buffalo hunt, designed as an allegory of the destruction of the natural world and a vanishing way of life.
Rocky Mountain School
In the 1860s, Bierstadt and Thomas Moran turned their attention to the American West, earning them (along with Thomas Hill and William Keith) the title of the Rocky Mountain School. They were not just interested in depicting the Western landscape, but viewed it as symbolizing the vast sense of promise of a nation that was expanding westward. Many of their paintings were composites, drawing together a selection of ideal views, in order to convey the uniqueness of the Rocky Mountains, the Yellowstone area, and the Yosemite Valley to an East coast audience. Artists often accompanied scientific expeditions, like Bierstadt's 1859 expedition to the Rocky Mountains in Wyoming or Moran's 1871 United States Geological Survey of Yellowstone. As a result, their artwork was integrally connected to a sense of national discovery. It also influenced the preservation of these areas: the enormous popularity of Moran's The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (1872) gave impetus to the movement to create Yellowstone National Park.
Focusing on the effects of light, Luminist painters most often depicted water scenes from an aerial perspective, emphasizing a finished reflective surface without visible brushstrokes. The artists were influenced by the Transcendentalist philosophy that contemplation of nature led to spiritual truth. Like Impressionism, Luminism emphasized the effects of light but differed in its attention to precise detail, its total concealment of brushstrokes, and its quiet, contemplative view of nature; although they are contemporary, the two movements were not connected. Indeed, the artists who adopted this style did not refer to themselves as Luminists; the term originated in the 1950s.
Later Developments - After The Hudson River School
In the 1870s, the Hudson River School fell out of fashion, as the influence of the Barbizon School and Impressionism dominated the art world. In comparison, Hudson River School realism and mimesis seemed out of date, sometimes sentimental, or of merely historical interest. Yet, while artistically unfashionable, the school had a profound cultural influence, popularizing its wilderness ideal, which encouraged preservation efforts and the development of national parks. Olana, Church's expansive estate overlooking the Hudson River, has been preserved as a national historic landmark. Home to a museum today, visitors can tour Church's home and the grounds and view installations of historical and contemporary art inspired by the Hudson River School. Thomas Cole's home in the Catskills has also been maintained as a museum.
Regionalism or American Scene Painting, drew upon the model of the Hudson River School as it developed in the American Midwest during the 1930s. Artists like Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, and John Steuart Curry sought to create a modern but distinctly American art. They adopted the rural landscapes, realistic detail, and regional identity that had characterized the earlier movement.
In its depictions of wilderness and sublime views, modern photography was also influenced by the Hudson River School, particularly as seen in works like Ansel Adam's The Tetons and the Snake River (1942).
In the postwar years, Hudson River School painting was both critiqued and emulated. In the 1960s, a new generation of photographers like Ed Ruscha and Robert Adams deliberately posited their photographs of banal suburban modernity as a challenge to dramatic and heroic visions of nature. However, with the development of Land art and environmental activism in the 1970s, the style came back into vogue. Its influence continues today: the exhibition "River Crossings: Contemporary Art Comes Home" (2015) highlighted the work of contemporary artists whose work is directly or implicitly associated with The Hudson River School by installing works like Angie Keefer's Fountain (2014) in Cole's historic home. Mixing nature and industry, Fountain projects an image of Niagara Falls adjusting the water's according to computer data from the Commodities Futures Indexes. The exhibition also highlighted work by Kiki Smith, Jerry Gretzinger, Maya Lin, Lynn David, Valerie Hegarty, and Charles LeDray. Valerie Hegarty's Fallen Bierstadt (2007) reinterprets Bierstadt's landscapes and ideals of Manifest Destiny into depictions that decay like the fallen canvas.
The New Hudson River School, a group of approximately twenty-five artists, extend the core identity of the 19th-century movement by painting contemporary landscapes and subjects from the Hudson River Valley and the surrounding area. The Thomas Cole National Historic Site is an important site for these connections, particularly with its series, Open House: Contemporary Art in Conversation with Cole, that explores intersections of contemporary art with Cole's art. In 2016, Jason Middlebrook's installation, Nature Builds / We Cover (2016) installed paintings made on hardwood planks inside Cole's home.