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The Sublime and the Beautiful: Painting the Hudson Valley

The Sublime and the Beautiful: Painting the Hudson Valley

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In honor of the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s voyage, the art community prepares to celebrate the extraordinary history of painting along the Hudson River.

by John A. Parks

Scene from The Last of the Mohicans,
Cora Kneeling at the Feet of Tamenund by Thomas Cole, 1827, oil, 25 3/8 x 35 1⁄16.
Collection Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford,

Although Henry Hudson was presented with a series of magnificent vistas in September of 1609 as his ship worked its way up the river that was to bear his name, his observations were scarcely poetic. “It is as pleasant a land as one need tread upon,” he wrote in his log. “The land is the finest for cultivation that I ever in my life set foot upon.” Engaged on a commercial expedition to find a passage to the Indies, Hudson saw the landscape in purely commercial terms. The grandeur of rocky escarpments, forest-clad hills, and distant mountains enveloped in a luminous haze was lost on him. Disappointed that the river eventually became unnavigable, he turned around and sailed back to sea.

For the next two centuries, settlers’ relationships with the river remained almost entirely commercial, first as a trading ground for beaver fur and then as farmland to feed the growing city at the mouth of the river. Nobody painted the scenery, because it was not yet considered a subject of aesthetic merit, and early colonial painting limited itself almost entirely to portraiture. It wasn’t until the early 19th century that the idea of seeing the Hudson Valley as an object of beauty and wonder made itself felt. When this finally came about it was largely as a result of new thinking from Europe about the promise of landscape imagery.

The ideas that would fuel the Hudson River School of painting developed in a discourse in Europe during the 18th century about the way in which people respond to landscape. Philosophers as renowned as Immanuel Kant and Edmund Burke weighed in on the idea of the “sublime” and the “beautiful.” The sublime was apparently a feeling of awe and even fearfulness that might be experienced in front of the vastness and power of nature. It was held that the 17th-century painter Salvator Rosa (1615–1673) had exemplified this sense in his highly dramatic paintings. The beautiful, on the other hand, was a softer, more alluring sense, most perfectly seen in the artwork of another 17th-century painter, Claude Lorraine (1600–1682). To add to these concepts came the idea of the “picturesque,” a notion of beauty propounded by William Gilpin, of Salisbury, England, who defined picturesque as “that particular quality that makes objects chiefly pleasing in painting,” listing rough texture and small scale as key elements of a picturesque. By the beginning of the 19th century, this new interest in landscape moved British artists such as John Constable (1776–1837) to paint directly from nature. Meanwhile J.M.W. Turner (1775–1851) began to make his mark by conveying in his landscapes the emotional nature of the artist’s response to his subject.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the first artists to make notable landscapes of the Hudson Valley came from the British Isles. William Guy Wall (1792–ca. 1864) followed a business model that was already established in Europe by making paintings to be reproduced as a set of engravings, which could then be sold at a good profit. His set, titled the Hudson River Portfolio (ca. 1820), provided the first glimpse of the splendors of the river to a wider public. His style, developed in the burgeoning romanticism of early-19th-century England, displays the valley as a desirable Eden—an attractive and beguiling world. Many others would follow in his wake.

View Toward the Hudson Valley
by Asher B. Durand, 1851, oil, 33 1/8 x 48 1/8.
Collection Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art,
Hartford, Connecticut.

The first truly great painter of the Hudson Valley was Thomas Cole (1801–1848). Cole was born in Lancashire, England, and had already served part of an apprenticeship as an engraver before immigrating to the United States in 1818. After a sojourn in Ohio, he eventually moved to Philadelphia, where he was impressed with the canvases of two early pioneers of American landscape painting, Thomas Doughty (1793–1856) and Thomas Birch (1779–1851). These painters, like Shaw, were familiar with developments in landscape painting in England and Europe. Thomas Cole immediately saw the possibilities inherent in this new romantic approach. He set off northward to find a place where he could be close to nature and eventually settled in Catskill, a small town on the west side of the Hudson river, near the town of Hudson. There he found a perfect combination of mountains, forests, rocks, waterfalls, and the vast splendor of the river. From the beginning, Cole’s canvases brilliantly combined a lively brush and a direct response to the landscape with some of the more artificial devices of European painting. His artwork was exhibited for the first time in a New York City frame shop in 1825, and it was immediately discovered by three artistic luminaries of the day, Asher B. Durand (1796–1886), John Trumbull (1756–1843), and William Dunlap (1766–1839). Their enthusiasm quickly led to a firm reputation for Cole and to the beginning of what is now known as the Hudson River School of painting, the first truly American art movement.

1825 was a good year to start a career in the arts in New York. The Erie Canal had just opened, providing a passage for goods from the Great Lakes down through the Hudson Valley to New York City. The vast increase in wealth this trade produced quickly led to the formation of a moneyed middle class capable of collecting art. Galleries and art societies began to proliferate. The new river traffic also made the Hudson Valley more easily accessible to a wider public. The general admiration of nature and the various responses to it, now being felt in poetry and painting, led to more active exploration. A year prior, the Mohonk Mountain House was opened, which provided pleasant lodging and good wine amid glorious views. Tourists and artists flocked to it. Moreover, the condition of the landscape itself was a perfect vehicle for all those new ideas about the sublime and the beautiful. Along the banks of the river the farmers had domesticated the land to provide picturesque points of interest. Farther inland, however, nothing much had changed since Hudson’s day, with mountains stretching far in their grandeur and wildness. Not that there was any real danger any more—the Indians had long since been driven away, and the wilderness could be contemplated in tranquility.

In the Mountains
by Albert Bierstadt, 1867, oil, 36 3⁄16 x 50 1/4.
Collection Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art,
Hartford, Connecticut.

Cole pursued a very active career, exhibiting his artwork and traveling to Europe to familiarize himself with the world of painting. He visited Turner’s studio in London and got to know some of the major collections in France and Italy. Inspired by these experiences, his ambitions stretched far beyond the simple recording of landscape to embrace a somewhat grandiose version of classism, most famously demonstrated in a series of five canvases titled The Course of Empire. These paintings, which show the emergence, triumph, and eventual decline of a notional empire, appear to the contemporary eye as a curious mixture of Claude, Poussin, and rather earnest and slightly heavy-handed Hudson River School painting. Fortunately for us, Cole always had trouble selling his more ambitious pieces, and the necessity of supporting himself and his family kept him producing the landscapes whose direct and lively confrontation with nature remain compelling to this day.

Cole was soon joined in his enterprise by Asher B. Durand. Like Cole, Durand had begun his career as an engraver, but by the mid-1830s he was able to obtain sufficient sponsorship to become a full-time painter. He became a close friend of Cole, and the two collaborated on painting excursions in the Hudson Valley and up into the Adirondack Mountains. Durand produced artwork that lacked some of the fire and vigor of Cole’s, developing instead an exquisitely subtle and accomplished finish. When Cole died in 1848, Durand produced one of the most celebrated American paintings of the century, Kindred Spirits. The picture shows Cole in conversation with the poet and artist William Cullen Bryant as they stand on a rock amid a densely packed landscape of forest and waterfalls. The setting is in fact a compendium of Hudson River locations, stitched together to provide a powerful sense of the wealth and splendor of nature. The two men discoursing on the pleasures that nature provides is perhaps the quintessential image of the passions of the age.

As the century proceeded, the growing art market and general interest in the outdoors attracted new generations of painters to the Hudson Valley. Jasper Cropsey (1823–1900) began his long career with highly energetic and painterly pictures inspired by the work of Thomas Cole. Cropsey became expert at painting the brilliant fall foliage of the valley and famously countered the incredulity of Queen Victoria, who thought his color exaggerated. The artist sent leaves to the Queen as evidence of his truthfulness. Like Cole and Durand, Cropsey also spent considerable time in Europe and lived in England for seven years during the 1850s and 1860s. His later paintings reflect the quieter approach and interest in atmospheric and light effects that were pioneered by Durand, forming a style now known as Luminism.

Niagara Falls
by John Frederick Kensett, 1855, oil,
45 x 32 1/2. Collection Wadsworth
Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford,

The Luminists included John Frederick Kensett (1816–1872), who began his career as an engraver and was at one time employed engraving bank notes. Eventually he went to Europe for seven years to study painting, returning in 1848 to produce landscapes that combine thoughtful compositions and a delicate touch. He specialized in a subtle and restrained palette, observing that “bright colors are sparingly distributed throughout nature.” The Luminist most thoroughly devoted to the effects of light and atmosphere was Sanford Robinson Gifford (1823–1880). He was born in the town of Hudson, close to Cole’s home, and continually traveled back to the region throughout his life to enjoy the golden sunsets and rich twilights that occur in the humid summer atmosphere of the valley.

The most famous and most accomplished of the Hudson Valley artists in the second half of the 19th century was Frederic Edwin Church (1826–1900). Church was born into a wealthy family in Connecticut and moved to Catskill as a teenager to study with Thomas Cole for two years. Church’s abilities were evident right from the beginning as he quickly proved himself able to control the color and light in broad compositions and then endow it with a wealth of meticulous detail. He made his reputation painting exotic and grand panoramas of scenes in South America, which he visited after reading the descriptions of the area by the explorer Alexander von Humboldt. In his Cosmos: A Sketch of the Physical Description of the Universe, published in English in 1848, Humbolt propounded a religious view of nature as evidence of a divine order, an idea that was already popular with American landscape painters.

Eventually Church built Olana, his famous home, on a hilltop opposite Catskill. Olana is a towered, Persian-style structure that commands an enormous vista of the Hudson flowing southward, flanked by mountains, forests, and plains. In spite of his worldwide travels, Church always maintained that the Hudson Valley had the best light in the world. And it was there, late in life, that he produced so many remarkable small oil sketches that conjure immensities of space and light from a few sensitive touches and strokes of the brush.

Many other great American artists spent time in the Hudson Valley. George Inness (1825–1894) was born in Newburgh, and his early artwork is rightly associated with the school. Albert Bierstadt (1830–1902), always out to produce images of the wild splendors of the American landscape, created several memorable paintings in the area. Martin Johnson Heade (1819–1904) made many paintings in the Hudson Valley while forging his own version of the Luminist style.

By the 1880s the great age of the Hudson River School was coming to an end. Collectors were becoming interested in Impressionism and more inclined to collect French painting and urban scenes. The call of nature and the wilderness was losing its appeal for the public. Despite this shift, the natural beauty of the Hudson Valley continued to attract artists into the 20th century. In 1902 Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead and Harvey White opened a community settlement of artists and craftspeople in Woodstock, an idea inspired by the writings of John Ruskin and William Morris. The settlement was named Byrdcliffe and soon drew a growing number of artists to the area. Between 1906 and 1922, and again between 1947 and 1970, Byrdcliffe was the summer home of the Art Students League of New York, exposing new generations of young artists to the joys of landscape painting. The Woodstock art community can name Eugene Speicher, Milton Avery, Bradley Walker Tomlin, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, and many others among its luminaries over the years. Another lively contributor to the visual arts in the region is the Hudson Valley Art Association, which was formed in a ceremony in 1928 in Jasper Cropsey’s former studio at Ever Rest, in Hastings-on-Hudson. Its members keep alive their passion for painting the area to this day with annual exhibitions and a number of special events.

The Half Moon
by John Beerman, 2008, oil, 36 x 60.
Collection the artist.

Since the 1970s, the Hudson River has recovered some of its former glory, largely due to a strong local environmental movement. It has also attracted the attention of a number of highly talented contemporary painters. John Beerman, who lives in Nyack, has made a career of rendering the river and its surroundings in a modern Luminist style in which forms are simplified and bathed in a fantastic light, kindled from layers of saturated color. Beerman is a distant relation of Henry Hudson, and his painting The Half Moon, which shows the explorer’s ship on its voyage up the river, is to be presented to President Obama in September by the American Heritage Rivers Alliance to mark the 400th anniversary of the journey. John Phillip Osborne, a New Jersey-based artist, has made many paintings of the Hudson in a style that marries the Luminist tradition with a somewhat more open and direct brushing technique. Marlene Wiedenbaum makes dense, rich pastels that savor the considerable visual splendors of the region, which have now been preserved by both public and private entities.

The Hudson Valley has also attracted new art institutions. Storm King Art Center, in Mountainville, is a sculpture park of international repute, where contemporary pieces are displayed in the grandeur of a sweeping Hudson Valley estate. Maya Lin, the sculptor best known for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, in Washington, DC, has recently installed a piece titled Storm King Wavefield, in which acres of grassland have been molded into the shape of waves. This eloquent and simple melding of natural forms seems entirely in keeping with the 19th-century reverence for nature that inspired Cole and Durand.

Another art power moved to the Hudson Valley in 2003 when the Dia Art Foundation took over a vacant printing facility at Beacon and transformed it into a vast museum for its collection of modern art. On a smaller scale, there is an abundance of county art associations, small museums, plein air groups, and private galleries all contributing to a vibrant art scene. And the Hudson River Fellowship is picking up where Cole, Durand, and Church left off, with its landscape-painting curriculum modeled after the artistic, social, and spiritual values of the Hudson River School painters. It is perhaps this continued joy of creativity in an area of remarkable natural beauty that is the true legacy of the Hudson River School.

Watch the video: The Hudson Valley Mantel (August 2022).