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Hudson River School: Masterworks from the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art

October 2, 2004 - January 16, 2005

 

Pacific Northwest residents who enjoy the natural beauty of the outdoors have a rare opportunity to experience pristine landscape paintings indoors this fall at Tacoma Art Museum. The nationally traveling exhibition Hudson River School: Masterworks from the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art is on view at Tacoma Art Museum October 2, 2004 through January 16, 2005 and features more than fifty breathtaking paintings by America's first school of landscape painters.

The exhibition provides an impressive overview of works by leading Hudson River school figures of the 1800s, including five by Albert Bierstadt, ten by Frederic E. Church, ten by Thomas Cole, and one by Asher B. Durand. Hudson River School also includes works by legendary artists such as John F. Kensett, Jasper Cropsey, George Inness, and Martin Heade.

These prominent nineteenth-century artists illustrated grand panoramic vistas, untouched forests, and mighty geologic settings that portrayed a strong optimism for what was possible in America. Artists of the movement also portrayed nature as humans' access to divine forces, which echoed the ideology of the literary Transcendentalist movement led by philosophers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

"Hudson River school artists presented the American landscape as a new Eden," offered Tacoma Art Museum Chief Curator Patricia McDonnell. "Their depictions of pristine nature carried moral and spiritual overtones and served as metaphors of opportunity, American freedom, and the promise that the New World presented."

Hudson River school artists initiated the first romantic art movement in the United States that contributed to the evolution of American painting. This pivotal movement of landscape painting emerged between 1825 and 1875 and replaced portraiture as the primary focus of painting in the United States. Hudson River school artists rejected traditional European landscape painting that focused on pastoral settings and depictions of human habitation and introduced a new style that honored natural beauty and portrayed humans living in harmony with nature.

Hudson River School reveals this distinctly American style of painting that symbolized liberty and the virtue of democracy. The exhibition was organized by the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut, America's oldest public art museum, which boasts the consummate collection of Hudson River school paintings. The Wadsworth collection is world-renowned for its depth and strength, in large part because the museum acquired this work from the movement's original patrons, Daniel Wadsworth and Elizabeth Hart Jarvis Colt.

The national tour for Hudson River School: Masterworks from the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art includes these venues and dates:

 

Hudson River School: Masterworks from the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art

Article by Tacoma Art Museum Chief Curator Patricia McDonnell

 

America is a poem in our eyes; its ample geography dazzles the imagaination. - Author Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

For fall 2004, Tacoma Art Museum presents one of the best collections in the world of America's first school of landscape painting. Fifty-five magisterial paintings from the Connecticut collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum survey the original movement that put American visual arts on equal footing with European achievement and helped shape the mythos of the American landscape.  

"In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book? Or goes to an American play? Or looks at an American picture or statue?" asked a European critic at the start of the nineteenth century. "No one," was the implied answer. By mid-century, however, the situation had entirely reversed itself. As American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson admonished, "We have listened far too long to the courtly Muses of Europe." He and others encouraged America's creative minds to develop a distinctly American vision in the arts. The Hudson River school was the country's response to this call.  

The promise of the vast New World was its natural abundance, and images of landscape quickly replaced portraiture in this climate as the primary focus for visual artists. Also, these scenes of American geography emphasized untouched nature, not the manicured views of "tamed" European settings. Pastoral scenes in this earlier art regularly showed signs of human life in an idealized and Arcadian setting. Not so for Hudson River school artists. Primeval forests, grand panoramic vistas, and natural wonders-in a word, wilderness-were put forth as a new Eden for Americans.  

In a new country a few decades from the close of the Revolutionary War, the American lack of tradition was considered an opportunity, a virtue in contrast to well-worn conventions of Europe and its artistic heritage. The leading Hudson River school painter Thomas Cole explained the situation: "The painter of American scenery has indeed privileges superior to any other; all nature here is new to Art. No Tivoli's, Mont Blanc's . . . hackneyed and worn by the daily pencils of hundreds, but virgin forests, lakes, and waterfalls feast his eye with new delights, fill his portfolio with their features of beauty and magnificence." In this intellectual atmosphere, pristine nature meant limitless opportunity and suggested the freedom of a blessed young democracy.  

Hudson River school artists made their home on the East coast, often in New York and along the Hudson River, extending north from that metropolitan center. Initially, the Hudson River valley, the Catskill and White Mountains, and Niagara Falls captured their creative attention. Even though much of the geography they depicted was already popular with tourists and by no means pristine, the Hudson River school paintings portrayed these settings as untouched and untrammeled. As the century progressed, artists roamed the West and also traveled to South America to find scenes to suit their pursuit of grand and rapturous natural beauty. Scenes of Yosemite and Jamaica, as well as Niagara Falls and Hudson River scenes are on display in this exhibition. The movement was actually named toward the end of its popularity in the 1870s, when a critic decried the exacting and careful observation of nature and lumped many artistic strains and tendencies together.  

The origins of the Hudson River school are regularly attributed to Thomas Cole, and this exhibition features ten of his significant masterpieces. Albert Bierstadt and Frederic E. Church are other leading figures, and the show presents five and ten works respectively by these major American painters. Jasper Cropsey, Asher B. Durand, Martin Heade, George Inness, John F. Kensett, and many other artists critical to the history of American art have key work in this nationally touring exhibition.

Editor's note: RL readers may also enjoy these earlier articles::

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