Images of Settlement and Exploration

by Lisa Reitzes

 



 

By the 1840s, the dominance of portraiture in American painting had been challenged by the emergence of the so-called Hudson River School, a group of landscape artists motivated by the work and methods of the New York painter Thomas Cole. Inspired by Dutch naturalistic landscape traditions and the English artist John Constable, Cole and his followers saw North America as the manifestation of a divine wilderness that ought to be experienced, revered, and preserved. Indeed, in his 1835 "Essay on American Scenery," Cole exhorted his viewers not to take their homeland for granted: "It is a subject that to every American ought to be of surpassing interest; for whether he beholds the Hudson mingling waters with the Atlantic -- explores the central wilds of this vast continent, or stands on the margin of the distant Oregon, he is still in the midst of American scenery -- it is his own land; its beauty, its magnificence, its sublimity-are all his; and how undeserving of such a birthright, if he can turn towards it unobserving eye, and unaffected heart!" [1]

Responding to the promptings of patrons such as Luman Reed of New York and Robert Gilmore, Jr., of Baltimore, the first generation of American landscapists generated images of both the cultivated, settled river valleys and the seemingly untouched forests and mountains of the East. In addition, many of these artists had close ties with poets and transcendentalist writers who looked to nature as the evocation of an earthly spirituality. For instance, the philosophical connection between Cole, the poet William Cullen Bryant, and the natural grandeur that inspired them both was commemorated by Asher B. Durand (Cat. Nos. 14,21) in Kindred Spirits (1849), exhibited the year after Cole's death.

Without question, Cole's financial success, as well as his articulation of the role of landscape in expressing American identity, helped to legitimize this genre within the American art market and thus shaped the careers of many painters who followed or sought to distinguish themselves from him. Thomas Doughty (Cat. No. 19) of Philadelphia actually began to specialize in landscape painting in the 1820s and also worked as a lithographer of landscape views. During the height of Cole's popularity in New York in the 1830s, Doughty relocated to Boston and made several trips to the White Mountains of New Hampshire and the Catskill Mountains of New York, producing pastoral views that were unmonumental and without conflict, designed to promote quiet contemplation. His approach to landscape painting inspired Alvan Fisher (Cat. No. 20), who had produced landscape views as early as 1817 but whose style took on a more atmospheric character after he saw an exhibition of Doughty's work at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

Institutions such as the Pennsylvania Academy and the National Academy of Design in New York not only helped to train American artists of this generation but also provided venues for popular and influential exhibitions, by which artists could maintain livelihoods and also transmit artistic ideas. A pivotal figure in the National Academy was Durand, who left behind a career as an art engraver to follow Cole's example in landscape painting but who ultimately developed a deeply transcendentalist approach to nature that informed his work as an artist and teacher in the 1850s. Jasper Cropsey (Cat. No. 22), who originally trained as an architect, carried the Hudson River sensibility into mid-century, indeed into the midst of the Civil War, at which point the artistic rendering of the eastern landscape was increasingly touched by a longing for restoration and peace.

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