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Luminist Horizons: The Art and Collection of James A. Suydam

June 3 - September 16, 2007


The Hyde Collection is pleased to present the first major exhibition in a quarter century to explore luminism in nineteenth-century American landscape painting. Luminist Horizons: The Art and Collection of James A. Suydam will be featured from June 3 through September 16, 2007 in the Museum's Charles R. Wood Gallery. The exhibition, organized by the National Academy Museum, features approximately fifty-seven paintings by American landscapist James A. Suydam (1819-1865) and the artists of his circle, including John F. Kensett, Asher B. Durand, Frederic Edwin Church, Sanford R. Gifford, Jasper Cropsey, and many others. Suydam's collection, bequeathed in its entirety to the National Academy in 1865, documents the many American and European influences on Suydam and his peers as they explored qualities of light and atmosphere in the landscape. Luminist Horizons reveals the exceptional strength of the artist's collection and presents the first ever retrospective of Suydam's career, including his masterpiece, Paradise Rocks, Newport (1860).

Luminist Horizons contributes a new perspective on the development of luminism in Civil War America. Often characterized by art historians as an aesthetic of solitary isolation, luminism was, instead, a gregarious experience for Suydam and his peers. His first acquisition was a landscape (1850) by Asher B. Durand depicting two artists conversing while admiring the landscape. Accompanied by close friends, such as Kensett, Gifford, and Worthington Whittredge, Suydam visited popular sites during the 1850s and 1860s, particularly in the Hudson River Valley, the Mt. Washington region, and along the Rhode Island coast. He made these iconic sites his own by interpreting their well-known vistas with his unique colorism, crisp geometry, and fresh compositional arrangements.

Suydam was a son of one of New York's early Dutch merchant families. He inherited a considerable fortune early in life that permitted him to tour Europe and the Middle East for several years after he completed his studies at New York University. His career in art began in middle age, as an amateur painter working under the influence of Durand and the instruction of Kensett, whose landmark Bash Bish (1855) Suydam owned.

By the later 1850s, Suydam transformed himself into a professional artist and was elected to full membership in the National Academy of Design in 1861, the same year as the onset of the Civil War. In the midst of national crisis, Suydam and his peers created an art of stability, peace, and order.

Luminist Horizons is co-curated by Mark D. Mitchell, Associate Curator of Nineteenth-Century Art at the National Academy Museum, and Katherine E. Manthorne, Professor of American Art at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. A full color catalogue with essays by the curators, and published by George Braziller Publishers will be available for purchase in The Museum Store at The Hyde Collection.

The exhibition is organized by the National Academy Museum, New York. Luminist Horizons is made possible by the generous support of the Henry Luce Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts; Eli Wilner & Company; The Lucelia Fund; The Robert Lehman Foundation, The Brown Foundation, Inc., of Houston, furthermore: A Program of the J. M. Kaplan Fund, and the Asher B. Durand Society of the National Academy Museum. Additional support was provided by The Adirondack Trust Company; Red Pine Ridge, Inc.; Keeler Motor Car Company; Keeler Family Foundation; Charles R. Wood Exhibition Fund, and The Hyde Collection Curator's Society. Media Sponsor: The Times Union.


(above: John F. Kensett, 1816-1872, Bash Bish, 1855, Oil on canvas, 36 x 29 inches,, National Academy Museum, Bequest of James A. Suydam )


(above: James A. Suydam, 1819-1865, Paradise Rocks, Newport, 1860, Oil on canvas, 25 1/8 x 45 1/8 inches, National Academy Museum, Bequest of James A. Suydam)



Related event

The Hyde Collection will offer a free lecture to the public at 2PM on Saturday, July 28, 2007 in the Museum's Helen Froehlich Auditorium. Mark D. Mitchell will present A Light in the Darkness: The Rise of American Luminism during the Civil War Era in conjunction with the Museum's current exhibition Luminist Horizons: The Art and Collection of James A. Suydam. This lecture will explore the close relationships among American landscape painters during the years leading up to the Civil War and the artists' collaborative development of the poetic, light-filled aesthetic known today as luminism in response to national events.

Mr. Mitchell is the associate curator of nineteenth century art at the National Academy Museum, New York and co-curator of the exhibition Luminist Horizons. The exhibition is currently on view in The Hyde's Charles R. Wood Gallery through September 16, 2007.

Space is limited with seating available on a first come basis. Call the Museum at 518-792-1761, ext. 27 for more information. (right: Mark D. Mitchell, Associate Curator of Nineteenth Century Art, National Academy Museum, New York. Photo courtesy of The Hyde Collection)


Wall text for the exhibition

James A. Suydam, N.A. (1819-1865) was an American landscape painter and collector distinguished for his artistic subtlety and intellectual refinement. Well known in his day, Suydam's work as an artist and art advocate began later in life and lasted only a decade before his sudden death at the height of his career. His legacy was ensured, however, his bequest of his expansive collection of ninety-two paintings, including several of his own works, to the National Academy of Design. This exhibition, the first to explore Suydam's career, offers a fresh opportunity to appreciate his contributions to American art.

Suydam's art and collection reveal the close relationships among the painters of his circle-known as luminists for their fascination with light and atmosphere -- and their many contemporary influences on both sides of the Atlantic. In concert with his most intimate colleagues -- including John F. Kensett, N.A. (1816-1872), Asher B. Durand, N.A. (1796-1886), Sanford Gifford, N.A. (1823-1880), and Worthington Whittredge, N.A. (1820-1910) -- Suydam developed his signature style, characterized by gentle tonal gradations, abstracted forms, and a limited palette, along the shores of Rhode Island during the early 1860s. His aesthetic, exemplified by his masterpiece, Paradise Rocks, Newport, was admired by contemporaries as "nature in repose."

Peace was in short supply during Suydam's career, however. Amid the violence of the American Civil War, the artist and his colleagues sought order and reassurance in the national landscape. Suydam's art and professional ambitions matured during the period as well, culminating in his election as a full National Academician (N.A.) in 1861, the same year as the war's onset. In this context, his paintings not only provide a sense of stability, but also evoke profound sentiment underlying their calm surfaces in response to national events. Ultimately, the exhibition extends the understanding of the luminist painters' horizons to include such broader historic as well as artistic influence.

This exhibition is made possible by the generous support of the Henry Luce Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, Eli Wilner & Company, the Lucelia Foundation, the Robert Lehman Foundation, The Brown Foundation, Inc., of Houston, Furthermore: a program of the J. M. Kaplan Fund, and the Asher B. Durand Society of the National Academy Museum. Programs of the National Academy are made possible with public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, a state agency.

Early Career

Suydam began to draw shortly after his graduation from New York University (then known as the University of the City of New York) in 1842 while on a three-year Grand Tour of Europe and the Middle East under the capable guidance of expatriate painter Miner Kellogg, Honorary N.A. (1814-1889). The son of one of New York's oldest Dutch merchant families, Suydam entered a business partnership with his brother upon his return that lasted for nearly a decade. Consequently, his artistic practice did not begin in earnest until the 1850s, when he studied with one of the leading figures of American landscape movement, John F. Kensett, N.A.

Suydam's public début at the National Academy's Annual Exhibition of 1856 marked the beginning of his transition from gentleman-amateur to professional artist. His early works are distinguished by their sense of intimacy and variety. Suydam's inherited wealth allowed him more creative freedom than many of his peers, and the diversity of his early compositions illustrates his experimentation with the prevailing conventions of landscape painting.


The beaches of Newport, Rhode Island offered Suydam enduring inspiration beginning in the late 1850s. Settling on a broad, open format that prioritized poetic effect over narrative, the artist painted in larger scale and exhibited his canvases with greater frequency in New York and around the country. In Suydam's mature work, areas of color interact and balance against one another, evoking rather than recording specific features found in nature.

The expressive aspects of these later works may be attributed to the artist's own emotional investment. "I must paint what I feel," he wrote. Suydam's demanding professional commitment to the Academy as treasurer of its Fellowship Fund and ongoing anxiety over the Civil War worsened the recurring depression with which he struggled throughout adulthood. He did, however, find welcome relief in his summertime painting excursions. Through his restricted palette and mannered composition, Suydam manipulated his subjects to exaggerate their most expressive features and thereby cultivate the tranquil, contemplative aspect of his work that was most admired by his contemporaries.

Artistic Circle

In 1858, Suydam moved his workspace to the new Tenth Street Studio Building, located a few blocks from his family's townhouse just off Washington Square. Other Tenth Street artists who moved there at about the same moment included his close friends and fellow landscape painters Frederic Edwin Church, N.A. (1826-1900), Sanford R. Gifford, N.A. (1823-1880), Louis Rémy Mignot, N.A. (1831-1870), and Worthington Whittredge, N.A. (1820-1910). Although Kensett, Suydam's closest colleague, did not take a studio in the building, they were virtually next-door neighbors at home on Waverly Place. All members of the National Academy of Design and the Century Association, a social club, the artists of Suydam's innermost circle lived, worked, relaxed, traveled, and exhibited together, facilitating the close friendships that contributed to their art.

Asher B. Durand, N.A. (1796-1886) was in many ways the group's artistic patriarch, serving as a vital inspiration to the group. Durand's Landscape (1850) was among Suydam's earliest purchases and depicts two artists discussing the scene before them, a model of the collaborative artistic discovery enjoyed by Suydam and his peers. An integral member of what he called his "fraternity," Suydam contributed an important philosophical counterbalance to the commercial spirit that permeated the New York art world during the 1860s.

Beyond Landscape

Suydam's collection of American and European genre paintings offers a different perspective on his artistic sensibility. Depictions of women and children were common in the sentimental society of Victorian America, but in the collection of the bachelor Suydam, their frequency suggests particular resonance in his personal life. Similar to the tranquility of the landscapes that he painted, the depictions of women and children in his collection are more the subjects of desire than reality.

Reading, a prominent theme in Suydam's genre collection, reflects the significance of books to Suydam's life. After the artist's death, his library was sold at auction and is therefore fully documented. His books portray a rich intellectual life, including interests in English and American literature, fluency in French, and aptitude for music. Most substantive, however, were his collections of art history and philosophy. The concentration of the readers in Suydam's collection conveys the seriousness with which he regarded their activity.


The term "luminism" has undergone almost constant revision since it was coined by art historian John I. H. Baur during the late 1940s. Suydam was a central figure in Baur's initial definition of the term to describe the work of a group of then little-known American landscape painters who shared a distinctive attitude toward light and nature itself. Subsequent studies have explored and debated its correlation with contemporary religious and philosophical movements, primarily transcendentalism because of its focus on the divine presence in the landscape. Although luminism is not a term that was used in the artists' day, it concisely describes the qualities of light, atmosphere, and poetic evocation that characterize Suydam's work as well as that of his closest peers.

Suydam's art and collection make clear that, for him, luminism was an aesthetic based in shared experience and mutual influence, though not conformity. The works in this gallery depict many of the sites that the artists visited and highlight the variety of their approaches. These paintings constitute the core of Suydam's collection, including several masterpieces of American art, and provide the artist's own unique perspective on the aesthetic of luminism through his choices as an artist as well as a collector.

Conflict and Context

Suydam and his colleagues worked against a backdrop of violence. During the 1850s and early 1860s, the prelude to and onset of the Civil War created uncertainty about the nation's future. Suydam's letters and collection document his sympathy with the Union and abolition, but the course of the war itself caused the artist great concern and occupied his thoughts as he closely followed national events in the press. His sudden death just months after the end of the war offered fitting closure for an artistic career that so uncannily paralleled national events.

Conflict is both a subtext of Suydam's art and a significant theme in his collection, most prominently illustrated by the monumental Off Ostend by German painter Andreas Achenbach (1815-1910). The romantic, expressive drama of the storm scenes in Suydam's collection, including an unusual work by Jasper Cropsey, N.A. (1823-1900), enrich the appreciation of his own work by drawing attention to their emotive aspect. Though emotion similarly animates Suydam's own paintings, he more often phrased moods in the tenor of the escapist portrayals of the sunny Italian countryside that he owned by artists such as Albert Flamm (1823-1906) and Thomas Hicks, N.A. (1823-1890), which doubtless reminded him of his own youthful travels in simpler times.

The National Academy of Design

This exhibition has been organized by the National Academy Museum (formerly the National Academy of Design). Chartered in 1826 in New York City, the Academy professionalized the practice of art in this country by training art students and presenting annual exhibitions of contemporary American art, which continue to the present day. Its founders, including Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand, and Samuel F. B. Morse, modeled the institution on the leading art academies of Europe. Being a National Academician (N.A.) meant that an artist had been elected to membership by his peers in recognition of the high quality of his work and was a resident of New York. Throughout the nineteenth century, it was a mark of utmost prestige for an American artist to add the initials N.A. after his name. Most of the painters included in this exhibition were National Academicians, including Suydam himself, who was elected to full membership in 1861.

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rev. 6/23/07

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