Editor's note: The following catalogue adaptation was reprinted in Resource Library on April 14, 2008 with permission of the author and Westmoreland Museum of Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the Westmoreland Museum of Art directly at:
Different Views in Hudson River School Painting
by Judith Hansen O'Toole
The exhibition, American Scenery: Different Views in Hudson River School Painting, illuminates the particular practice of Hudson River School artists to create pairs, series, and groups of paintings that are thematically related. Writers including Barbara Novak, Elwood C. Perry III, Franklin Kelly, as well as many others, have noted the persistence of pairs, series, and related groups of paintings among certain artists of the Hudson River School, most notably Thomas Cole. They have also documented the communal iconographical language underlying the paintings of Hudson River School artists, a common symbolism that provided both an intellectual and aesthetic foundation for creating pairs.
The "father" of Hudson River School painting, Thomas Cole, often worked in pairs and series. Jasper Francis Cropsey, Sanford Robinson Gifford, Asher B. Durand, Frederic Edwin Church, Albert Bierstadt, John Frederic Kensett and John William Casilear were among those who produced paintings intended as pairs. Later artists including William Mason Brown, Regis Gignoux, Clinton Loveridge, Alvin Fisher, Homer Dodge Martin, D. C. Grose, Joseph Antonio Hekking, William Sonntag, William and James Hart, Benjamin Champney and Alfred Bricher continued to work in this manner.
Many other artists of the school painted discreet pairs: that is, related paintings intended to be placed and seen together. Themes treated as pairs by these artists included times of day, seasons, different weather conditions and atmosphere, contrasting types of terrain, and various stages of man's intrusion on the wilderness. Interestingly, this practice of painting related series extended to still-life painters of the period such as Severin Roesen, genre painters including David Gilmore Blythe, and history painters such as Thomas Rossiter and Peter Frederick Rothermel.
The individual paintings constituting pairs and series can be viewed as intimately dependent on one another. Complete narratives, themes and concepts might be told in sequence as in chapters of a novel. The subjects may all have been conceived within a short period of time or could refer and reflect back to earlier works as responses, reaffirmations or reinterpretations. When conditions beyond the artist's or collector's control separated paintings created in such a manner, the subject of their exposition was completely lost. Due to numerous vicissitudes, such separations often occurred in the decades that have elapsed since these pairs were painted. What has virtually escaped modern critical attention is that widespread production of paired paintings by artists of the Hudson River School indicated a response by these artists not only to their own impulses, but also to public demand. Paired paintings became very popular and much sought after. That helps explain why so many individual artists painted pairs not just on a single occasion, but repeatedly.
The Hudson River School, considered the first truly American or native school of painting, flourished between 1825 and 1875, a time of great nationalist sentiment related to the bountiful natural resources of the new world when expansionism was rife in American thought and policy. Founded by Thomas Cole (1801 - 1848), who, in 1818 at age seventeen, emigrated from England to a fresh, new America, the movement declined during the last decades of the nineteenth century when artists and their patrons became enamored of different aesthetic ideas and styles imported from Europe. Artists in America had witnessed, in these same five decades, tumultuous results of growing pains within their young country. Among these were the tremendous addition of territory through expansion, near dissolution of the country during the Civil War, and subsequent revitalization through industrialization that positioned the nation to become a leading world power in the next century.
Hudson River School painters were constantly engaged in making comparisons and contrasts and had a seemingly unlimited appetite for direct examination of the landscape around them. They were inspired by a constant awareness that in nature things change continually and that therefore nothing is ever stationary. Observing their subjects under nearly endless variables including different times of day, seasons, weather conditions, and various light effects, they worked to capture the visual effects of these continual changes.
Several European theorists generally agreed with these notions. The English writer and landscapist William Gilpin expounded upon the infinite variables in nature created by different conditions of light and shade in his influential book, Three Essays on Picturesque Beauty and on Sketching Landscape (1792). Two years later, Uvedale Price published his Essay on the Picturesque (1794) placing the picturesque as an equally important and worthy category somewhere between the sublime and the beautiful.
It was in America, however, that artists fully exploited the use of pairings and groupings of paintings to enhance the language of landscape by comparing and contrasting emotive responses between several views. Strong emotions such as angst or dread evoked in one painting could be compared in a companion piece, through changing conditions of light, weather, season or other natural phenomena, with gentler sensations including harmony and tranquility. In this manner, the artist's absorption with the language of nature to create mood and communicate underlying themes, including the sublime versus the beautiful versus the picturesque, man's intrusion in or harmony with the land, the overarching power of a higher, universal spirit, and the cyclical rhythms and phases of life, became a consuming preoccupation.
Cole's interest in and application of allegory through which to convey moral and religious lessons lent themselves to expedition through pairs and series of paintings, which he created frequently throughout his career. His first known ambitious pair of paintings, The Garden of Eden (1827 - 28) and The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (1828), shows imaginary virgin landscapes under different weather conditions and at different times of day. Cole's paintings conceived in serial form (The Course of Empire, The Voyage of Life, Departure and Return, Past and Present) set a precedent for subsequent Hudson River School painters to follow and to exploit in the use of multiple paintings or images with which to develop and convey their themes.
Generally subtler in their use of pairings and groupings, the Hudson River School artists who followed Cole were less overt in their efforts to edify by communicating high moral and religious principles through their paintings. Rather than relying on the human story, these artists employed the iconography of trees, rocks, light, weather, and times of day to convey underlying philosophical and religious ideas that they shared about man and nature. Where Cole used landscape to reinforce his philosophical visions and religious themes, in the hands of later artists, including Durand, Kensett, Casilear, and Gifford, landscape itself became the emblem.
The Hudson River School painters emerged from and embraced, both passionately and eloquently, the long and distinguished tradition of landscape painting that had preceded them. They were fully cognizant of the historical use of certain symbols in nature to express underlying, pivotal ideas. These iconographical codes created a well-recognized and observed practice of transferring meaning through landscape painting. Artists of the Hudson River School added new symbols to this historical language, including some that were considered specific to American landscape. These included the deer as a symbol of wilderness and innocence before the arrival of man; the cow as one of cultivated land and man's harmonic co-existence in nature. In the nineteenth century, Hudson River School artists and their audiences were keenly aware of the tradition of using natural symbols in this way and were fully able to "read" and to incorporate these codes into their work.
In fact, by the early half of the nineteenth century, the use of symbolism in landscape painting prevailed so that artists, critics and audiences understood it as they would a form of language. This commonly held information allowed painters to paint, writers to write, critics to discuss, and the appreciative buying art public to understand and "read" the meaning of paintings. After mid-century, however, the refined historic moment of synchrony between American landscape artist, patron, and literary community was passing. The subsequent generation of painters, along with the older artists who lived into the twentieth century, would strive to keep the impetus of Cole, Church, and Durand alive, but the nation, as well as the art world, was changing too quickly.
The purpose of American Scenery: Different Views in Hudson River School Painting is to revive the public's ability to appreciate nineteenth-century American landscape painting and to provide insight to the iconographical base that gives it greater meaning in order to more fully comprehend its achievement. This will also bring about a deeper understanding of the profound reaction our forefathers experienced when encountering the extraordinary natural bounty of America and how it was attuned to the buoyant hopes they held for their lives in this new country.
About the author
Since 1993, Judith Hansen O'Toole has been director/CEO of the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, where her expertise in nineteenth-and twentieth-century American art is reflected in the museum's collections and exhibitions. She was director of the Sordoni Art Gallery and an associate professor at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, from 1982-1993. She has organized exhibitions on artists and artist groups including the early twentieth century artists George Luks and Carl Sprinchorn, American still-life painting, the Ash Can School and the Hudson River School. She is widely consulted as the authority on works by Severin Roesen and Luks.
About the exhibition
Ms. O'Toole's article pertains to a special exhibition, American Scenery: Different views in Hudson River School Painting, that was on view at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art, Greensburg, Pennsylvania, August 7 - October 23, 2005. Accompanied by a 160-page hardcover catalogue published by Columbia University Press, from which this essay is adapted, the exhibition traveled to the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art, University of New York Paltz, New Paltz, New York, February 4 - May 14, 2006; and the Palmer Museum of Art, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pennsylvania, October 7 - December 16, 2007.
Resource Library editor's note:
The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on April 14, 2008, with permission of the author and Westmoreland Museum of Art, which was granted to TFAO on March 5, 2008. This text was also published in the July - August 2005 issue of American Art Review,.
If you have questions or comments regarding the text please contact the Westmoreland Museum of American Art directly through either this phone number or web address:
Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Shana Herb Johannessen for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.
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