Nature and the American Vision: Masterpieces of the Hudson River School

touring the United States in 2011 and 2012



 

Artwork labels

 

The American Grand Tour: On America's Favorite River
 
Samuel Colman (1832 - 1920)
The Narrows and Fort Lafayette, Ships Coming Into Port, New York, ca. 1868
Oil on canvas
The New-York Historical Society, Museum purchase, Watson Fund, 1976.2
 
A New York artist known for his landscapes and port scenes, Colman painted this sweeping view of the mouth of New York harbor from the Long Island shore (now Brooklyn) at Fort Hamilton, looking west across the Narrows. The massive round walls of Fort Lafayette dominate the center of the painting. In the far left distance, Fort Wadsworth on the Staten Island shore can be seen. Originally called Fort Diamond, it was renamed Fort Lafayette to honor the French hero of the American Revolution. Fort Lafayette was later demolished to make way for the Brooklyn anchorage of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.
 
 
Francis Augustus Silva (1835 - 1886)
Off City Island, New York, 1870
Oil on canvas, 20 1/4 x 40 1/4 in. (51.4 x 102.2 cm)
The New-York Historical Society, Thomas Jefferson Bryan Fund, 1975.22
 
Silva typically focused upon more remote stretches of river and coast, like Off City Island, New York, where he was able to exploit the great expanse of open sky and the fleeting effects of weather and the time of day to create poetic waterscapes. In this panoramic vista, luminous waters reflect becalmed schooners and sailboats. City Island, then a seaport community of oystermen and shipbuilders, lies in Long Island Sound off the east coast of the Bronx and on the shipping channel via the East River from the Sound into New York harbor.
 
 
Robert Havell (1793 - 1878)
View of Hudson River from Tarrytown Heights, ca. 1842
Oil on canvas, 22 x 30 in. (55.9 x 76.2 cm)
The New-York Historical Society, Gift of Harry Peck Havell, 1946.179
 
The artist, who was the English engraver of John James Audubon's Birds of America, emigrated to the United States in 1839, settled in Tarrytown, and turned to landscape painting. His river vista looks north from the Tarrytown area, with Hook Mountain at the left and Kingsland and Croton Points jutting from the Westchester County shore in the center. The Hudson's banks provided magnificent views for cottages and villas like the charming yellow house seen here. Perhaps the artist was already aware of Andrew Jackson Downing's recently published Cottage Residences (1842), a popular volume of house designs and landscapes plans suitable for an emerging middle class.
 
 
John Frederick Kensett (1816 - 1872)
View from Cozzens' Hotel Near West Point, 1863
Oil on canvas
The New-York Historical Society, Robert L. Stuart Collection, Stuart 189
 
One of the second generation of Hudson River School artists, Kensett expressed his vision through contemplative light-filled landscapes like this one, which captures the dramatic vista of the Hudson Highlands from the elevated vantage point of a popular hotel. The view is suffused in luminous air, painted with the delicately precise calibrations of light and atmosphere for which the artist was justly famous. While Kensett's canvas is small, the scale of the image itself is vast and his detail is exquisite.
 
 
John Ferguson Weir (1803 - 1889)
View of the Highlands from West Point, 1862
Oil on linen, 19 1/2 x 33 in. (49.5 x 83.8 cm)
The New-York Historical Society, Robert L. Stuart Collection, S-224
 
The dramatic scenery of the Hudson Highlands recorded in Weir's deep vista of a long-famous view, one enriched by associations with the Revolutionary War, was still a strategic military site in 1862. Weir, who was born and raised at West Point where his father taught drawing, chose a vantage point near the ruins of historic Fort Putnam. During the Civil War, the Highlands was the center of the era's military-industrial complex, with the United States Military Academy on the west bank and the Cold Spring foundries on the east, then engaged in producing advanced weaponry for the Union army.
 
 
Asher Brown Durand (1796 - 1886)
Beacon Hills on the Hudson River, Opposite Newburgh - Painted on the Spot, ca. 1852
Oil on canvas, 46 x 32 in. (116.8 x 81.3 cm)
The New-York Historical Society, Gift of Lucy Maria Durand Woodman, 1907.11
 
About 1849, Durand purchased a country house overlooking the Hudson near Newburgh. This panoramic landscape may be the view from his property, looking across the river to Fishkill (today Beacon). Overlooking a heavily wooded embankment, a group of figures (perhaps the artist's family) enjoy a pastoral interlude beneath framing trees and from a height offering a splendid view of the busy river and the eastern shore. Like Cole's, Durand's property would be compromised by the building of a railroad. This ultimately drove the artist from his country retreat and, in the words of his son, John, "obliged him to resume his annual search for the picturesque in the undisturbed wilderness."
 
 
John William Casilear (1811 - 1893)
Landscape, 1852
Oil on canvas, 22 1/2 x 30 in. (57.2 x 76.2 cm)
The New-York Historical Society, Gift of Lucy Maria Durand Woodman, 1907.7
 
Influenced by Cole, Kensett, and especially Durand, Casilear retired from the business of engraving in the 1850s to take up landscape painting. He sketched each summer with artist friends in the Catskills, the Adirondacks, the White Mountains, and the Genesee Valley. Casilear was recognized especially for his serene images of domesticated landscapes, bathed in a skillfully rendered delicate silvery haze. A contemporary critic characterized Casilear's distinctive contribution to American landscape painting: "His skies are luminous, and his distances tender and melting . . . there is a poetic pastoral charm in all his work." Durand's influence is especially apparent in the pastoral charm of the scene and the golden light of the distant horizon.
 
 
Asher Brown Durand (1796 - 1886)
The Solitary Oak (The Old Oak), 1844
Oil on canvas
The New-York Historical Society, Gift of the New-York Gallery of the Fine Arts, 1858.75
 
Durand's tour of European art capitals from 1840-41 resulted in considerable modifications of his artistic outlook. The low horizon, luminous atmosphere, and cattle subject of The Solitary Oak demonstrate Durand's admiration for the landscapes of the Dutch painter Aelbert Cuyp (1620-1691). The painting commanded significant attention when it was exhibited at the National Academy of Design in 1844. As one critic wrote, "[I]t has that glow of sunlight which it is so difficult to express. A veteran tree, standing alone upon a gentle eminence, stretching forth its great arms, that have withstood the storms of centuries, is truly a noble subject for an artist of Mr. Durand's reputation. . . .
 
William Hart (1823 -1894)
On the Esopus, Meadow Groves, ca. 1857-58
Oil on canvas, 25 1/4 x 45 in. (64.1 x 114.3 cm)
The New-York Historical Society, Robert L. Stuart Collection, S-81
 
William Hart, who was raised with his brother James, in Albany portrayed a bucolic interlude along the course of the wandering Esopus that flows from the Catskills to the Hudson. A limpid pool mirrors the brilliant noonday sky; two children mind the watering cattle. Meadow Groves, as the painting was then known, drew admiration at the National Academy of Design for its alluring evocation of country life. "[T]his picture," wrote a critic for the art journal, The Crayon, "glows with light; the water, with the cattle standing at the margin of the stream-its clear, unruffled surface reflecting its bank and the clouds overhead-is beautifully rendered."
 
 
 
 
The Catskills and Lake George
 
Thomas Cole (1801 - 1848)
Catskill Creek, New York, 1845
Oil on canvas
The New-York Historical Society, Robert L. Stuart Collection, Stuart 157
 
In 1836 Cole left New York City to settle at Catskill, a village on the west side of the Hudson River, on the route to what had become popular sketching and touring grounds. This painting depicts one of Cole's favorite local subjects-a view of the distant Catskill range, some twelve miles to the west, and featuring the distinctive shape of North Mountain. This landmark vista is from Catskill Creek, whose still waters mirror an image of the mountain profiles and the sky behind them, suffused in the glow of an early autumn twilight. Cole was also inspired to celebrate Catskill Mountain sunsets in verse, composing "Sunset in the Catskills" in 1838:
 
The valleys rest in the shadow and the hum
Of gentle sounds and low toned melodies
Are stilled, and twilight spreads her mighty wings . . .
Until the setting sun's last lingering beams
Wreathe up in many a golden glorious ring
Around the highest Catskill peak.
 
 
Asher Brown Durand (1786 - 1886)
Study from Nature: Rocks and Trees in the Catskills, New York, ca. 1856
Oil on canvas
The New-York Historical Society, Gift of Mrs. Lucy Maria Durand Woodman, daughter of the artist, 1907.20
 
These vivid little paintings are still celebrated as a special body of works known as Durand's Studies from Nature. Smaller in scale and less formal than studio compositions, the studies record the particulars of a given site close up with the aim of conveying the sensation of direct experience. These carefully observed details also convey the belief that contemplation of unspoiled nature offered opportunities for spiritual meditation and renewal; what Durand called "lessons of high and holy meaning."
 
 
Asher Brown Durand (1786 - 1886)
Shandaken Range, Kingston, New York, ca. 1854
Oil on canvas
The New-York Historical Society, Museum purchase, The Louis Durr Fund, 1887.5
 
Durand left a successful career as an engraver and portrait painter around 1837 and turned his attention to landscape subjects. This impressive tree study was made near Kingston with a distant view of the Shandaken Mountains, in the Catskill range. After Cole's death in 1848, Durand, who was by then president of the National Academy of Design, assumed a leadership role among American painters. In his "Letters on Landscape Painting," published in 1855, Durand declared that North American scenery offered artists "many other forms of Nature yet spared from the pollutions of civilization [and] a guarantee for a reputation of originality that you may elsewhere long seek and find not."
 
 
Thomas Hiram Hotchkiss (1833 - 1869)
Catskill Mountains, Shandaken, N.Y., 1856
Oil on canvas, 10 15/16 x 15 13/16 in. (27.8 x 40.2 cm)
The New-York Historical Society, Gift of Nora Durand Woodman, 1932.44
 
The talented and still little-known painter Thomas Hotchkiss enjoyed a close relationship with Durand. Debuting at the National Academy of Design in 1856, Hotchkiss was embraced by the community of landscape painters, undoubtedly due to Durand's support. A precocious talent, he quickly mastered the conventions of the Hudson River School and produced a limited but impressive series of American landscapes like this one, with its precisely painted foreground details and luminous atmosphere. He left New York late in 1859 to study and live in Italy. There he died ill and impoverished at an early age, leaving his estate to be overseen by the Durand family.
 
 
Thomas Hiram Hotchkiss (1833 - 1869)
Catskill Winter Landscape, 1858
Oil on canvas
The New-York Historical Society, Gift of the Estate of Nora Durand Woodman, 1942.480
 
 
Jasper Francis Cropsey (1823 - 1900)
Sunset, Lake George, New York, 1867
Oil on canvas
The New-York Historical Society, Robert L. Stuart Collection, Stuart 126
 
Lake George was one of the most popular tourist resorts in the nineteenth century. Rather than focusing on the wilderness aspects of the lake's setting, Cropsey emphasizes its pastoral nature, including the presence of a small fishing boat and the herd of cattle gathered on the shore. The light from the setting sun is orchestrated into dramatic rays presenting the quiet lake as an earthly paradise. Cole had observed that autumn was the "season when the American forest surpasses all the world in gorgeousness"; Cropsey, among the best known of second-generation Hudson River School artists, was especially famous as a painter of the American autumn.
 
 
Asher Brown Durand (1796 - 1886)
Black Mountain from the Harbor Islands, Lake George, New York, 1875
Oil on canvas
The New-York Historical Society, Gift of Mrs. Lucy Maria Durand Woodman, daughter of the artist, 1907.17
 
This glacially formed body of water, some thirty-four miles long, is situated at the eastern edge of the Adirondack Mountains. This monumental work is said to be Durand's last major painting, completed when the artist was seventy-nine years old. While attentive to the specific topography of the setting, Durand suppressed the minute details of nature. He distilled his image further by enveloping the scene in an atmospheric haze suffused with light, suggesting a spiritual presence in nature. Although the lake steamer's smoke rises in the distance and a rowboat progresses toward a picnic, the prevailing mood is still one of nature's solitude.
 
 
 
The White Mountains and New England
 
John Frederick Kensett (1816 - 1872)
White Mountain Scenery, 1859
Oil in canvas
The New-York Historical Society, Robert L. Stuart Collection, Stuart 194
 
When Kensett returned to New York from Europe late in 1847, the Hudson River School artists were flourishing. Inspired by their success, Kensett, who was trained as an engraver, began to paint landscapes. His masterful topographical panoramas of Mount Washington, the highest peak in the White Mountain range, earned him particular acclaim. In contrast, White Mountain Scenery is a less literal interpretation of the region. Working in a vertical rather than panoramic format, Kensett assembled elements of mountainous terrain generally suggestive of the region, uniting them in a harmonious light-filled composition.
 
 
Asher Brown Durand (1796 - 1886)
White Mountain Scenery, Franconia Notch, New Hampshire, 1857
Oil on canvas
The New-York Historical Society, Robert L. Stuart Collection, Stuart 105
 
Durand was a frequent visitor to the sketching grounds of New Hampshire. From an elevation high above the Pemigewasset River Valley, he presents the distant mountain profile with the pass between the two peaks known as Franconia Notch at the center of his composition. Presiding over all is a dramatic cloudy sky casting broad bands of light and shadow over the earth and on the broad channel of river. Durand's success in conveying such great expanses of space through command of atmospheric perspective in large studio paintings like this one was gained through his commitment to painting small outdoor studies.
 
 
Asher Brown Durand (1796 - 1886)
Study from Nature, Stratton Notch, Vermont, 1853
Oil on canvas
The New-York Historical Society, Gift of Mrs. Lucy Maria Durand Woodman, daughter of the artist, 1907.21
 
Durand tempered his knowledge of traditional landscape conventions with the kind of direct observation demonstrated by this foreground study, made near Stratton Mountain in southern Vermont, in which he examined a recently fallen tree. While his image is grounded in experience, the prone trunk would have reminded him of the visual and literary conventions associated with the storm-blasted tree. Tree bark, leaves, and the splintered wound where the trunk was snapped are rendered as a precise record of surface textures, detail, and color. Equally observant is his record of the distant mountains glimpsed through branches of the fallen tree.
 
 
One text for both of next two paintings:
 
Thomas Cole (1801 - 1848)
Autumn Twilight, View of Corway Peak [Mount Chocorua], New Hampshire, 1834
Oil on wood
The New-York Historical Society, Gift of the New-York Gallery of the Fine Arts, 1858.42
 
Thomas Cole (1801 - 1848)
Summer Twilight, a Recollection of a Scene in New England, 1834
Oil on wood
The New-York Historical Society, Gift of the New-York Gallery of the Fine Arts, 1858.46
 
These two paintings of identical dimensions were conceived as a pair of images in which Cole contrasted the natural disarray of the wilderness with the order of a cultivated landscape. By depicting the Native American paddling a canoe in the foreground of Autumn Twilight and the woodsman carrying an ax in Summer Twilight, the artist set up a series of oppositions between original Indian life in the region and the changes wrought by New England's colonists. Cole's viewers would have been familiar with the legend of Chocorua, whose Indian protagonist placed a curse on the land before leaping to his death to elude capture by settlers. Cole used the pair of landscapes to chart the course of civilization, one wild and embodying concepts of the "sublime" and the other cultivated and representative of the "picturesque." These landscape devices parallel (on a much smaller scale) those used for The Savage State and The Pastoral State in Cole's Course of Empire, on view nearby.
 
 
 
American Artists Afield & Abroad
 
Louisa Davis Minot (1788 - 1858)
Niagara Falls, 1818
Oil on linen, 30 x 40 5/8 in. (76.2 x 103.2 cm)
The New-York Historical Society, Gift of Mrs. Waldron Phoenix Belknap, Sr., to the Waldron Phoenix Belknap, Jr., Collection, 1956.4
 
Niagara Falls straddles the border between New York State and Canada.. Tourist travel to the falls expanded after the 1825 completion of the Erie Canal, but their fame was so great that a number of artists had made the trek long before, including Louisa Davis Minot who produced an impressive pair of landscape paintings in 1818. Her composition compressed a vista of the American and Horseshoe falls under threatening skies, conveying the disorienting scale of the mammoth cataracts and exploiting a sense of awe and even fear at the overwhelming power of nature. While Fisher presents a view of Niagara Falls domesticated by the presence of well-dressed touring parties, Minott exploits an aesthetic experience known as the sublime, meant to stimulate a sense of awe and even fear at the overwhelming power of nature on a grand scale.
 
 
Alvan Fisher (1792 - 1863)
Niagara Falls: The American Falls and Goat Island, ca. 1820
Oil on canvas
The New-York Historical Society, Gift of Arthur A. Jones, 1948.25
 
The Boston painter Alvan Fisher was among the pioneers of American landscape and genre painting in the early nineteenth century. He first visited Niagara Falls in the summer of 1820 and over the course of his career painted no fewer than ten images of this renowned formation. In this view, Fisher chose to depict the falls from below and at a distance, presenting a broad panorama that emphasizes the site's impressive expanse. This is a Niagara Falls cultivated into a tourist attraction. In the foreground, an artist and his companions contemplate a subject while visitors explore the base of the falls and clamber on the rocky promontories that line the gorge.
 
 
Marie-François-Régis Gignoux (1814­1882)
Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, ca. 1843
Oil on canvas
The New-York Historical Society, Gift of an Anonymous Donor, X.21
 
After training at the French École des Beaux-Arts, Gignoux immigrated to the United States, where he soon established himself as a landscape specialist. He was drawn to a vast underground system of corridors and chambers in Kentucky known as Mammoth Cave. The site portrayed has been identified as the Rotunda-so named because its grand, uninterrupted interior space recalls that of the Pantheon in Rome. Gignoux created a romantic image rooted in fact and emotion. In contrast to the bright daylight glimpsed through the cavern mouth, the blazing fire impresses a hellish vision that contemporaneous viewers may have associated with the manufacture of gunpowder made from the bat guano harvested and rendered in vats in that very space since the War of 1812.
 
 
George Henry Boughton (1833 - 1905)
Winter Twilight near Albany, New York, 1858
Oil on canvas
The New-York Historical Society, Robert L. Stuart Collection, Stuart 234
 
Winter Twilight was the first of Boughton's paintings to gain widespread critical notice. Shown at the National Academy of Design in 1858, it was described by one critic as "a perfect piece of winter." The painting was largely a plein-air endeavor. As Boughton recalled, "It was the depth of winter and it struck me that I had never seen a winter landscape painted just as I saw it. I went into a field and worked until I was so cold that I was on the point of giving up."
 
 
George Henry Durrie (1820 - 1863)
Wood for Winter, 1860
Oil on canvas
The New-York Historical Society, Robert L. Stuart Collection, Stuart 103
 
The rural landscape of Durrie's native Connecticut inspired the scenes of simple New England farm life for which he was noted. The largely self-taught painter mastered the effects of atmosphere and the varying textures of snow and ice. Yet his paintings, which frequently repeat architectural and figural elements, display an underlying naïveté in technique and conception. His winter subjects gained additional popularity through prints published by Currier and Ives beginning in 1861.
 
 
Jervis McEntee (1828 - 1891)
Autumn, Mill Stream, 1860
Oil on canvas
The New-York Historical Society, Robert L. Stuart Collection, Stuart 12
 
Many of McEntee's paintings featured the landscape surrounding his native Rondout, New York, a small town on the Hudson River. Although he intended his paintings to be faithful representations of specific locales, McEntee believed in landscape's capacity to construct meaning, saying: "In landscape you can tell a certain kind of story." Here, the autumnal view augers the end or metaphorical death of the year. The abandoned structures (the wooden building whose peaked roof pierces the horizon and the stone hearth directly below it) also suggest the passing of time by introducing the motif of the ancient ruin in New World terms.
 
 
Louis Rémy Mignot (1831 - 1870)
The Harvest Moon, 1860
Oil on canvas
The New-York Historical Society, Robert L. Stuart Collection, Stuart 160
 
Mignot's aesthetics ranged from the operatic sublime of the Ecuadorian tropics and Niagara Falls to intimate views of anonymous American harvest fields, as exemplified here. Harvest themes were frequently addressed at midcentury, often out of moralizing aims associated with national politics or the economy. In this case, however, Mignot eschewed obvious narrative content and gave greater attention to the formal aspects of his art. As Mignot's contemporary the influential critic Henry T. Tuckerman, wrote: "He [Mignot] has a remarkable facility of catching the expression, often the vague, but, therefore, more interesting, expression of a scene. . . . "
 
 
George Inness (1825 - 1894)
Hackensack Meadows, Sunset, 1859
Oil on canvas
The New-York Historical Society, Robert L. Stuart Collection, Stuart 22
 
Inness abandoned the crisply detailed brushwork of his early manner after two European trips in the 1850s, when he was attracted to the work of the Barbizon artists. In this quiet view of New Jersey farmland, Inness has applied the suffused light, rich colors, and softened forms of the Barbizon School, characteristics that were compatible with his own growing beliefs, which gave authority to emotional rather than intellectual responses to the intimate aspects of nature.
 
 
John Frederick Kensett (1816 - 1872)
Shrewsbury River, New Jersey, 1859
Oil on canvas
The New-York Historical Society, Robert L. Stuart Collection, Stuart 229
 
Kensett visited the Navesink Highlands, near Red Bank, New Jersey, for the first time in 1853. The trip yielded a series of five oils in which he depicted the place where the Shrewsbury River empties into the Atlantic Ocean, all of which share the reductive composition, silvery light, and smooth paint surface evidenced in this work. These qualities were new to Kensett's art and most likely found their direct source in his response to the character of this site.
 
 
John Frederick Kensett (1816 - 1872)
Nahant Rock and Seashore, 1855
Oil on canvas
The New-York Historical Society, Robert L. Stuart Collection, S-84
 
 
Albert Bierstadt (1830 - 1902)
Donner Lake from the Summit, 1873
Oil on canvas
The New-York Historical Society, Gift of Archer Milton Huntington, 1909.16
 
Bierstadt went to the summit of the High Sierras with Collis P. Huntington, the railroad magnate who commissioned a painting of this site to commemorate the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. Despite Huntington's interest, the painting's title, however, speaks more to the national memory of the ill-fated Donner Party-settlers trapped by the onset of winter in 1846, whose sensational story of privation, cannibalism, and death remains a source of gruesome fascination. A critic writing about the painting's public debut in San Francisco in 1873 noted, "The two associations of the spot are . . . sharply and suggestively antithetical: so much slowness and hardship in the early days, so much rapidity and ease now; great physical obstacles overcome by a triumph of well-directed science and mechanics."
 
 
Thomas Hill (1829 - 1908)
View of the Yosemite Valley, 1865
Oil on canvas
The New-York Historical Society, Gift of Charles T. Harbeck, 1897.2
 
Hill first saw the panoramic vistas of California's Yosemite Valley in 1862, an experience that led to his reputation as the "most ardent devotee at the shrine of Yosemite and the most faithful priest of the valley." Shown at the National Academy of Design in 1866, View of the Yosemite Valley not only conjured for New Yorkers the grandeur of Yosemite but also confirmed that the area was already tamed by tourism (as indicated by the couple on horseback at the center of the composition).
 
 
Frederic Edwin Church (1826 - 1900)
Cayambe, 1858
Oil on canvas
The New-York Historical Society, Robert L. Stuart Collection, Stuart 91
 
Painted soon after Church returned from his second trip to South America, Cayambe embodies the artist's synthesis of his personal experience of the tropical sublime and the writings of the nineteenth-century German scientist-explorer Alexander von Humboldt. The moon rises, yet the scene is bathed in the light of the setting sun; the tropical heat suggested in the foreground vegetation is countered by the snow-capped and cloud-shrouded peak of the inactive volcano Cayambe in the distance. Such visual opulence coincides with Humboldt's opinions on landscape painting, which "requires for its development a large number of various and direct impressions, which, when received from external contemplation, must be fertilized by the power of the mind."
 
 
Martin Johnson Heade (1819 - 1904)
Study of an Orchid, 1872
Oil on canvas
The New-York Historical Society, Robert L. Stuart Collection, Stuart 112
 
Heade had very likely seen wild orchids on his first trip to Brazil in 1863, but it was not until 1871 that he added the flower to his thematic repertoire. This depiction of flora and fauna is scientifically accurate. Yet the composition, a hybrid of still-life and landscape, creates the uncanny impression that we observe living characters enacting roles on nature's stage. Although orchids were of scholarly and popular interest in the nineteenth century, critics rarely mentioned Heade's numerous orchid-and-hummingbird subjects, probably because of the plant's sexual connotations and the part played by the bird in the flower's reproductive process.
 
 
 
Dreams of Arcadia: Americans in Italy
 
Thomas Cole (1801 - 1848)
Italian Scene. Composition, 1833
Oil on canvas
The New-York Historical Society, Gift of the New-York Gallery of the Fine Arts, 1858.19
 
As in many of Cole's landscapes, a small foreground figure-here the contemplative peasant at the lower right-sets the stage for interpreting the painting. The young man ignores the panoramic vista that unfolds around him, perhaps signifying the imaginary nature of Cole's Italian scene. Indeed, Cole has presented an inventory of the elements contributing to his idea of Italy-Roman ruins, roadside shrines, dancing peasants, Mediterranean light, and cypress trees-all derived from sketches made on his first trip to Italy and overlaid with a patina of romance and nostalgia.
 
 
Thomas Cole (1801 - 1848)
The Vale and Temple of Segestae, Sicily, 1844
Oil on canvas
The New-York Historical Society, Gift of The New-York Gallery of the Fine Arts, 1858.62
NEED CHAT
 
Sanford Robinson Gifford (1823 - 1880)
Lake Maggiore, Italy, 1858
Oil on canvas
The New-York Historical Society, Robert L. Stuart Collection, Stuart 193
 
Gifford was exceptionally talented at capturing the glowing atmospheric effects of light, and it was perhaps this particular interest that attracted him to the golden luminosity offered by the reflective surfaces of the quiet waters of Italy's northern lakes. He visited Lake Maggiore on both of his European trips, in 1855-57 and 1868-69. The scene presented here is taken from the vantage point of one of the lake's islands, Isola Bella (Beautiful Island), and features the nearby Isola dei Pescatori (Fisherman's Island), known for its quaint village, which was seemingly untouched by the modern world.
 
 
Jasper Francis Cropsey (1823-1900)
Landscape with Ruins, 1854
Oil on canvas
The New-York Historical Society, Gift of Mrs. Louis A. Gillet, 1945.450
 
The crenellated towers of a ruined castle are dramatically silhouetted against a reddening sky at sunset. Cropsey's early training as an architect made him exceptionally attuned to the "language" of architecture and its potential to evoke the past. Cropsey and his wife had honeymooned in Italy from 1847 to 1849. The sketches and memories with which he returned provided rich sources for imaginary compositions such as this. His interest in nature is revealed in the varying states of decay and destruction discernible in the trees (nature's architecture), providing a parallel layer of content for this scene of a vanished arcadia.
 
 
William Stanley Haseltine (1835-1900)
Castle of Ostia Seen from the Pine Forest of Castel Fusano, 1881
Oil on canvas
The New-York Historical Society, Museum purchase, Thomas Jefferson Bryan Fund, 1992.11
 
Haseltine lived in Rome in the 1870s and 1880s. This panoramic view with the Castle of Ostia rising above the distant horizon carries the eye from the hushed, darkened foreground into the golden brilliance of the setting sun. An almost oppressive stillness evokes the history of the site itself-a dead city whose ruins were silent reminders of a once vital ancient civilization. It was perhaps this painting that elicited the following response by a nineteenth-century visitor to Haseltine's studio: "A large picture of Ostia attracted our attention by the sense of desolation and picturesque death that hovers about it. . . . "
 
 
 
Grand Landscape Narratives: Thomas Cole's Course of Empire
 
Thomas Cole (1801 - 1848)
The Course of Empire: The Savage State, 1833­36
Oil on canvas
The New-York Historical Society, Gift of the New-York Gallery of the Fine Arts, 1858.1
 
In an 1833 letter to Luman Reed, Cole envisioned that the first canvas in the projected series, "representing the savage state, must be a view of a wilderness, . . ." The untamed terrain recalls the art of the Baroque painter Salvator Rosa (1615­1673) and is the foundation for this interpretation of the dawn of civilization. A mountain peak catches the first rays of morning light that dispel the mists and darkness that had shrouded mankind's existence. As the focus for this composition, this mountain becomes the narrative anchor for the cycle that bears witness to the rise and fall of a civilization.
 
 
Thomas Cole (1801 - 1848)
The Course of Empire: The Arcadian or Pastoral State, 1833­36
Oil on canvas
The New-York Historical Society, Gift of the New-York Gallery of the Fine Arts, 1858.2
 
In his letter to Reed, Cole imagined the second painting in the series, saying, "[It] must be the pastoral state, -the day further advanced- . . . the scene partly cultivated-a rude village near the bay- . . . groups of peasants either pursuing their labours in the field, . . . or engaged in some simple amusement." The completed painting, although fashioned after the pastoral compositions of the Baroque landscapist Claude Lorrain (1600­1682), inspires a more specific reading that rests on mankind's intellectual development. For example, the old man, the boy, and the woman in the foreground represent the emergence of the mathematical, written, and domestic arts, respectively.
 
 
Thomas Cole (1801 - 1848)
The Course of Empire: The Consummation of Empire, 1836
Oil on canvas
The New-York Historical Society, Gift of the New-York Gallery of the Fine Arts, 1858.3
 
Cole's plan for the central painting of the group was for "a great city girding the bay, . . . splendid processions, &c.-all that can be combined to show the fullness of prosperity. . . . " The orchestration and abundance of architectural features relies on Dido Building Carthage, a painting by the English artist J.M.W. Turner that Cole had seen in London. New Yorkers may have viewed this canvas in terms of their own history, seeing in it a cautionary message rooted in the economic failures that grew out of the policies of Andrew Jackson. Some scholars theorize that the red-cloaked conqueror borne on the bridge in the foreground is a metaphor for Jackson.
 
 
Thomas Cole (1801 - 1848)
The Course of Empire: Destruction, 1833­36
Oil on canvas
The New-York Historical Society, Gift of the New-York Gallery of the Fine Arts, 1858.4
 
Cole's outline for the fourth painting included a "tempest, -a battle, and the burning of the city. . . . " In the tradition of such English landscapists as J.M.W. Turner and John Martin, Cole created his own version of the aesthetic sublime, most likely recognizing that his depiction of urban conflagration would resonate with New Yorkers who had seen flames engulf their city in the Great Fire of 1835. The imagery of destruction also corresponded to the respected cyclical approach to history, exemplified by Edward Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, first published in the United States in 1804.
 
 
Thomas Cole (1801 - 1848)
The Course of Empire: Desolation, 1836
Oil on canvas
The New-York Historical Society, Gift of the New-York Gallery of the Fine Arts, 1858.5
 
For the last episode of the cycle, Cole proposed that it "must be a sunset, -the mountains riven-the city a desolate ruin-columns standing isolated amid the encroaching waters-ruined temples, broken bridges, fountains, sarcophagi, &c.-no human figure-a solitary bird perhaps: a calm and silent effect. This picture must be as the funeral knell of departed greatness, and may be called the state of desolation." Perhaps the most original and certainly the most poetic of the five canvases, Desolation captures the exquisite stillness of a world without mankind.

 

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