Nature and the American
Vision: Masterpieces of the Hudson River School
touring the United States in 2011
Wall text panels
The Hudson River School at the
New-York Historical Society
Nature and the American Vision
- This exhibition showcases the extraordinary depth and
richness of the New-York Historical Society's landscape collections, including
works on paper, decorative arts, and, especially, paintings by artists
of the Hudson River School. Rising to eminence in New York during the mid-nineteenth
century, this loosely knit group of artists, together with like-minded
poets and writers, forged a self-consciously "American" landscape
vision and literary voice. Both were grounded in the exploration of the
natural world as a resource for spiritual renewal and as an expression
of cultural and national identity.
- The Hudson River and the natural wonders along its banks
had a long history of associations with earlier inhabitants, including
Native Americans, the Dutch, and the British. Key battles of the American
Revolution were fought along the river's course. Such historical associations
amid the evocative terrain of the Catskills, Adirondacks, and White Mountains
enriched regional sites throughout the Hudson River Valley and New England,
producing homegrown schools of painting and literature grounded in its
scenery and history. After 1850 Hudson River School artists also sought
inspiration further from home, enlisting their artistic vision to capture
experiences in such far-flung places as the Yosemite Valley, the Arctic,
and the Andes.
- The paintings in the exhibition are organized around
themes that illuminate the sites that drew both artists and travelers.
Other themes investigate landscape imagery as a powerful narrative device
that embodied ideas about nature and culture. Works on paper recording
the scenery that established visual models and a landscape itinerary for
later generations of artists and travelers are exhibited in the Luman Reed
Galleries. Also on view there is a selection of works from the Society's
holdings that explore the history of art collecting in nineteenth-century
New York and the rise of genre painting as another of America's preeminent
City on a River: New York
No other river . . . approaches the Hudson
in varied grandeur and sublimity, and no other city has so grand . . .
a harbor as New York.
Wallace Bruce, The Hudson (1901)
- The majestic Hudson River originates high in the Adirondacks,
flowing between rocky crags and wooded peaks some 315 miles to the sea.
Navigable as far as Albany, the Hudson was a strategic military and commercial
waterway commanded over the centuries in turn by Native Americans, by the
Dutch, and then by the English until the American Revolution. In 1626 the
Dutch purchased Manhattan Island from Native American inhabitants as a
trading post, called New Amsterdam, at the mouth of the Hudson. Ceded to
the British in 1664 and renamed New York, the city was later claimed by
newly independent Americans in 1783. The huge natural harbor opening onto
the Atlantic was developed into the Port of New York, the primary source
for the mercantile wealth of the city. In 1825 the Hudson River was linked
to the Great Lakes by the Erie Canal, a manmade waterway between Albany
and Buffalo. This busy commercial route linked the Port of New York to
the interior of the continent, accelerating the growth of New York City
into a booming cosmopolitan metropolis.
- Urban populations developed a taste for regional landscape
subjects linked to picturesque touring routes along the river, a market
served first by printmakers and then by artists of the Hudson River School.
Many artists also painted images of New York itself, works that celebrated
the city's spectacular physical setting and its watery surroundings. Images
of New York City also gained wide circulation in prints and reproductions
on decorated dinner services (displayed nearby) that were popular with
American and British consumers.
On the River: Travel & Touring
[T]here are in reality four separate
Hudsons-the Hudson of Beauty, the Hudson of History, the Hudson of Literature,
and the Hudson of Commerce.
Wallace Bruce, The Hudson (1901)
- The success in 1807 of Robert Fulton's steamboat, the
Clermont, set the stage for commercial steam-driven river navigation on
the Hudson from New York City to Albany. The waterway was extended to
the Great Lakes in 1825 with completion of the Erie Canal, vital for both
the transportation of raw materials and the development of the new industry
of tourism. The sidewheel steamboats that carried much of the river's commercial
and passenger traffic were celebrated as marvels of modern technology.
Called "floating palaces," they offered speedy travel and luxurious
- The Hudson River Portfolio, a set of landscape prints
published between 1821 and 1825 showing views of twenty significant sites
along the river's course, demonstrates how quickly a picturesque touring
itinerary was joined to the commercial traffic that plied the river. The
Hudson also served as the gateway to other regions celebrated for their
scenic beauty and historic sites. These included the Catskill and Adirondack
mountain ranges as well as Lake George; all were touring destinations as
well as primary sketching grounds for American landscape painters. The
Erie Canal provided an extended route to Niagara Falls, while the chain
of lakes bordering the Adirondacks offered a waterway north to the White
Mountains of New Hampshire, sites and regions also celebrated in paintings
of the Hudson River School. The foldout portions of two famous Hudson River
guides that chart the river's course as a picturesque touring route are
also reproduced here in a greatly enlarged format.
The American Grand Tour: The Catskills
& Lake George
. . . heave from the valley of the Hudson like the subsiding billows of
the ocean after a storm.
Thomas Cole, "Essay on American
- The taste for picturesque touring itineraries, with its
supporting literature and print imagery, was transported to the United
States from England and was well established by the early nineteenth century
to serve mostly urban educated populations. By the 1820s, local and national
pride had stimulated the development of an American Grand Tour celebrating
a medley of landscape sites for their picturesque qualities. Waterfalls,
rapids, and mills were also hailed as industrial resources. Some sites
were further enriched by historical and literary associations. These developments
were part of the larger quest among newly independent Americans for cultural
autonomy in reaction to a reverence for European traditions that cast American
society and culture as provincial. The magnificent scenery of North America
was perceived as a source of national pride. Thomas Cole stated an artistic
declaration of independence in 1835 with his proud claim that "[A]ll
nature here is new to Art."
- The Catskill mountain region, some one hundred miles
north of New York City, had first been celebrated in literature, notably
Washington Irving's Rip van Winkle (1819) and James Fenimore Cooper's The
Pioneers (1823). Easily reached from Catskill Village, where the steamboat
landed, the Catskills soon joined Niagara Falls and Saratoga Springs as
a popular area for both artists and tourists. Thomas Cole made his first
sketching expedition to the Catskills in 1825. The paintings he made from
those sketches launched not only his own career but the Hudson River School
The American Grand Tour: Lake
George and the Adirondack Mountains
I would rather persuade you to visit
[Lake George] than attempt to describe its scenery . . . to see you gliding
over its bosom, where the steep and rugged mountains approach from either
side . . .
Thomas Cole, "Essay on American
- Named by the British in honor of their king, Lake George
was long known in literature and lore by its earlier names. Native Americans
called it "tail of the lake," to the French it was the "lake
of St. Sacrament," and James Fenimore Cooper dubbed it "Horican"
in The Last of the Mohicans (1826). Contested by the French and the English
for more than two centuries, this glacially formed lake, joining Lake Champlain
at the eastern edge of the Adirondack range, was one of the early scenic
attractions in northern New York State. Thomas Jefferson called Lake George
"the most beautiful water I ever saw." Later visitors, including
many landscape painters, reached this popular resort area via steamboat
up the Hudson to Albany, completing the journey by rail and stage.
- Lakes George and Champlain also provided a route to the
Adirondacks, where heavily glaciated and forested terrain formed an even
more dramatic mountain landscape than the Catskills. Thomas Cole and Asher
B. Durand were among the earliest artist visitors in the 1830s. Although
remote for centuries, by the mid-nineteenth century the Adirondack region
had also been co-opted into an artist, tourist, and sportsmen's destination.
During the Gilded Age, wealthy industrialists built elaborate compounds
known as the Great Camps, some of which are preserved today as historic
sites. In the 1880s, preservation efforts were launched to contain regional
mining and logging in order to ensure that the Adirondack Park would remain
The American Grand Tour: Niagara
And Niagara! . . . At our feet the floods
of a thousand rivers are poured out-the contents of vast inland seas. In
its volume we conceive immensity; . . . in its impetuosity, uncontrollable
Thomas Cole, "Essay on American
- The Niagara River on its course from Lake Erie to Lake
Ontario plunges over cliffs down some 170 feet to create Niagara Falls,
one of the world's greatest natural spectacles. Three sets of falls straddle
the border between New York State and Canada. The American and Bridal Veil
Falls are on the American side, and the extensive Horseshoe Falls on the
Canadian side. The earliest engraved image, of 1697, focused on the amazing
features of height, breadth, and the sheer power of falling water that
have continued to compel artists and visitors to the site for more than
three centuries to contemplate the falls as a sublime spectacle evoking
a rich medley of poetic, religious, and national associations.
- The same attributes, moreover, that made Niagara Falls
one of the earliest and most popular touring and artist destinations also
generated the early development of the site as an industrial center as
the river's energy was harnessed to power factories and mills. In the
1870s a commission was created to buy back commercially developed land
around the falls to be incorporated into a state park designed by Frederick
Law Olmsted, the creator of New York City's Central Park. The commission's
report included a sentiment embraced by generations of American landscape
painters and is widely believed today: "Free enjoyment of these noblest
works of nature is now felt to be one of man's most precious privileges,
not to be abridged by private rights or greed for gain."
The American Grand Tour: The White
Mountains and New England
[I]n the mountains of New Hampshire there
is a union of the picturesque, the sublime, and the magnificent . . . peaks
of granite . . . cradle the clouds; while the vallies . . . rest under
the shadow of noble . . . forests . . . .
Thomas Cole, "Essay on American
- The White Mountains, located in the center of New Hampshire
and named for their rocky whitened peaks rising above the timberline, contain
the highest peaks in the Northeast in the Presidential Range. The highest
is Mount Washington, surrounded by Mounts Adams, Jefferson, Monroe, and
Madison. National significance was conferred on the region by this association
with the Founding Fathers, while Mount Chocorua was named for a legendary
- A remote wilderness at the beginning of the nineteenth
century, the mountains, valleys, and lakes of New England became well-cultivated
tourist destinations, celebrated in both art and literature, by the last
decades of the century. Some hardy visitors, however, were drawn to the
region's spectacular scenery much earlier. Thomas Cole's first sketching
expeditions to the White Mountains took place in 1827 and 1828. Other landscape
painters followed, and during the 1850s popular artists' summer colonies
developed in and around the villages of North Conway and West Campton.
A famous guidebook of 1856 took note of the artist influx to paint the
majestic vista of Mount Washington: "One who visits the Conway meadows,
sees the original of half of the pictures that have been shown in our art-rooms
in the last two years. All our landscape painters must try their hand at
that perfect gem of New England scenery."
The American Grand Tour: River
Views and Rural Retreats
The Hudson for natural magnificence is
unsurpassed. What can be more beautiful than the lake-like expanses of
Tappan and Haverstraw . . . ? What can be more imposing than the precipitous
Highlands . . . ?
Thomas Cole, "Essay on American
- The Hudson River Valley and the surrounding region figured
prominently in the literary and poetic imagination of the young nation.
The combination of historic, picturesque, and literary associations established
the river itself as a tourist destination and an icon of the Hudson River
School, with its varied scenery, weather, and effects of light. The Tappan
Zee, a wide stretch of the river between Westchester County on the east
side and Rockland County on the west side, often figures in their paintings.
Tappan is the Indian word for cold springs, and zee is Dutch for "sea."
Not far north are the Highlands, the most dramatic passage in the Hudson's
course where a series of mountainsides plunge into the river channel. A
favorite subject recorded by artists from many different vantage points,
the Highlands are also resonant with historical associations such as the
site of the United States Military Academy at West Point.
- Many of the old towns and villages along the river also
provided picturesque subjects and places of residence for artists, among
them Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, Albert Bierstadt, and Jasper Cropsey.
The riverside estates of wealthy families as well as country retreats
for middle-class New Yorkers were reached with increasing ease of travel
by steamboat and, after 1851, by railroad.
Artists Afield and Abroad
Adventure is an element in American artist-life
which gives it singular zest and interest . . . [I]ts record abounds with
pioneer enterprise and hardy exploration.
Henry T. Tuckerman, Book of the Artists
- Reverence for nature and detailed treatment of landscape
subjects were not confined to the traditional sketching grounds of the
Hudson River School. Paintings are displayed here whose subjects are drawn
from nearby New Jersey and Pennsylvania as well as from the geological
marvels of more remote Kentucky. Some artists, however, were not content
to explore and record subjects drawn from the scenery of the eastern seaboard.
They shared in the popular excitement of a mid-century era of exploration
and expansion that would accelerate after the Civil War. The transcontinental
railroad was completed in 1869. Manifest Destiny, the philosophy that justified
extending settlement across the territories west of the Mississippi River,
drove the political policy of the day. Scientific and railroad surveys
charted new territories and documented major discoveries in the fields
of geology and paleontology.
- Adventurous landscape painters responded to the expansionist
and scientific impulses of the times, especially Frederic Church and Albert
Bierstadt, who embraced the role of artist-explorer and traveled much farther
abroad, to South America and the Far West, in quest of exciting and exotic
subject matter. William Bradford voyaged far and away to record the icy
spectacle of the Arctic region. The popular appetite for such imagery was
huge and often served by what were called "Great Pictures."
These are large panoramic canvases, like the paintings by Bierstadt and
Hill displayed nearby, that were often exhibited in theatrical settings
to which audiences paid admission. Church and Bierstadt were the American
masters of such landscape enterprises.
The mountains are very fine . . . [T]hey
are of granite formation, the same as the Swiss mountains and their jagged
summits [are] covered with snow and mingling with the cloud . . . the Indians
are still as they were hundreds of years ago, and now is the time to paint
them . . . .
Albert Bierstadt, Letter from the
Rocky Mountains, July 10, 1859
- In 1893 the historian Frederick Jackson Turner (18611932)
summarized the idea of the American frontier as "an imaginary westward-moving
line" that marked the division between "civilization and savagery."
Although Turner focused primarily on the westward advance of Anglo-Europeans
and ignored the Native American and Hispanic populations that already occupied
western lands, his point of view has continued to shape scholarship about
territorial expansion in the United States. Turner's concept of the frontier
intersected neatly with the mid-nineteenth-century theory of Manifest Destiny,
an ideology rooted in the belief that the whole of the North American continent
was divinely fated to come under the authority of the United States.
- Painters and photographers performed a vital role in
westward expansion, frequently accompanying official military and geological
expeditions to record the spectacular scenery and indigenous life of distant
regions. But, as shown by the paintings on view here, the documentary impulse
was often overridden by the desire to impress audiences with the sheer
magnitude and topographical diversity of the North American west. Such
paintings implied an infinite natural abundance and encouraged nationalistic
sentiments and curiosity that stimulated additional travel. Also embedded
in the iconography, however, are hints of negativity-motifs referring to
tourism, the displacement of native populations, and the eventual depletion
of natural resources-ideas that harmonized with the realization that continental
expansion would cease once the Pacific was reached.
Placed amidst the summits of the Andes,
the adventurous traveller seems as if surrounded by the fragments of a
world destroyed, or with the materials out of which another might be constructed.
Richard S. Fisher, Book of the World,
- The writings of the German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt
(17691859) deserve the greatest credit for stirring nineteenth-century
painters to travel to South America. Humboldt had spent five years exploring
South America as part of his quest to map the world and catalogue its diverse
life forms. In his multivolume Cosmos, portions of which were available
in English in the 1840s, Humboldt emphasized the role of painters in the
process of exploration, saying, "Why may we not be justified in hoping
that landscape painting may hereafter bloom with new and yet unknown beauty,
when highly-gifted artists shall often pass the narrow bounds of the Mediterranean,
and shall seize . . . the living image of manifold beauty and grandeur
in the humid mountain valleys of the tropical world?"
- The popularity of Humboldt's theories in the United States
coincided with the influence of other writers, including the English art
critic John Ruskin (18191900). Ruskin's call for "truth to nature"
not only meshed with the naturalist's scientific approach but also paralleled
Humboldt's belief that it was the painter's obligation to transform the
details of nature into compositions that would convey the majesty of creation.
By 1859, with the publication of Charles Darwin's (18091881) On the
Origin of Species, the stage was set for artists to shift their attention
from the history-laden, knowable "Old World" to the uncontrolled
tropical landscape and its seemingly limitless varieties of flora and fauna,
all of which held the promise of revealing the secrets of the earth's primeval
past and its future.
Dreams of Arcadia: Americans in
[T]he glorious scenes of the old world
. . . those mountains, woods, and streams, made sacred in our minds by
heroic deeds and immortal song . . .
Thomas Cole, "Essay on American
- Nineteenth-century American artists were consistently
pressed to reconcile the tensions created by the need to work within the
grand cultural traditions of Europe and to forge an art that would reflect
their position as aesthetic competitors in a developing, independent nation.
In the first decades of the nineteenth century European travel was considered
a requisite to the formation of professionalism in the United States, where
an academic art system, notable art collections, and even a viable art
market were lacking. Italy was the principal destination on the Grand Tour
for Europeans as well as North Americans who wished to educate their minds
and train their eyes according to the tastes that denoted cultured society.
Viewed as the storehouse of Western culture, Italy was a living laboratory
of the past, with its cities, galleries, and countryside offering a visible
survey of artistic heritage from antiquity to the present.
- Despite its attractions, the cultural landscape of Europe
conjured faded glories, seemingly demonstrating the truth of the cyclical
construct of history according to which civilizations were born, prospered,
and died. Such sentiments are proved by Thomas Cole's use of lines by the
English poet Samuel Rogers in conjunction with the display of Italian Scene.
Composition, a painting on view here:
- O, Italy, how beautiful thou art!
- Yet I weep, for thou art lying, alas!
- Low in the dust, and they who come admire thee,
- As we admire the beautiful in death.
Grand Landscape Narratives: Thomas
Cole's Course of Empire
"Not only do I consider The
Course of Empire the work of the highest genius this country has
ever produced, but I esteem it one of the noblest works of art that has
ever been wrought."
James Fenimore Cooper to Louis L. Noble,
- The guiding theme for this series-the cyclical pattern
of history-took root around 1829 during Cole's first European sojourn,
a trip that essentially took him to his own past, inasmuch as he had spent
his first eighteen years in his native England. The project was finally
begun in earnest with the 1833 commission by the New York merchant Luman
Reed, who died before its completion in 1836.
- By 1833 Cole already had a reputation as one of the country's
most innovative landscape painters, and it may be argued that at that moment
he was the only American painter equipped to manage the technical and intellectual
apparatus required to create a complex visual epic of this magnitude. The
artist elaborated his theme through the orchestration of established landscape
aesthetics, art historical precedent, and literary sources, all of which
were unified by the device of showing the same landscape through successive
eras whose temporal passage is communicated according to the times of day
and seasons depicted in each of the five canvases.
- The Course of Empire was
essentially generic in its presentation of a dominant theory of history-that
all societies were subject to the same inevitable rhythms of growth and
decay. A more specific allegorical reading suggested itself to Cole's
audience in 1836, however, leaving open the question of whether or not
the United States would follow in the course of the empires that had gone
before or break the pattern and avoid extinction.
Return to Nature and the American
Vision: Masterpieces of the Hudson River School (3/18/11)
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