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

touring the United States in 2011 and 2012


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 art forms.

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 accommodations.
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


[T]he Catskills . . . heave from the valley of the Hudson like the subsiding billows of the ocean after a storm.


Thomas Cole, "Essay on American Scenery" (1836)


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 as well.

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 Scenery" (1836)


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 "forever wild."

The American Grand Tour: Niagara Falls


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 power.


Thomas Cole, "Essay on American Scenery" (1836)


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 Scenery" (1836)


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 Indian chief.
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 Scenery" (1836)


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 (1867)


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 Frontier


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.

South America


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, I (1849)


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 Italy


[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 Scenery," 1836


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, 1849

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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