The Hudson River School
By: David DiRenzo
AP American History Block 2
The Hudson River school represents the first native genre of distinctly American art. The school began to produce art works in the early 1820s; comprised of a group of loosely organized painters who took as their subject the unique naturalness of the undeveloped American continent, starting with the Hudson River region in New York, but eventually extending through space and time all the way to California and the 1870s. During the period, that the school’s artists were active (c. 1820-1870) the nation was in the process of undergoing momentous political, social, and economic change. The works that the Hudson River School painters comprised reflected the changes that were taking place across the continent as well as the self-conceptualization taking place in an ever developing and ever changing America.
Many consider Thomas Cole to be the father of the Hudson River School because of an exhibition he had organized in New York City. The exhibition, which took place in 1825, displayed many of the paintings he had made during a trip up the Hudson River. Thomas Cole had the clearest vision of what the artists of the School were seeking to accomplish in their painting and how the images that they were creating complimented the American concept of national character. Ironically, Cole was not American by birth. Born in England in 1801, Cole did not immigrate to the United States until he was twenty years old. Cole wrote an essay titled: Essay on American Scenery, which was published in a prominent Colonial magazine. American Monthly published Cole’s essay in January of 1836. In the essay, Cole addressed nature as the characteristic that set America apart from Europe.
Cole and the other artist that were part of the genre thought of the American continent as the Garden of Eden. Subsequently they developed their own individual iconography that was expressive of the vision that America was in fact a garden, which had been provincially set aside by god for his chosen people, the Americans. For instance, lakes represented the “eye of the human countance” a mirror reflecting the undertones of the rest of the landscape, and, most importantly, linking the sky to the earth. Thus, the linking of Sky and Earth was inferring to the feeling of closeness that one got as he looked upon the American Landscape and marveled at how close it made him feel to god.
Like the French and Dutch artist, the Hudson River artists show man as a small part of a larger environment, but to different purpose. Man’s small stature implies a harmony with nature as well as his place in God’s larger plan. The artists use the physical geology of America to show the vast differences between Europe and America they do this in the form of mountains.
To Cole, the sky represented “the soul of all scenery”, the truly sublime in the landscape as well as spirituality.
The lack of ruins was one of the surest signs that America was both young and new and free of the corruption of monarchy. The corruption of monarchy was implied by the presence of ruins on the landscape. Cole wrote, “You see no ruined tower to tell of outrage – no gorgeous temple to speak of ostentation; but freedom’s offspring – peace security, and happiness, dwell there, the spirits of the scene.”
Storms had several different meanings. While they would eventually come to represent both the coming sectional crisis and tension over the encroaching technology that was threatening the landscape, their original purpose was to represent the dark and violent side of Mother Nature.
Trees came to be thought of as the true hero’s of Hudson River art, thus is expressed in this quote from Cole. “They are like men…they exhibit striking peculiarities, and sometimes grand originality.” The trees of the American landscape have a primitive quality that sets them apart from Europe, and their autumnal color “surpasses all the world in gorgeousness.” Water Falls came to represent the ever-changing American Landscape; this was accomplished on both a physical and a social platform.
Many men have tried to out the work of the school in perspective one such man is Alexis de Tocqueville who observed many things about the American character, however American identification with nature was not one of the things that he observed. In fact, he thought that nature was primarily a European concern, of no interest to Americans. He wrote in Democracy in America: “Europeans think a lot about the wild, open spaces of America, but the Americans themselves hardly give them a thought.”
This opinion, however, is contradicted by two facts. First, the Hudson River School had come into being to great critical and popular acclaim five years before Tocqueville arrived in the United States and ten years before Democracy in America was published. Second, these images and images like them were not solely the intellectual property of the cultural elite but were widely disseminated throughout the public through their publication in newspapers. The mass production of prints and as illustrations in American novels such as the Leather stocking Tales of James Fennimore Cooper, which concerned themselves, at least in part with the place of nature in the American experience.
In 1841, writing a review of James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales, Honore de Balzac wrote “The magical prose of Cooper not only embodies the spirit of the river, its shores, the forests and its trees; but it exhibits the minutes details, combined with the grandest outline. The vast solitudes, in which we penetrate, become in a moment deeply interesting…When the spirit of solitude communes with us, when the first calm of these eternal shades pervades us, when we hover over this virgin vegetation, our hearts are filled with emotion.”
Balzac could just as easily been describing a painting by any Hudson River School artist. In those few sentences he captured not only their stylistic imprint – attention to the minutest details on the grandest scale but also their desire to communicate the hand of divinity at work in the American landscape. It was not a new theme, but it was a uniquely American one, a theme that had it’s origin in the words of John Winthrop and the sermon that he delivered en route to New World aboard the Arabella in 1630. In A Modell of Christian Charity, Winthrop explained to his fellow Puritans To truly understand the immediate success and continuing popularity of the Hudson River School artists, it is necessary to fit their work into a larger cultural context.
Thomas Cole in his Essay on American Scenery believed just the opposite. “There is in the human mind,” he wrote. “An almost inseparable connection between the beautiful and the good…He who looks on nature with a ‘loving eye’…in gazing on the pure creations of the Almighty…. Feels a calm religious tone steal through his mind, and when he has turned to mingle with his fellow men, the chords which have been struck in that sweet communion cease not to vibrate.”
But the artists themselves were very aware of the destruction that threatened the natural landscape and the work of many of the later artists like Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran can be seen as attempts to recapture some of what had been lost to expansion and technology. Cole himself wrote, “I cannot but express my sorrow that the beauty of such landscapes is passing away – the ravages of the axe are daily increasing – “.
In the course of its fifty-year history, the paintings of the Hudson River School spoke in symbolic language to both a great hopefulness and a wistful reminiscence of the American experiment. It also celebrated the primeval American landscape, the entrance of technology into that landscape, and eventually sorrow at its passing, and both a belief in a Provincially ordained destiny and the crisis of the Civil War. Despite, or perhaps because of this fluidity of meaning, these landscape paintings lay claim to an important place in American art history and in the American cultural consciousness. They represent the undeniable place that nature has and continues to occupy in the American imagination.
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Motley F. Deakin, The Home Books of the Picturesque: or American Scenery, Art, and Literature, Gainseville, Scholar’s Facsimiles and Reprints, 1967
Angela Miller, The Empire of the Eye: Landscape Representation and American Cultural Politics, 1825-1875, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1993
Perry Miller, Nature’s Nation, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1967
Barbara Novak, Nature and Culture: American Landscape Painting 1825-1875, New York, Oxford University Press, 1995
Jules David Prown, Nancy K. Anderson, William Cronon, Brian W. Dippie, Martha A. Sandweiss, Susan P. Schoelwer and Howard R. Lamar, Discovered Lands, Invented Pasts: Transforming Visions of the American West, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1992
John R. Stilgoe, Common Landscape of America: 1508 to 1845, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1982
Vitaly Komar & Alex Melamid’s Most Wanted Paintings on the Web: http://www.diacenter.org/km/
The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC: http://www.nga.gov/