Painters of the Hudson River school
March 1, 1945 | By FREDERICK A. SWEET; from The Magazine ANTIQUES, March 1945.
Toward the end of the nineteenth century America's art collectors were captivated by French taste and filled their gilt drawing rooms with salon figure pieces and bucolic scenes by members of the Barbizon school. Our own painters such as George Inness and Homer Martin, had to follow French trends, in order to gain favor, and American landscape painters of an earlier generation sank gradually into oblivion. With all the scholarly work done in the art field, it is surprising to realize how little attention Americans have paid to their own painters. Only in the past few years have they begun to emerge again, and even today these landscape painters of the early nineteenth century, called the Hudson River school, remain too largely neglected. Their work is of the greatest of importance not only because it represents a significant phase of the Romantic Movement, but also because of the influence it had on men of a later period.
Only after a long struggle was landscape painting established as a worthy form of artistic expression in this country. Until the latter part of the eighteenth century, portraiture was the main concern of our painters. John Smibert, the noted portrait painter who died in 1751, left thirteen landscapes which were valued at a mere four shillings apiece. After the Revolution, Americans began to take interest in the great events surrounding the birth of the nation, and artists, following the trend, added historical painting to their repertoire. Trumbull's Declaration of Independence and other patriotic canvases were enthusiastically received.
About 1800 a new spirit began to be felt on this side of the Atlantic, a spirit which was part of the Romantic Movement that had been gaining momentum in Europe since the beginning of the eighteenth century. The formal rules of the classic tradition gave way to a freer and more informal outlook. Nations took a renewed pride in themselves and turned eagerly to their own past. In England, Gothic structures, formerly regarded as barbaric, were appraised with a fresh and more appreciative eye. The formal plan of Italian gardens was replaced by something more casual and picturesque, known as the jardin anglais, and much copied in France and Germany. The elegant prose of Addison and the formal poetry of Pope were counteracted by the work of romantic poets such as Thomson and his followers, and by the "Gothic" novel, a horror tale with medieval setting. The first of such tales (1764) wasThe Castle of Otranto, written by Horace Walpole, who also remodeled famous Strawberry Hill into a Gothic manor house.
The unplanned and undisciplined nature became attractive to the romantic eye, and this preference could be indulged by the increased travel of the time. Under the influence of Jean Jacques Rousseau's praise of the "savage state" and the new German philosophy emphasizing the importance of nature, travelers could admire the wonders of the English lake district and the Swiss Alps.
Americans inevitably came under the influence of the romantic ideal which had so permeated European thought. It was only natural that they began to sense the extraordinary beauties of their own country, most of which still existed in its primeval state. Poets and philosophers started to write about nature. William Cullen Bryant's early poems expressed, in somewhat melancholy terms, a love for simpler aspects of nature. Though Americans could boast no ghost-haunted castles, they delighted in the eerie qualities of old folk tales and acclaimed Washington Irving when he published the Sketch Book, containing The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip van Winkle. At the same time James Fenimore Cooper romanticized the frontier and ennobled the Indian in the Leatherstocking novels. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau expounded a new philosophy of nature from their rural retreat in Concord. With this new appreciation, painters too began to portray outdoor scenes, and a new era in American painting was born.
Niagara Falls stood at the head of America's scenic wonders and people swarmed to western New York for a glimpse of this marvel of nature. With the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825, the trip was greatly simplified, but even before this visitors had been numerous. Among them were Trumbull, Vanderlyn, and Dunlap, the first American artists to represent the falls. Other parts of New York State, such as Trenton Falls near Utica, the Catskills, and the Hudson Valley, were popular with travelers. A charming spot west of the Hudson was Cooperstown at the foot of Otsego Lake, home of Judge Cooper and his son, the novelist. Samuel F.B. Morse (1791-1872) used to visit there and in the summer of 1828 or 1829 painted Apple Hill (Fig. 1), representing Mrs. John A. Dix and Miss Margaret Willet on the banks of the Susquehanna overlooking the "Glimmerglass." Morse, who was primarily a portrait painter until he became engrossed in the invention of the telegraph, seldom had time for landscapes but the few which exist are done with great freshness and charm.
Fig. 1-"View from Apple Hill." Samuel F. B. Morse. One of his infrequent landscapes. Lent by Stephen Clark, New York City
During the first quarter of the nineteenth century, landscape was the occasional work of the portrait painter. Not until about 1825 do we find a few men beginning to specialize in this kind of painting. Thomas Doughty (1783-1856), a young Philadelphian who had a great fondness for hunting and outdoor life, gained considerable reputation for his poetic woodland scenes. A man of wider vision was Thomas Cole (1801-1848) who was so entranced with the upper Hudson that he settled in the little town of Catskill where he had a clear view of the mountains. He also traveled to the White Mountains and in the Connecticut Valley did the delightful Oxbow (Fig. 2), a gay picnic scene overlooking the river. Cole went to Europe twice, admired the work of Richard Wilson in England and, while traveling through Italy, came under the influence of Claude Lorrain and Salvator Rosa. There is an imposing sweep to Cole's landscapes, and a romantic concept. Though he gained a great reputation through various series of allegorical subjects such as Course of Empire and the Voyage of Life, these are less convincing than his more realistic scenes. He was the most versatile of our early landscape painters and on the whole the most gifted.
Fig. 2-"Oxbow." Thomas Cole. Painting shows a section of the famous Connecticut River and its valley. From the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Another important figure was Asher B. Durand (1796-1886), who was taught as an engraver but ultimately became a painter. A scene such as Monument Mountain, Berkshires (Fig. 4) combines rich color with careful delineation of each object. Less poetic than Doughty and less imaginative than Cole, he is technically extremely competent and interprets nature with forthright realism.
Fig. 4-"Monument Mountain, Berkshires." Asher B. Durand. This painter's forthright delineation is that of a realist. From the Detroit Institute of Arts.
Durand, like most other American artists, went to Europe for travel and study but the influence of this experience was no more marked in his case than in others. Our artists seldom went abroad as young students; they were usually established as painters before leaving these shores and in Europe did not study under any prominent master in the way the older generation had gone to London to become pupils of Benjamin West. A few drawing lessons in London or at an academy in Rome coupled with careful observation of paintings in the art galleries enlarged their outlook, caused them to enrich their color, improved their sense of design, and encouraged them to attempt more ambitious compositions. Our painters benefited by European study but they remained essentially American.
John Frederick Kensett (1818-1872) added another note to mid-century landscape painting. He had many moods: his pictures vary from simply conceived coast scenes to the highly detailed rocky woodlands of the Catskills. He took great interest in the rendering of texture and his work can always be recognized by the particular character and quality he imparted to rocks in contrast to surrounding foliage. Rocky Pool (Fig. 3) is characteristic of the rugged scenery which he is often selected for representation.
Fig. 3-"Rocky Pool." J. F. Kensett (signed and dated 1865). Rock forms show careful detail. Lent by Victor Spark, New York City.
In 1844 a young Hartford boy named Frederick Edwin Church (1826-1900), aspiring to become a painter went to Catskill to become a pupil of Thomas Cole. He was of much the same romantic turn of mind as his master and soon developed an aptitude for portraying the charms of the Catskill country. Inspired by Baron von Humboldt's writings on South America, Church was encouraged to see for himself the snow-capped peaks and exotic foliage of the Andes. He made trips to Ecuador and Colombia, where he made many drawings and sketches that he later worked up into large compositions. One of the most superb of these panoramas is Chimborazo (Fig. 5), as romantic a conception of this exotic scenery as one could imagine. The simpler view of the earlier men has here become grandiose and imposing. Meticulous handling of the foreground, vast distance, and great height are combined in one great composition which is a tour de force. Church later went to Labrador to paint icebergs and eventually toured Europe and the Near East. As the most widely traveled artist in America, he portrayed many of the most dramatic scenes in the world and brought panoramic painting to its height.
Fig. 5-"Chimborazo." Frederick E. Church. Chimborazo, always snow-capped, is a twenty-thousand-foot peak of the Andes. Lent by William Church Osborn, New York City.
On much the same scale Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902), after studying in Dusseldorf, painted the Rockies and the Yosemite. With less artistic ability than Church, he carried the oversize scenic canvas to extremes. He is at his best in more carefully constructed, less ambitious scenes such asBombardment of Fort Sumter (Fig. 7). Here his meticulous technique adds to the effectiveness of the clear cut composition.
Fig. 7-"Bombardment of Fort Sumter." Albert Bierstadt. Fort Sumter was bombarded rather a lot; a tabular statement made in the fort shows that in four months of 1863 26,867 shot were fired at it, 19,808 falling against or into it. Lent by the Union League, Philadelphia.
Not all the later men painted on a large scale: Worthington Whittredge (1820-1910) confined himself to more intimate scenes. One of his most charming pictures is Third Beach, Newport (Fig. 6) in which we see a few people wading in the surf and others seated on the wide expanse of beach.
Fig. 6-"Third Beach, Newport." Worthington Whittredge. People in the surf and on the beach at the fashionable resort in Rhode Island. From the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.
The last painter to continue in the earlier tradition was Thomas Moran (1837-1926), who did much of his best work in the West. His impressive allegorical scene, Spirit of the Indian (Fig. 8) is a magnificent idealization of the mountains conceived somewhat in the tradition of Cole.
Fig. 8-"Spirit of the Indian." Thomas Moran. An allegory in oil. From the Phillbrook Art Center, Tulsa.
Since many of the painters in the romantic tradition had painted in the Catskills and along the Hudson Valley, newspaper critics called this group the Hudson River school. The term has long since lost whatever derogatory meaning it may have had and is today applied in a very general sense to our landscape painters beginning with Doughty and Cole and ending with Bierstadt and Moran. Their fault was that they overspent themselves in carrying the panoramic scene beyond all logical limits. Their highly detailed manner of painting seemed tiresome when the broader technique of the French was introduced. Appraising them fairly today, we find them far less sentimental in a sentimental age than were the genre painters, and less so than a great many of the portrait painters. They were devotees of nature, which they portrayed honestly and often imaginatively. Truly American in their viewpoint, they were an important factor in the development of American culture in the nineteenth century. Before the Francophile period, Americans were satisfied with their landscape and the painters who recorded it.