This post comes to us from Rena Tobey, Curatorial Intern.
The long summer days are here, and your thoughts may have turned to spending some time in nature, sketchbook in hand. Another alternative is to visit the Henry & Sharon Martin Gallery at the Museum. Here, you can immerse in nature as close by as New Haven and as far away as the California.
In the 1800s, the Hudson River School artists traveled to their favorite scenic spots in the Catskill, Adirondack Mountains and beyond, seeking out the same scenery we enjoy today. Over the winter months in their studios, they transformed their sketches into luminous landscapes that had come to represent America and its abundant natural resources.
Thomas Cole, the founding father of the Hudson River School, imbues the land with even more power. He inserted symbols and figures that represented philosophical ideas he hoped would sway his viewers’ beliefs and actions.
Cole came to the United States at 17 from industrialized England. He knew first-hand how modernization and urbanization could devastate open space and pollute cities. When he made his first trip up New York’s Hudson River in 1825, he was awed by the vast beauty of the land that was on the cusp of change. He believed Americans were at a decision-point. What would the future be like in this land?
What the artist actually saw and what he chose to paint present the different choices. In 1807, the steamboat was invented, changing the navigation of rivers. Now, timetables, not the wind and tides, dictated travel. Maybe you’ve taken a daytrip during the weekend to break the routine of your life. Two hundred years ago, people were no different. They seized the opportunity to get out of New York City and into nature—for a picnic, a stroll in the woods—and still get back home the same day.
In The Clove, Catskills, Cole shows us a pristine, undisturbed world. But in actuality, the area was over-run by hotels, places for a snack or tea, hiking trails, and tourists, tourists everywhere. Cole chose to show the land at its wildest, most undisturbed state. You’ll have to go into the gallery to make this out—Cole places one figure at the center foreground, standing on that sun-blanched rock. The Native American, now just a shadow, is a tiny human representative in Cole’s nature. Indians were also recognized emblems of the New World America, considered closer to the land than Europeans.
In the 19th century, leading thinkers argued about the relationship of humans to nature. Advocates of “progress” believed that “man”, using the term of the day, could conquer nature. Romantics, who sought out the spiritual, emotional, and interior experience, believed that nature’s power was immeasurable, far exceeding what man could conceive. Cole was a Romantic. Which are you?
The artist shows his diminutive figure immersed in and over-powered by the vastness of nature. Yet from first-hand experience, Cole knew that humans could devastate the land, and his paintings serve as a plea to Americans to make different choices than the English. The opportunity to preserve the land was still possible in this New Eden.
The blasted tree Cole used in this early painting became the symbol for this entreaty he regularly repeated. You can’t miss that tree, starkly highlighted in the immediate right foreground. The foreground of a landscape, in the European tradition, represents the present as the section closest to the viewer. Cole places that tree where it cannot be avoided. He repeats the motif several times in the painting. See how many you can find.
The symbol represents the cycle of nature—death coexists with growing, verdant, abundant life. Cole also uses the blasted tree as a warning. We, the viewers, are responsible for nature, to serve and cherish, not destroy it, as had already happened in his homeland.
This emblem emerged from the European landscape tradition Cole studied. Salvator Rosa, a 17th-century Italian painter, used the symbol in works like Rocky Landscape with a Huntsman and Warriors, with the same moralistic purposes—a reminder that life and death are all part of a natural cycle. His Dutch contemporary Jacob van Ruisdael gave us the name ‘blasted’ to describe the tree, as seen in Landscape with a Blasted Tree Near a House.
Cole profoundly influenced a generation of artists, who continued to acknowledge not only his mastery, but also the messages he preached so ardently. Take a look at how many paintings in the Martin Gallery use the blasted tree. Note how Thomas Moran, known for his majestic scenes of the American West, uses the symbol in his painting The Wilds of Lake Superior. There, on the right side, you will see it in two forms: one chopped down, its stump ravaged by weather and time, and the other a still-standing, skeletal tree affected by nature, not humans.
John Kensett, another prominent, second-generation Hudson River School artist, displays more subtlety than Cole did. His blasted tree, also in the right foreground of Rondout Creek, dances with the light. Using gray, blue, and white paint strokes, Kensett depicts lichen growing up the bare bark, accentuating the tree shedding its last leaves, in his nod to Thomas Cole.
Perhaps unintentionally, contemporary artist Valerie Hegarty incorporates a blasted tree into her work Melted West Rock with Branches. You can’t miss it in the gallery, as the twisted, anguished branches emerge out of the man-made frame, as if in an act of nature’s defiance. Hegarty counteracts the idea of the artist as maker, by focusing on destruction, including demolishing myths. She takes on a heroic, idealized landscape like Frederic Edwin Church”s West Rock, New Haven and literally depicts the devastation of nature that Cole feared. Reproducing Church’s scene and then destroying it by burning, damage, melting, and loss, the energized power belongs to the gnarled branches.
Christopher Pagliuco, author of “The Great Escape of Edward Whalley and William Goffe, Smuggled Through Connecticut,” wrote about the Church and Hegarty works in The Hartford Courant on June 27, 2013. He laments the deterioration of West Rock Ridge State Park, with its dilapidated man-made structures and graffiti-marred nature. He sees these paired works in the NBMAA collection as part of the ongoing arguments about America and its future. Thomas Cole left us his answer in his monumental masterwork series of five paintings The Course of Empire. For Cole, the human relationship to nature is cyclical, emerging from a ‘savage state’, and moving through an Arcadian ideal, the consummation of civilization and the destruction of empire to desolation, only to cycle all over again.
What role can humans play to prevent further environmental destruction? Does the attempt to preserve nature actually suggest that humans can control it? In the Martin Gallery, these debates rage on. Come join in.