The Hudson River School was not an actual school but a group of like-minded landscape painters who worked in a similar style from about 1825 to 1865. The growing number of crowded industrial cities in the East gave rise to an appreciation for pictures of the landscape untouched by man. The movement was fueled by the poetry of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) and by the conviction that God had given the American people an abundance of natural resources as a source of wealth and prosperity.
In the summer of 1825 Thomas Cole (1801-1848) took his first sketching trip up the Hudson River, an event that would prove momentous for the development of American landscape painting. Cole and artists such as Thomas Doughty (1793-1856) and Asher Brown Durand (1796-1886) began to depict the valley’s lakes and rocky gorges as well as the vast forests of the Catskill Mountains. They created works that were intended not only to memorialize the grandeur of the American landscape but also to serve as instruments for spiritual contemplation, as they believed that nature could heal the human spirit. Landscape painting came to dominate the art scene during this period, and the Hudson River School is credited with making landscape a legitimate subject for the canvas and for conveying a sense of place that was uniquely American.
Thomas Cole began his life in the cradle of the Industrial Revolution in Lancaster, England. At the age of seventeen, he immigrated to Philadelphia. After learning the rudiments of painting from an itinerant portraitist and working as an engraver, he studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
In 1825 Cole made his first trip up the Hudson River, completing sketches that would establish his reputation. By 1826 he had exhibited at the National Academy of Design and was well on his way to becoming the premier landscape painter of the early nineteenth century. Throughout his career, Cole continued his sojourns through the Catskills, Adirondacks, White Mountains, and Old Northwest Territory. “To walk with nature as a poet,” Cole wrote, “is the necessary condition of the perfect artist.”
Unlike other Hudson River painters, such as Asher B. Durand and John Kensett (1816-1872), Cole enjoyed exploring the raw intensity of nature. Establishing man’s insignificance before nature was always a priority. He used rough brushstrokes to capture the ruggedness of a scene and exaggerated gloom and brightness in a manner that was more emotional than realistic. Cole’s shadows are much darker than those in nature, and light often comes from undeterminable sources. These romantic contrasts exemplify the wild and overpowering sublime as described by the British statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke (1729-1797) a century before.
The Clove, Catskills is regarded as a masterpiece of the artist’s early career. The painting looks east toward the Berkshires in Massachusetts and is constructed using Cole’s familiar sharp, diagonal lines. The bold composition combines one hillside blanketed by the darkness of an impending storm and another hillside with foliage still brilliantly lit. Essentially, the picture is a study in contrasts: contorted, ravaged tree versus fresh vegetation; serenity versus advancing storm; brightness versus darkness; and life versus death.
Cole frequently employed nature’s cycles as a symbol of the secrets of creation and decay. Humans, if included at all, are often small, faintly detected details. Here, the lone Native American poised at the center of the canvas represents the nineteenth-century noble savage, locked in an earlier stage of development and thus closer to nature, he is more a part of nature “unsullied” by civilization.
After learning the rudiments of engraving in his father’s watch-making shop in New Jersey, Asher B. Durand apprenticed for five years with engraver Peter Maverick (1755-1811). He became interested in engraving bank notes, book illustrations, and portraits he had seen painted by John Vanderlyn (1775-1852), Thomas Sully (1783-1872), Charles Ingham (1796-1863), and others. By the time John Trumbull (1756-1843) commissioned him in 1820 to engrave his Declaration of Independence (1786–97), Durand had become known as the country’s best engraver.
After his 1840-41 trip abroad, Durand turned to landscape painting, working outdoors, which was unusual at the time. His development reflects a series of consciously defined solutions to such problems as the relationship of the artist to society and the significance of man to nature. Having an enduring concern with the visual formulation of a national ethos, Durand meant for his art to promote “the moral perfection of mankind.” While president of the National Academy of Design (1845-61), he published an important formal statement on his theory of art in nine Letters on Landscape Painting, which appeared in The Crayon in 1855.
Sunday Morning was painted for the noted collector W.T. Walters (1820–1894) of Baltimore. Since Durand was trained as an engraver, it is natural that fine precise line and a sense of tone should be the basis of his art; yet his painter’s eye led him toward ultra-clear light. The gnarled forms of foreground rocks and trees draw aside to reveal and set off the mirror like river, the undulating hills, and the endless space of an ideal world dominated by breathless and consecrated silence. John Durand described his father’s pictures as an “ideal of American scenery, which may be considered as the culminating point of the artist’s ability. . . . This work embodies all the beauty and poetry of nature, long and faithfully studied.”
Have you visited the Hudson River School Gallery yet? Do you have a favorite painting or artist? Why or why not? How do the paintings comment upon man vs. nature? What has been accurately recorded by the artists? What has been altered with artistic license?