The Hudson River School artists paved the way for the movements known as Luminism and Epic Landscape. In contrast to the painters of the Hudson River School, the Luminists focused on landscapes that were less romantic and more concerned with detailed forms defined by light. Fitz Hugh Lane (1804-1865), Thomas Worthington Whittredge (1820-1910), and Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904) produced landscapes and seascapes in which the sky usually occupied at least half of the composition. They applied paint in such a way that brushstrokes are not visible. The Luminist landscapes and seascapes are ordered, calm, and tranquil, unlike the pictures of their Hudson River predecessors.
The Epic Landscape movement was inspired by the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, which created an unswerving fascination for the West. Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902), Frederic Church (1826-1900), and Thomas Moran (1837-1926) reflected this admiration for the expansiveness of the unsettled land in grandiose landscape paintings. They worked in exotic places, far removed from the Hudson River Valley and the Catskill Mountains that had inspired Cole and the earlier generation of the Hudson River School.
The Wreck of the “Roma” is by painter Fitz Hugh Lane, born in Gloucester, Massachusetts, as Nathaniel Rogers Lane. Fitz Hugh Lane becameAmerica’s preeminent marine painter. Crippled by a childhood disease, (probably polio) Lane walked with crutches throughout his life. He had no formal artistic training but learned printmaking and became a skilled lithographer in Boston. Influenced by local painter Robert Salmon (c. 1775 -1848-51), Lane progressed to executing marine studies in oil that captured light, atmosphere, the effects of weather and the time of day. He became a proponent of the Luminist style and was among the first artists to use photography to enhance his studio painting process.
Like Thomas Birch (1779-1851), Thomas Cole (1801-1848), and Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904), Lane painted several variations on the shipwreck theme. The subject was especially in vogue during the Romantic era, when violent storms at sea came to symbolize nature’s power over mankind. The Wreck of the “Roma,” as the ship is identified on the stern, could depict an actual event, though it has yet to be identified. The scene conveys a powerful sense of urgency, as men try to save goods and people from impending disaster.
Seal Rock is by Albert Bierstadt, whose family settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts, when he was a child. In 1853 he returned to Germany and studied at the Düsseldorf Academy with American painters Emanuel Gottleib Leutze (1816-1868) and Worthington Whittredge. He spent four years abroad studying and traveling to Switzerland, where he painted and sketched in the Alps. Bierstadt returned to the United States to pursue his newly learned techniques.
In 1859 Bierstadt made his first trip to the American West. By 1871, when he went for the third time, he was probably the best-known landscape painter in America. During this trip, he ventured out to the rugged and rocky Farallon Islands, which lie twenty-six miles west of San Francisco. He spent several days sketching the sea lions, birds, and relentless waves. Upon Bierstadt’s return, the San Francisco Bulletin reported, “He has procured sketches for paintings of the Isles and will doubtless give us a faithful likeness.” Over the next fifteen years, Bierstadt would produce at least six major paintings, including Seal Rock, from these sketches. All are romanticized scenes highlighting life’s tenacious ability to flourish in even the harshest environments.
What do you think of these painters that followed in the footsteps of the Hudson River School? Do you prefer one movement over the other? Do you have a favorite artist or painting of this period? Do you prefer the Hudson River Valley scenes, or the exotic locales?
Don’t forget to visit the seven Hudson River School paintings on loan until November 28, 2010 from The Metropolitan Museum of Art.