Hudson River School
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Hudson River School


 
Albert Bierstadt

Frederick Church

Thomas Cole

Asher B. Durand

Martin Johnson Heade

George Inness

John F. Kensett

(Thomas Moran)


 

Books on the Hudson River School

Painters of Faith
by Gene Veith.

American Paradise: The World of the Hudson River School
Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition catalog.

Hudson River School
by Trewin Copplestone.

Knights of the Brush: The Hudson River School and the Moral Landscape
by Frederick Turner.

All That Is Glorious Around Us: Paintings from the Hudson River School
by John Driscoll.

The Hudson River School
by Louise Minks.


 

The Hudson River School

"It is a truth rarely in need of mention that works of art have an identity as material objects - that they are made of paint and bronze and cloth and wood. In recent times, to be sure, substance has asserted itself as subject, so that works of visual art often refer internally to the material conditions of their realization, and are about what they are made of. It would be false to ascribe so contemporary an aesthetic to the paintings of the Hudson River School, as it was somewhat derisively labeled, but it is also impossible not to be struck by their status as furniture - as objects of interior decoration that summon up the other components of domestic embellishment with which they converse in the plush language of comfort. With their oleaginous and varnished surfaces, as glowing as buffed mahogany, their heavily carved and gilded frames, their academic authority, their opulence verging at times on corpulence, these paintings surround themselves with tacit parlors and salons. They belong in the company of stuffed and tufted ottomans and Turkish carpets, of ormolu hardware and brass lamps, of fringed burgundy velvet and luminous damask, and rosewood pianofortes or elaborately fretted harmoniums on which accomplished daughters or young wives fingered hymns or songs of sweet melancholy concerning lost or distant loves. The scenes these paintings represent occupy those rooms of reassuringly thick prosperity like thought balloons, indoor embodiments of outdoor realities that correspond, in every spiritual particular, to the spaces in which they are suspended. The outdoors shows God's grace shed upon the American landscape as the indoors reflects that same grace bestowed in the medium of material success. As scenes and things at once, the Hudson River paintings communicate a double affirmation of divine blessing. They constitute the American wing of the Protestant ethic given cultural expression. They radiate self-congratulation and an almost cosmic complacency.

"Writing of Claude Lorrain, an artist against whom the Hudson River painters measured themselves on their excursions abroad, Roger Fry said, "Claude's view of landscape is false to nature in that it is entirely anthropocentric. His trees exist for pleasant shade; his peasants to give us the illusion of pastoral life, not to toil for a living. His world is not to be lived in, only to be looked at in a mood of pleasing melancholy or suave revery." But I wonder if there ever was a form of landscape painting that is not "false" in this sense. The landscapes we represent are in effect texts in which our feelings and beliefs about nature, and hence about ourselves as inside and outside nature, are inscribed. According to Wen Fong, Travelers in a Wintry Forest, a twelfth-century Chinese painting after Li Ch'eng, transmits the proposition that "recluse scholars living in the mountains have rediscovered in nature a moral order lost in the human world." No such contrast is pointed in the Hudson River paintings, of course, because the natural and the social order for them were one - two modalities of divine presence in American reality. Through the metaphysical window of an oil painting its owner could see the face of God and almost hear the voice of God in the cataracts and echoing precipices of Catskill Mountain scenery. In an odd way, the paintings, in bringing God into the living rooms of the land, have almost the sacred office of religious icons. It says a great deal about the American mind in the early mid-nineteenth century that religious art took the form of landscapes that were Edenic, majestic, gorgeous and bombastic, rather than historical scenes of biblical enactment. It says a great deal as well about the mirror function of landscape painting that the transfigurative vistas of the Hudson River painters gave way, after the Civil War, to something more intimate and less awesome - to farms, for example, where sunsets mean the end of the day's labor, as the workman trudges homeward through diffuse illumination, rather than extravagant timberlands above which God addresses the nation through spectacular cloud formations flamboyantly lit up with cadmium reds and oranges.

These were works of high Romanticism, illustrations, so to speak, of texts such as Coleridge's "Frost at Midnight":

By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags
Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds,
Which image in their bulk both lakes and shores
And mountain crags: so shalt thou see and hear
The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
Of that eternal language, which thy God
Utters.

"The true province of landscape art," wrote Asher B. Durand, who was the leader of this school after the death of its founder, Thomas Cole, and in any case perhaps the paradigmatic Hudson River painter, "is the work of God in the visible creation, independent of man." Earlier he had written, "The external appearance of this our dwelling place is fraught with lessons of high and holy meaning, only surpassed by the light of Revelation." The crowds surging through the American Wing of New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art to admire the marvelous and timely exhibition of Hudson River art are no doubt gripped by its visions of natural beauty in sites not greatly altered today, despite Grossinger's and Lake George Village. Still, one misses the point if one sees these paintings only or even chiefly as transcriptions after nature. They are, with qualification, incidentally that. It is not altogether wrong to say, as John K. Howat, the curator of the show does in an interview in The New York Times, that "you can practically smell the light." The illusion of transcriptional exactitude was only a means to an end. The end was to have been a work "imbued," according to Durand, "with that indefinable quality recognized as sentiment or expression which distinguishes the true landscape from the mere sensual and striking picture." That is a beautiful formulation of a distinction between a visual text and a mere picture, and it is my sense that the message that this is God's country must still come through to an audience still responsive to the sentimental assurances of "divine visual language." It is a message transmitted in the vocabulary of waterfalls and rushing streams, storm clouds and florid dawns, massed foliage and blasted tree trunks. It is this, I think, that must explain the popularity of the show rather than the message Howat believes the paintings communicate to us: "The natural environment is something we have to preserve."

"It was the unmistakable rhetoric of these landscapes that caused a later generation of American artists to turn their back on a style that to them rang false in a different sense of the term than Roger Fry's. The American Pre-Raphaelites, who drew their artistic agenda from Ruskin's philosophy of "truth to Nature," dismissed these paintings exactly in the name of truth, and it is their insistent edification, their almost sermonic elevatedness, that makes some of us uncomfortable today. They were very good painters, many of them, but there is something of the PTL ministry in their aggregate material optimism that makes one wince makes one want to find falsity in their works in the way one is grateful to find moral sleaziness in the television evangelists.

"Consider Kindred Spirits, a famous memorial to Thomas Cole executed the year after Cole's death by Asher Durand. It shows two men in a characteristic Catskill landscape - the poet William Cullen Bryant and Cole himself. Bryant's head is uncovered, surely in a gesture of reverence before the scenery being displayed by Cole. The scene itself is composed of two sites, perhaps as famous as the two men themselves: Kaaterskill Falls and the Kaaterskill Clove - a dramatic gorge which was, together with the falls, a favored motif. Now, it is altogether possible that Cole and Bryant stood upon that cantilevered rock. But it is not at all possible that they could have seen Kaaterskill Falls and the Kaaterskill Clove when they did so, for a perspective in which the two could be seen together is, as Barbara Buff writes, "geologically impossible." I am uncertain as to how this objective falsehood is to be interpreted. Cole himself had written, "The most lovely and perfect parts of Nature may be brought together, and combined in a whole that shall surpass in beauty and effect any picture painted from a single view." It would be anachronistic to imagine Cole depicted as pointing to an impossible conjunction as a tribute to his philosophy of art - Kindred Spirits would in that case prefigure Cubism. Rather, I think, the painting carries forward Cole's view that it is all right, even necessary, to falsify observed nature in the name of some higher truth. And Durand's tribute does aim at some higher truth, at the cost of falsehood before which, as Cole put it, "Time [would] draw a veil over the common details." Cole is pointing perhaps to two birds, soaring in the sublimity of God's fearful space, as metaphors, maybe, for poetic and painterly vision taking wing over mere detail. Durand thought of himself as rendering things as they are, but it remained consistent with his enterprise to regiment and rearrange visual detail in the interests of some spiritually convincing message. The rhetoric was too clamorous to fade when it no longer communicated to an audience willing to believe in it, and the veil of time made it, rather than the common details, what one finally saw. The Pre-Raphaelites turned from such work with a kind of moral revulsion. For them it became enough to paint a single twig, a pair of acorns, a nest of eggs or just one flower with botanical propriety.

"The expression "divine visual language" comes from the great essay on vision by Bishop George Berkeley, and I derive a certain satisfaction from the fact that one of the later members of the Hudson River School, Worthington Whittredge, should have painted Second Beach, Newport at Newport, Rhode Island, with the famous Hanging Rocks that students of the history of philosophy will identify as the site where Berkeley's Alciphron is set. Berkeley had come to Newport for complicated and improbable reasons, and his former house stands today not far from the Hanging Rocks. Worthington has composed a horizontal and rather soft meditative picture, suitable to the circumstance - that what had once been the scene of theological speculation had become a place of recreation. It is instructive to compare the language God spoke in Rhode Island in 1732 with that which He spoke in New York in 1849. For Berkeley, God "daily speaks to our senses in a manifest and clear dialect." By this Berkeley meant that the sensed qualities of things are signs for other qualities as yet unsensed, and that in learning to read what Durand later called "the great book of nature" we come to learn which things are good for us and which we must avoid. Berkeley saw the world as a textbook of useful instructions. Durand saw it as a set of romantic engravings for an inspirational epic. By Durand's time, God was no longer in the things we sense daily, but spoke out only to those prepared to visit wild sublime formations. So the Hudson River artist sought out the most dramatic locations - the most stupefying heights and vistas, rendering the American landscape in the idiom of glory and power. It was his missionary undertaking to bring this terrifying beauty back in the form of engravings or chromolithographs - or to those who could afford them, paintings of an increasing dimension and grandeur - for the exaltation of patriots who saw in the effusions of a prodigal nature the greatness of American destiny.

"Whittredge's Second Beach, Newport was done in 1878-80, and its quietness is almost shattering. One has the sense that God withdrew from the Catskills, and that artists had to travel to further and more inaccessible places to hear His voice at all. Paintings grew larger and larger, as if turning up the volume to catch the fading voice diminishing in the whirlwinds. The works of Church and Bierstadt impress us as having increased the scale in order to compensate for reluctant credibilities. Viewers must increasingly have had the sense that they were being manipulated, marvelous as the painting often was. After all, it was in the highest, most glacial mountaintops that Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God in 1883 through the persona of Zarathustra. It is very touching that the seashore Whittredge painted shows holiday-makers wading in gentle tides, washing quietly over the curved shore, with the Hanging Rocks as a brooding presence to which their backs are turned. The sky is cheery and the clouds are soft presences rather than heavenly syllables. God has quite withdrawn from Newport, as He quite withdrew from American landscapes when the paintings of the Hudson River School subsided into furniture and became all but forgotten.

"There would be a kind of justice if these painters, nearly inaccessible to us through collisions in taste, should have a second life as reminders of the natural realities we visit today for the foliage and the waters. And there would be an irony if the strident natural theology were really made invisible and we should see in the works a world no longer powerful but at our mercy ~ up to us to defend and preserve rather than be thrilled by. But I doubt this is the message that comes through. Natural piety has not for some time been an available virtue for sophisticated sensibilities. But the artists of the Hudson River School were not painting for moral minimalists. There are those, of course, defined by formalist aesthetics, who are deaf to the tones of prayer in these works and see them simply in terms of spatialities and scales later taken up in New York painting. But for me, as for the enthusiastic visitors to the Met these days, these paintings belong to that genre of American overstatement Tocqueville identified as the other face of the practicality that defines us as a people. It is how we respond to that overstatement that determines what these paintings mean to us today."

- From Arthur Danto, "Encounters & Reflections: Art in the Historical Present"





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