An Explosion of New Thought

26e. Hudson River School Artists

Autumn of the Hudson
Jasper Cropsey was among the second generation of artists from the Hudson River School. His Autumn on the Hudson, 1860, exhibits his preference for landscape paintings with colorful foliage.

If you have a painting on the wall of your home today, it may be because of the influence of a group of painters known as the Hudson River artists. While not as individually famous as many other American painters of the 19th century, as a group they had an important contribution to make. Before the 1800's most artists were successful only if they could attract the notice of a wealthy family who could afford to have portraits painted. Artists not engaged in painting likenesses could be commissioned to recreate famous historical scenes to hang in the homes of the rich. But with the invention of the daguerreotype, a precursor to the photograph, it absorbed much of the demand for portrait painting. However, a new American school of landscape painting was about to emerge along with a new form of public entertainment — the art museum. Middle class people were about to become excited about art.

Kindred Spirits, 1849
The artists of the Hudson River School were influenced less by European artists than by American artists and writers. Asher Durand's Kindred Spirits (1849) shows Thomas Cole and William Cullen Bryant, a poet of the age, discussing the beauty of nature.

Before 1830, there was no such thing as an art museum open to the public. Artists began to create work for the enjoyment of the Middle Class. Soon, it became as common to see a painting over the fireplace of a home as to find a Bible on the kitchen table. In 1839, the American Art Union was created to raise money for artists' salaries. At first, 814 members paid $5 a piece to join the union; a decade later, there were 19,000 members and $40,000 in payments to artists in a single year. One of these artists was the landscape painter, Thomas Cole.

Cole had no formal training as an artist. He could not draw a likeness, or any real figure for that matter. But he understood something his peers did not. While artists had been painting Americans for over a century, no one had painted America before — the mountains, streams, vistas, valleys, the limitless frontier. So nature became the subject of his canvas as America's national myth and new identity developed. Cole became the spiritual father of the wilderness landscape artists. His early subjects were the Hudson River Valley and the Catskill Mountains, full of beautiful scenery, waterfalls, and primal mists.

Thomas Cole, The Subsiding of the Waters of the Deluge, 1829
Thomas Cole's works, like The Subsiding of the Waters of the Deluge (1829), inspired his contemporaries as well as future American artists.

Thus was a bold style of "native" American art created. Other landscape painters such as Asher Brown Durand and Fitzhugh Lane, and the panoramists Frederick Edwin Church and Albert Bierstadt put on canvas not just the areas around upper New York State but also the diversity of beauty found in the far west, the Sierra Mountains, the Rockies, Latin America, and Mexico. They tried to express a love of nature and a feeling for man's place in it. At the same time, culture was becoming the province of all people not just a wealthy elite. Thus, as foreigners looked on in amazement, the Hudson River artists left European tastes behind and began to paint the magical beauty and awesome power of nature in America with extraordinary success.

On the Web
Toqueville and the Hudson River School
In Democracy in America, the Frenchman Tocqueville noted that Americans hardly gave a thought to the landscape — the wild open spaces of America. This University of Virginia website looks at the how the Hudson River School of landscape artists proved otherwise. Each of these pages are beautifully illustrated and accompany highly readable articles. Don't miss "Iconography of the Hudson River School" to find what hidden symbols lie in works of American art.
Nature and the American Identity
Landscape artists from the Hudson River School helped to define the American consciousness. This essay from the University of Virginia looks changing perceptions of nature in America, and how that was reflected and emphasized in the paintings of the early and mid-19th century.
The National Academy Museum and School of Fine Arts
The National Academy of Design underwent a name change to The National Academy Museum and School of Fine Arts in 1997, but it is the same institution that Hudson River School artists founded in 1825. This official website has some excellent articles on American art, many nicely illustrated. The navigation isn't pretty, but it's a good place to spend some time browsing.
Intimate Friends: Thomas Cole, Asher Durand, William Cullen Bryant
This overview of the "Intimate Friends" exhibition tells the story of three artisans whose works helped shape the American dream. Take a look at this introduction provided for visitors to the gallery to see the impact of Thomas Cole, Asher Durand, and William Cullen Bryant on the American psyche. Fully illustrated, this website brings a personal dimension to the artists of the 19th century.
The Serpent in the New Eden: Technology and the Hudson River School
Artsy people today aren't usually associated with high-tech wizards, or vice versa. But back the 19th century, the artists of the Hudson River School were on the cutting edge. Immerse yourself in this engaging essay from a student at St. John College to understand not only the fascination that the Hudson artists had with the technology of their day, but how the lines between art and science have changed since then. This isn't pretty, being all black-and-white, but it is well-documented and easy to read.
Albert Bierstadt changed the appearance and "location" of his landscapes to suit the painting — and prospective buyers.
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13,000 thousand people a month paid 25¢ to see Frederick Edwin Church's Heart of the Andes when it was displayed in New York in 1859.
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