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Hudson River School Painters

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Most of the artists went into the Hudson Valley in small groups or by themselves, and some of them such as Russell Smith (1812-1896) devoted whole summers to painting in the Valley.  It was regarded as a special male bonding time, and was not an activity where women artists were welcome.  In a tradition learned from European artists, they carried sketchbooks for preliminary work, which they later used in their studios for finished, usually large paintings.   For the First Generation of painters, oil and watercolor were the common sketch mediums to record realistic descriptions of the landscapes, which they supplemented with pencil notes about color, mood, and personal feelings.   However, by the 1850s most of these landscape painters were doing oil sketches out of doors, usually on board or panel or a small canvas.  Asher Durand adopted “a systematic practice of making studies in oil directly from nature” (Wilton, 71), a method Thomas Cole had begun in the 1820s and 30s.  He had then passed it onto Durand and Church, who became highly adept in that medium and completed hundreds of oil sketches.  Albert Bierstadt also had learned that method in Dusseldorf at the Academy, and found it very effective when traveling in the western United States.  In fact, many of these ‘sketches’ were later sold as ‘finished’ art.

The painters usually stayed for several days or longer in Catskill, on Catskill Creek, which flowed into the River near Hudson.   The town is on a ridge overlooking the River.  Lodging in Catskill included the Cozzens’ Hotel that had a dramatic view of the deep gorge facing West Point, the Catskill House, which was in the mountains; and Trenton Falls House, which was popular lodging with John Kensett, Jasper Cropsey, and DeWitt Clinton Boutelle whose subjects included Niagara Falls and the Catskill Mountains. 

Artists seeking wilderness vantage points and sweeping valley views often based themselves at The Catskill Mountain Hotel, built twelve miles outside of Catskill on a rock ledge on South Mountain in 1824.  It is the location where Asher Durand stayed when he did his sketching for Kindred Spirits, his famous memorial painting to Thomas Cole.  Getting there meant a daylong carriage ride from Catskill on a ‘zig-zag’ road landscape changing from broad valley to woodlands to steep ascent.  Two miles before reaching the top was a small shanty, which visitors were told was the sleeping place of the area's most famous inhabitant, Rip Van Winkle. Created in fiction by Washington Irving, part of Rip’s 100-year plus lifetime made him a ‘peer’ of the Hudson River School painters.  The hotel was constructed of wood, accommodated several hundred people, and was elegant and well furnished.  From the veranda was a radius view of about 50 miles that one visitor described as looking “like a distant Eden flooded with light.”  That same visitor, writing for the Boston Recorder and Telegraph, Oct 6., 1826, provided a description that explains why so many of the Hudson River painters such as Sanford Robinson Gifford in Catskill Mountain House, 1862, chose this place for sketching scenes they later transferred to their canvases:

The magnificent prospect from this mountain has been often described, and is too familiar to be repeated. It is indeed magnificent - and he who could look upon such a scene and not turn from it a better man, must truly have forgotten his better elements. An area wide enough for the territory of a nation lies beneath you like a picture, with the Hudson winding through like an inlaid vein of silver. The steamboats were just visible, and I cannot give you a better idea of them than is given in the ludicrous remark of someone, that "they looked like shoes with cigar's stuck in them".  The sun rose, and excuse me if I say much to my comfort; for although wrapped in my cloak, I was chilled through. The first beams which streamed across the landscape, looked like sprinklings of white; for at my elevation the hills all sunk to a level, and I puzzled myself to account for the long shadows. They soon diminished however, as the sun rose higher, and the beauty of the scene became transcendent. The rich colours of the "garniture of the earth" stole out and the hundred towns within the range of the eye glittered like studded gems over the scene.

A mile and a half from the hotel, accessible from a walking path, was the Kaaterskill Falls, a violent, fear-inducing drop of several hundred feet, followed by another drop of about 80 feet, with ragged, perpendicular sides, which according to the above quoted newspaper writer appeared “as if they had been rent asunder by an earthquake.”  This same reporter also provided insight about “staging” dramatic moments in nature.  He said that the waterfall was turned off and on by a miller, who charged for opening the sluice that created the high drama of the gushing water.   Then once the switch was activated the water poured “down its fearful path with the noise of a thunder peal, and another beyond leaping from a projecting shelf which seems to you more like an outlet of the clouds than an earthly level.  . . .It is a place for man to fall down and confess himself a worm.”  Another location nearby was Kaaterskill Clove, which was a popular painting location because it was the “largest of the gaps providing access to the mountain top and to areas west of the mountains.” (Myers, 30) The Smillie brothers, George Henry (1840-1921) and James David (1833-1909) each did paintings of Kaaterskill Clove.

Along the river, artists were offered many dramatic views of the Catskills such as those afforded by Storm King, the mountain near Newburgh, where George Washington had his headquarters during the Revolutionary War.   Storm King, often surrounded by mist and seemingly unassailable, was associated with sublime mysteries of nature and became one of the more popular painting subjects.   John Frederick Kensett’s views of that mountain included View of Storm King from Fort Putnam. Thomas Doughty (1793-1856) painted View of Highlands from Newburgh, New York, and Edmund C. Coates’ (1816-1871) oil painting, Washington’s Headquarters at Newburgh, 1867, has a south view of Washington’s headquarters towards Storm King.  Samuel Colman (1832-1920) painted Storm King on the Hudson in 1866.

West Point, the nation’s military academy, was on the River in a scenic position, and was often depicted in Hudson River School paintings such as Robert Havell Jr.’s (1793-1878) West Point from Fort Putnam; Samuel Lancaster Gerry’s (1813-1891) West Point, Hudson River; and View of the Highlands from West Point by John Ferguson Weir (1841-1926), who for many years was the instructor of art at West Point.  Another popular subject was Fort Montgomery, a military post.  David Johnson (1827-1908) painted The Hudson River from Fort Montgomery and Scene at Cold Spring, Hudson River.

In great contrast to the Hudson River’s flowing serenity was Niagara Falls, one of the most dramatic, tumultuous physical features on the American continent.  About Niagara Falls, Thomas Cole wrote: “And Niagara! That wonder of the world!---where the sublime and beautiful are bound together in an indissoluble chain.” (Wilton, 22)  Niagara was a subject of many Hudson River School paintings such as those by Thomas Pritchard Rossiter (1818-1871), Regis François Gignoux, (1816-1882), and Ferdinand Richardt (1819-1895). Niagara by Frederic Church in 1857 is regarded as one of the finest examples of the Hudson River School style.  The compositional perspective is directly over the falls, “just at the point where it is about to plunge into the gulf”. . . It is not a meditation on light, but on the power of nature manifested in the grandest geographical phenomena.  It is a human tribute to an omnipotent God whose power is most perfectly manifest in such wonders.” (Wilton, 29)

Of obvious interest to the painters was the River itself.  William Guy Wall (1792-?), one of the early Hudson River School painters, was especially known for his watercolor views and completed a series called Hudson River Portfolio.  Another physical feature often recorded was the visual beauty of the Valley with its lush grasses feeding grazing cattle and sometime rural figures in the distance such as in the paintings of George Clough (1825-1901).  Unlike Europe with civilizations dating back thousands of years, much of the American soil including many of these valley lands was a pervasive green because it was still uncultivated in the 19th Century.  Bucolic paintings especially associated with cattle grazing in these verdant fields were those by the brothers, William M. Hart  (1823-1894) and James McDougal Hart (1828-1901) and Charles Grant Beauregard (1856-1919). And when this green turned to autumn colors, the effect was striking, and unlike anything found in Europe where the weather was much less extreme than in America.   Underscoring the novelty of seasonal foliage in Hudson River painting was an experience of Jasper Cropsey, who, along with Thomas Cole, was especially known for his autumn paintings.  Cropsey spent seven years, 1856 to 1863, in England, where Queen Victoria granted him an audience because she was so impressed by his painting, Autumn on the Hudson River.  She expressed doubt about the reality of the colors, which were so foreign to her that for validation, Cropsey had samples of fall foliage sent to her from New England.


A major reason Hudson River painters were so influential on the general populace was that most of them had academic training that empowered them to create pictures that appealed successfully both to the eyes and the emotions.  It was also a combination that served many of them well financially.  After the death of the founder, Thomas Cole, many were national celebrities by the middle of the 19th Century.  Of their success, it was written that in those years, just before and after the Civil War, these men were “titans of the American art world, . . . considered heroes whose canvases, eagerly competed for, and commanded huge prices.   By the end of the 19th century, thanks to this revolutionary School, landscapes “became the most popular, most quintessentially American genre of painting.” (Goodyear 123,129)  And looking back, it is obvious that the strength of the movement was a major factor in the relocation of the centers of the art world changing from Baltimore and Philadelphia to New York City.

Although the name Hudson River School suggests confinement to a single place, many of its participants went far beyond Hudson River boundaries, especially by the mid-19th century when their artwork sales were strong.

Some of the artists whose paintings reflect foreign travel include George Inness, France; Jasper Cropsey, Italy, Scotland and England; William M. Hart; and William Trost Richards (1833-1905), England; Henry Augustus Ferguson; Louis Remy Mignot (1831-1870), and Martin Johnson Heade, South America; Albertus Del Orient Browere (1814-1887), Central America; Horace Wolcott Robbins (1842-1904), Jamaica; Frederic E. Church in the Arctic; and Samuel Colman (1832-1920) in Africa and the Middle East.

Some Hudson River School painters crossed the Mississippi River and became part of a first wave of Americans curious about the make-up of the landscape and economic possibilities in the American West.  Painters in this group, of whom many were tied to the Hudson River School, became known as the “Rocky Mountain School,” a name much too limiting geographically because many of them went much farther west than Colorado.  Albert Bierstadt is the most famous Hudson River School name associated with the westward group.  With his large-scale canvases suggesting never ending expansiveness and devices to stir emotions through dramatic atmospheric contrasts upon natural features, Bierstadt was also the best-known painter of the visual propaganda that sent thousands of persons into frontiers after the Civil War and successfully pressured politicians to fund westward expansion projects.  However, persons looking for exact likenesses to geography learned not to rely upon Bierstadt, who was known for composite views, arranged for affect rather than accuracy. 

John Frederick Kensett was the first of the Hudson River School artists to seek natural wonders in the American West.  In 1854, he went up the Mississippi River, and in 1857, explored the Missouri River.  Nine years later, in 1866, he traveled in Colorado with Worthington Whittredge, and in 1870 he went back to Colorado with Whittredge and Sanford Gifford.   Others who went West were Thomas Moran (1837-1926), Thomas Hill (1829-1908), Albertus Browere, Harrison Brown, (1831-1915), John Casilear, Samuel Colman, Henry Fenn, Martin Heade (1819-1904), George Inness, Thomas Moran, Alexander Wyant (1836-1892), Thomas Hiram Hotchkiss (1834-1869) and the brothers, George Henry Smillie and James David Smillie.

Closer to home the White Mountains of New Hampshire with their natural beauty, especially with Mount Washington, attracted many of the Hudson River School artists.  Among those painters are Thomas Hill, Harrison Bird Brown, William Trost Richards, Aaron Shattuck (1832-1928), James Hope (1818-1892) and James Suydam.  Others painted in the Allegheny and Berkshires mountains or along the shorelines of New Jersey and Rhode Island.  Maine, which was one of the last of the eastern states to be ‘civilized’, offered intriguing forest interiors and coastline views, especially with Monhegan Island and Casco Bay.  It was a favorite place of George Herbert McCord (1848-1909) who along with Martin Johnson Heade and George Inness also did a lot of painting in Florida.  Also painting in the South was Addison Richards (1820-1900) from Hudson, New York, who became one of the first artists to bring the beauty of the South to widespread public attention.

Although no evidence exists that the Hudson River School members ever met together as a cohesive group, organizations and individuals reinforced their mutual dedication to landscape painting.  In New York City in 1822, James Fenimore Cooper formed The Bread and Cheese Club with writers and artists to share their support of democratic principles of government and their love of the American landscape and promotion of the subject in literature and painting.  Members included William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878), prominent literary figure, and historical-genre painter Samuel S.F.B. Morse (1791-1872).  When Cooper left for Europe in 1826, Thomas Cole and Asher Durand joined The Sketch Club, which had replaced The Bread and Cheese Club in furthering landscape art.  At the gatherings, members did readings about landscape from American literature while artists and writers did interpretive sketching and writing.  John Kensett was a prominent member of The Century Club, which provided socializing and patronage opportunities for landscape painters and authors.  In 1857, many of the Hudson River School artists along with other painters moved into the Tenth Street Studio Building at 51 West 10th Street in Greenwich Village.  This place, which was both housing and studio space, “soon became a focus for painterly camaraderie, while also allowing patrons and critics to visit the workplaces”. (Wilton 47)  Among Hudson River School inhabitants of the Tenth Street Studio were Frederick Church, Albert Bierstadt, Martin Heade, Sanford Gifford, John Ferguson Weir, Jervis McEntee (1828-1891), Arthur Parton (1842-1914), Aaron Shattuck, and Richard William Hubbard (1816-1888).

Also the art gallery of prominent New York dry-goods merchant Luman Reed, a native of Coxsackie, New York, played a significant role in bringing together Hudson River School painters.  In a period of six years, Reed had assembled a significant collection of European and American art, which he displayed in a two-room gallery in his lower Manhattan home on Greenwich Street.  The place was both opened to the public and became a meeting and socializing place for artists and patrons and writers, with a frequent topic being the direction of American art.  This gallery played a key role in the Hudson River School because it was the meeting place of Thomas Cole and Asher Durand.  And, under Reed’s patronage, Thomas Cole painted The Course of Empire (1833-36), an allegorical series about human desecration of their land.  In terms of time and energy spent on a single commission, it was the biggest project of his career, and was completed a decade after he had begun the painting activities that associate his name with founding the Hudson River School.

By the end of the 19th Century, the Hudson River Valley was populated with a combination of very wealthy descendants of early Dutch, English and Scottish settlers, and New York residents, whose finances allowed them a second home with a bucolic river view.   Newly built, these homes with bare walls provided an opening market for regional landscape painters.  Among collectors were members of the Vanderbilt and Roosevelt families.   In turn, some of the artists prospered well enough to become their neighbors, a proximity which often led to more painting sales.

In 1865, Albert Bierstadt built a 35-room home on the Hudson River near New York City.  He named it “Malkasten”, which was German for ‘paint box’.  In 1870, at Olana near Hudson, Frederic Edwin Church moved into his Persian and Moorish style house designed by Calvert Vaux, prominent architect.  Overlooking the river, Olana was filled with Old Master paintings, landscapes by Claude Lorrain and Salvator Rosa, and exotic furnishings from his wide-ranging travels.  Near Warwick, in 1869, Jasper Cropsey’s 29-room home, “Aladdin”, that he designed was completed.


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