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Hudson River School Painters

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Although Thomas Cole was the early influence on the Hudson River School painters and a sustained force, a key person in carrying on the tradition after Cole’s death was Asher Durand.  He was five years older than Cole and markedly altered his career from that of successful lithographer to landscape painter.  The degree of his initial financial sacrifice is apparent from the words of James Flexner, art historian: “Durand had become the only American who can be ranked among major nineteenth-century engravers.” (Wilder Image, 55)  However, Durand was willingly diverted because his interests had changed directions to fine-art painting.

Lumen Reed, who was a patron of Cole, became Durand’s patron, and to support Durand’s change in focus, found enough portrait commissions to support him including a series of portraits of U.S. Presidents.  At first, his paintings were all portraits, especially males, and were admired for their realistic, unembellished, capturing of the subjects’ features and personalities.  He also did figural works, some of them historical genre.  However, by the late 1830s, a decade after Cole’s venturing into landscape painting, Durand made the shift solely to the landscape painting for which Cole had laid the essential groundwork. 

Asher Durand, one of the founding members of the National Academy of Design in 1826, had been raised on a farm near Maplewood, New Jersey (then Jefferson Village), and, not strong enough for heavy labor, spent much of his childhood roaming around the countryside.  He met Thomas Cole in New York in the circle of friends around Luman Reed.

Cole and Durand began taking painting trips together, and it was said that a trip in 1837 to Schroon Lake in the Adirondacks was a deciding event in Durand’s conversion from printmaking to landscape painting.  With Cole, he shared feelings of being country-oriented at heart and trapped by professional demands that did not spring from his soul, and like Cole, he came to believe that nature’s beauty was an extension of God and that contemplation of nature brought the viewer closer to God.  However, Durand’s Hudson River School paintings more closely resembled the actual landscape than those of Thomas Cole, and Durand did not have the inner struggle of Cole between adopting to the New World approach to painting while feeling duty bound to maintain standards and subject matter of the Old World. 

When Cole died in 1848, Durand painted a memorial work that has become the signature canvas of the Hudson River School: Kindred Spirits (1849) The title was taken from the Seventh Sonnet by John Keats:  “Almost the highest bliss of human kind, When to thy haunts two kindred spirits flee.” (Wilton, 68) 

To achieve special dramatic effect in Kindred Spirits, Asher Durand used a technique characteristic of Hudson River School painters, which was selecting landscape structures from various locations and then juxtaposing them on canvas.  For this painting, Durand placed Kaaterskill Falls and Fawn’s Leap together as the upper and lower waterfall, whereas in fact, they were in the general location of each other but not nearby.  The painting also shows devices characteristic of Hudson River School artists to achieve a sense of the Sublime, which, of course, was central to the painting of Thomas Cole.  To demonstrate the insignificance of human beings in natural settings created by God, Durand dwarfs the figures of Cole and Bryant, who ironically were two of the most important human beings of their era. Also there is tremendous tension between the apparent ease and relaxed mode of their conversation and the danger posed by them standing over a precipice where one misstep would carry these men in formal dress to very ‘messy’ circumstances and sure death in the abyss far below.  Tension is everywhere: precarious heights contrast with deep valleys; luminous light counters pockets of foreboding darkness; and lush growing trees with soft foliage grow among jagged timber from fallen, dead trees.  The two men are deep in thought, but nature is churning, ready to obliterate them if they have even slight miscalculation.

Asher Durand, unlike Cole, did not have deep immersion in European art, but traveling in England and the Continent from 1840 to 1841 with three future Hudson River School painters: John Frederick Kensett, Thomas Prichard Rossiter, and John William Casilear, he had lasting influence from some of the things he observed.  However, the overall result was that he became more determined than ever to cast aside allusions to classical themes and depict subjects uniquely American.

After Cole’s death in 1848, Durand became increasingly independent in his approach to Hudson River landscape painting as he traveled the mountains and forests of the Hudson Valley and other parts of New England.  He dropped some of the allegorical interpretations he had learned from Cole and the Virgilian effects left over from European influences and focused much more on the realities of the landscape.  Letting the geology speak for itself, many of his later paintings, unlike Kindred Spirits, had few or no human figures.  Durand felt driven by the desire to study the actual particulars or details.  However, he never left behind his feelings of communing with nature and his underlying regard of the effort as a spiritual journey.   In his 1850s “Letters on Landscape Painting”, published in 1855 in Volume I of Crayon magazine, he wrote that a landscape was “great in proportion as it declares the glory of God and not the works of man.”

Thus, by the mid 1850s, Durand, with his distinct artistic vision, had finally emerged from the shadow of his mentor, Thomas Cole, as an influential artist in his own right and as the acknowledged key figure in American landscape painting.   Reinforcing this position was the fact that from 1846 to 1861, he served as President of the National Academy of Design, the New York entity that set the ‘official’ standards for American painting.  Making his unique mark on American landscape painting, he went on to inspire a second generation of Hudson River School artists to greater heights of artistic achievement.  A major part of his collection, over 500 artworks, plus sketches, prints, etc can be found at the New York Historical Society.

Thomas Cole also directly influenced the painting focus of Frederic Edwin Church, who lived and painted with Cole in Catskill, New York from 1844 to 1848.  Church was Cole's first and only student, and the only person to work with Cole in his studio.   Although he much admired Cole, and after Cole’s death dedicated a painting to him, To the Memory of Cole, Church soon adopted a much differing approach in treatment of subjects and composition.  He did not use landscape as an allegorical vehicle for elevating human behavior, and his treatment with line, shape and color, was much more controlled and orderly.  He loved the landscape for itself, and his paintings reflected his awe of reflected light, varying colors and diverse and often dramatic variations of shapes within that landscape.  But the overall effect was one of order and stirring of subliminal reactions.  For Church the Hudson River Valley came to have such deep personal meaning that he built his home and studio there on a farm he purchased near Hudson at Bee Craft Mountain.  The panoramic view was one he often depicted and one that played a big part in establishing him as one of America’s most often cited panoramic painters.

John Frederick Kensett stayed closer to Cole in his paintings than Church, but his palette was much cooler, and he was not taken with luminist lighting effects nor fascinated with extreme geological formations.  He painted “serene, slate-surfaced lakes and dignified pyramid-like mountains” (Wilton, 25) and by the 1850s did paintings that reflected none of the ‘busyness’ of brushwork of Thomas Cole.

Like Church and Kensett, Jasper Cropsey revered Cole, but unlike them, he did not markedly rebel against some of his basic philosophies.  Like Cole, his subjects were allegorical, were painted with feelings of reverence for ‘god in nature’, and many were seasonal landscapes, especially fall scenes highlighted with Luminist effect.   From 1847 to 1849, he lived in Italy where he too was much affected by the special light he found in the air and the serenity of countryside scenes including peasant life.  While working in Italy, he used the same studio in Rome that Cole had used earlier.


Several decades later, Jasper Cropsey, like many of the Hudson River painters, saw that his “star” was falling.  In 1869, work on his 29-room mansion was completed, but his plan to live there securely with his family supported by income from his paintings did not materialize.  The market was re-directed from romanticized landscape scenes to more realistic genre because of the carnage of the Civil War, which “had shattered the idea for many people that nature could solve mankind’s ills and evils.” (Kirk Johnson)  In a letter to his wife in early November 1880, while she was in New York City trying to raise money, Jasper Cropsey wrote of his troubles paying the bills, and how he had clumsily hammered both thumbs working on the house and could no longer paint.  He was 57, ill and nearly broke. "Will it ever grow better? Will the silver lining ever show itself?" Cropsey wrote. "Will good fortune ever smile on you and me again?" Three years later, the Cropseys sold Aladdin and moved into a smaller house in Hastings-on-Hudson, in Westchester County, where he lived until his death in 1900 at age 77. In the mid 1880s, Cropsey had auctioned off 67 paintings, receiving only $2,700., and three years later, the Cropseys moved into a modest home in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. Mrs. Cropsey died several years later.

The experience of Cropsey reflected the waning of interest in the Hudson River Valley style of painting with its basically realist interpretation of the landscape.  Replacing it were stylistic influences from France, brought over by the many Americans studying abroad, especially those at Barbizon learning Tonalism from Jean Baptiste Corot (1796-1875), and Impressionism at Giverny with Claude Monet (1840-1926).  With these movements, the influence of “art for arts sake” was taking hold, meaning the using of nature as the springboard for personal expression and experimentation with new techniques, especially with light and mood. By the end of the 19th century, the American art world was once again focused on that which was going on across the ocean.  It was the end of an era, and “never again would American landscape painting be so American.” (Goodyear 137). 

From the beginning of the 20th century until the 1970s, art historians tended to discredit the Hudson River School of landscape painting as being a momentary “blip” in the unfolding of American art from the Colonial period.  However, recognition of the key roles of these early Hudson River painters in our fine-art heritage is increasing. A turning point towards revived public interest can be linked to the 1972 of John K. Howat’s richly illustrated book, The Hudson River and Its Painters. Howat was the Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.  James Biddle, President of the National Trust for Historical Preservation, wrote the introduction, which included these words: “One of the most important contributions to the development of American artistic tradition is the work of a group of landscape painters of the last century known as the Hudson River School.” 

A collector very important to preservation of the ongoing accomplishments of the Hudson River School is Daniel Wadsworth (1771-1848), and the institution he established.  Wadsworth was a wealthy architect and amateur artist who met Thomas Cole in 1825.  The two became lifelong friends, and Wadsworth introduced Cole to Frederic Church, whose work he discovered in Hartford.  From 1844 to 1846 at Cole’s Catskill studio, Church then became the only artist ever to study with Cole.  Wadsworth bought paintings with the goal of elevating “American taste by sharing his growing collection with the public” (Glueck, B27).  In 1844, to facilitate exhibitions, he founded the Wadsworth Atheneum on the Main Street of Hartford, Connecticut.  “It was stocked with contemporary landscapes by Cole, Church and other painters who formed the vanguard of the Hudson River School.  . . .Their celebration of the discovery, exploration and settlement of wilderness land supported Wadsworth’s own vision of the country’s potential.” (Glueck, B27).   In 2003-2006, an exhibition of the collection toured with more than 60 Hudson School River paintings including 11 by Frederic Church, 13 by Thomas Cole and 5 by Albert Bierstadt.  The high attendance and positive response to this exhibition has had a major impact on raising the public’s appreciation of Hudson River School painting.

During this same period, Andrew Wilton and Tim Barringer organized as curators a highly attended touring museum exhibition, American Sublime, Landscape Painting in the United States 1820 – 1880.  They also wrote a much-lauded scholarly catalogue of nearly 300 pages abundant with color illustrations.  Ironically this exhibition, which so effectively renewed interest in painters that had been ‘put on the shelf’, originated at the Tate Britain Museum in London, meaning that one of the countries against whom the Hudson River painters rebelled, was key to bringing them ‘back to life.”  However, Thomas Cole likely would have applauded the exhibition’s origins because the Tate Britain houses a major collection of paintings by his favorite non-American painter, James M. W. Turner.


Written by Lonnie Pierson Dunbier, October 2006

Sources: biographies; Matthew Baigell, Dictionary of American Art, 1979;  Asher Durand, “Letters on Landscape Painting”, Crayon magazine, Vol. 1, serial articles cited in Sources for Chapter 4, History of American Painting, Volume III, by James Flexner;  S. Lane Faison, Jr. and Sally Mills, Introductory Essay,  Hudson Valley People, Albany to Yonkers, 1700-1900. Vassar College Art Gallery Exhibition Catalogue, 1982;  James Flexner, History of American Painting, Light of Distant Skies (Vol. III), 1969;  Grace Glueck, “Glory of Landscapes, Then and Now”, (Hudson River School Masterworks From the Wadsworth Atheneum), The New York Times, July 28, 2006, B 25 and 27;  Frank H. Goodyear, Jr., “American Landscape Painting, 1795-1875”, In this Academy: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts;  George Groce and David Wallace, The New York Historical Society’s Dictionary of Artists in America, 1564-1860, 1957;  John K. Howat, The Hudson River and Its Painters, 1972;  Kirk Johnson, “Vistas Revisited: Landscapes in Oil and Life”, The New York Times, May 27, 2001.

Kenneth Myers, The Catskills: Painters, Writers, and Tourists in the Mountains 1820-1895.  1987, p. 30 (See Hainsworth Collection, p. 18);  Barbara Novak and Elizabeth Ellis, Nineteenth Century American Painting: Thyssen Bornemiszma Collection, 1986;  Vincent Scully, New World Vision of Household Gods and Sacred Places: American Art & the Metropolitan Museum, 1988;  John Wilmerding, “American Waters: The Flow of the Imagination”, The Waters of America, exhibition catalogue of The Historic New Orleans Collection, 1984. (Stanton Frazar, Director);  Andrew Wilton and Tim Barringer, American Sublime: Landscape Painting in the United States, 1820 to 1880.  Exhibition Catalogue of The Tate Britain Museum;  Michael David Zellman, 300 Years of American Art (2 Volumes), 1986


Internet: (Luman Reed) (Asher Durand.  Essay, courtesy of the New York Historical Society) (Description of Cole’s studios at Cedar Grove in Catskill.) (Geographical description of the Hudson River Valley.) (Bread and Cheese Club) Boston Recorder and Telegraph, October 6, 1826. 
The Catskill Archive. (Mountain House Hotel and environs)


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