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Hudson River School Painters

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America’s earliest group of dedicated landscape painters is The Hudson River School, about 60 painters active from the 1820s and lasting into the 1870s.  Given the title by outsiders, participating artists carry the description because their careers reflect a critical turning point in American art. According to Worthington Whittredge (1820-1910), one of the leading Hudson School painters, the name was first used by a New York Tribune review by Clarence Cook, a critic hostile to the painters who chided them for being ‘provincial and lazy’ because they seemed unwilling to go farther than the Hudson River Valley with its close proximity to their New York studios.

Hudson River School painters never formalized their loose association with written guidelines, membership lists, regular meeting times, etc., and the word ‘school’ is a bit deceptive because the group as an ‘entity’ was never associated with an institution.  However, in a broader sense, the term is apt because participants did share a school of thought or commonalities about their subject matter and its treatment.

In spite of a somewhat “quirky” title, the Hudson River School was revolutionary because, for the first time, landscape was showcased as a serious subject for fine-art painting.  Until then, it had appeared as backdrops in portraits, history and religious works, or in survey sketches and mapmakers' drawings.  Another ‘first’ was that the School focused the public’s attention on the unique qualities of their native landscape, especially as it differed in clarity of light and abundant wilderness areas from the much more inhabited European landscape.  Through special techniques that stirred emotional responses to the land, Hudson River painters generated strong patriotism, which increasingly led to diminishment of the quiet wilderness areas that were celebrated in their paintings.

To describe variances within the movement, art historians have divided the Hudson River School painters into categories of First Generation and Second Generation.  These divisions help when describing age differences, and progression in styles, philosophy, and geography, but they can only be applied generally because many of the painters, in some way, overlap into both ‘generations’.   In varying degrees, Thomas Cole (1801-1848), the founder, influenced all of them, even after his death.  Some artists such as Jasper Francis Cropsey (1823-1900) were full-fledged disciples of Cole and reinforced Cole’s philosophy of God in nature.  Others such as Asher Brown Durand (1796-1886), who became the leading figure of the movement after Cole’s death, went back and forth between full-scale, emotion-driven paintings to less subjective work.  John Frederick Kensett (1818-1872) and his admirers were at the other end of the spectrum in that they tended to depict the land to convey its beauty; in other words, they let the subject speak for itself minus layers of philosophical or religious interpretation.  Other big-name artists in each of the ‘generations’ in addition to Cole, Cropsey and Kensett, and Durand were Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900); Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902); Sanford Robinson Gifford (1823-1880); and Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904).


Regardless of their personal commitment to Cole, something all Hudson River School artists shared was a willingness to replace the comforts of their studios for hiking into wilderness areas, especially in the Catskill Mountains, to sketch on site.  Most of the painters were based in New York City from where they had easy proximity to the Hudson River Valley.  Going into this valley in the early and mid 1800s with their sketchpads, these artists, most of them formally trained, were symbolically discarding shackles of academia.  It was their ‘declaration of independence’ and a goodbye to prevailing strictures that only history, allegory, portraiture and religion were fit subjects for professional painters. 

The headwaters of the River are due north of Albany, and the River runs southward along a valley about 300 miles in length through New York City to the Atlantic Ocean.   For artists, and of course, for tourists, the region has fascinating geological diversity including verdant rolling hills, dramatic mountain vistas, waterfalls, sandy beaches and wide-open panoramic views. The Middle Valley spreads from Newburgh to Rhinebeck in Ulster and Dutchess counties; and the Upper Hudson Valley goes north to Chatham in Columbia County on the west.  Today the Lower Hudson Valley includes towns and cities that have grown such as Yonkers, Nyack, Newburgh and Beacon in Rockland, Orange, Westchester and Putnam counties; North from Albany the Hudson River leaves the Valley and flows through Saratoga, the high peak area of the Adirondacks, and then to Lake George and on to join the Niagara River on Niagara Falls---all locations much explored by the Hudson River School painters.

The River with its own beauty and its configurations in valleys and rock formations perpetuated the 19th-century belief that American land was a special gift of the Creator.  Also, the River for which the Hudson River School painters were named was an early national symbol of America’s present and future because at that time, it was the nation’s most important river for agriculture, for transportation to market of farm and industrial products, and for navigability to international markets through the Great Lakes on the north and the Atlantic Ocean at New York City.  It was also the main water route between the East Coast and points westward, especially with the 1825 completion of the Erie Canal.  Of that turning point in American history, it was written:  “The East was now linked to the West, and New York City crowned King of the United States”.  (Flexner, History, 3)  In American landscape painting, Henry Ary (1807-1859), a lesser-known Hudson River School painter, was one of the first of that group to note along the River the growing presence of commerce and industry, a tangible result of the Erie Canal. 

In addition to the opening of the Erie Canal, the River had links historically to the eastern United States with major transportation advances, which fed the economy in the 17th and early 18th centuries before artists ‘discovered’ the area.   In 1609, Englishman, Captain Henry Hudson and his crew were the first recorded persons in western history to sail up the river as far as Albany and likely beyond.  Commanding the ship, Half Moon, he was in the service of the Dutch East India Company searching for a route to China.  His crew was an unruly combination of English and Dutch sailors, a mix that became the ethnic base for Hudson River Valley settlement of persons who prospered in its fertile, richly green valleys.

Following the Revolutionary War and leading to economic recovery were several events tied to the River.  Between 1785 and 1787, a sloop named Experiment traveled round trip from Albany to Canton, China and back via Cape Horn, loaded with trading goods, and this ship was the “first to make a direct voyage from the United States to China. (Faison, 12)  In 1807, several decades before artists found it as a subject of much interest, the River ushered in the steamboat era in America with Robert Fulton’s (1765-1815) steamboat, the Clermont, which successfully made a 32-hour trip from New York City to Albany on August 11, 1807.   The boat was named for the estate of Robert R. Livingston, Jr., Fulton’s partner, an inventor, and one of the Nation’s founding fathers.  He was also President of the New York Society for the Promotion of the Arts.

Beginning in 1817, Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877) started developing a fleet of coastal steam-powered boats, which he served as Captain and which earned him the nickname of “Commodore”.  In this capacity, he met many travelers to the area including, of course, the painters whose names became associated with the Hudson River School.  Eventually he overthrew the monopoly that Fulton and Livingston had on river traffic between New York and Albany.

Land transportation along the Hudson Valley markedly improved in the early 19th century with the successful completion of the Erie Canal, a feat successfully promoted by DeWitt Clinton (1769-1828).  He was a prominent New York political figure, and achieving heroic status because of the Canal, was elected governor of New York.  In fact, he was so appreciated that many babies were named for him, including future Hudson River School painter De Witt Clinton Boutelle (1820-1884).  In 1831, a few years after artists began regular visits to the Valley, Clinton introduced his DeWitt Clinton locomotive, which was the entry of railroad traffic through the Hudson Valley.


The theory of the Sublime was the guiding philosophy that inspired Thomas Cole and his followers to sketch and paint along the Hudson River and its environs.  Subscribing to this concept meant believing that God had created the land, and that human beings could commune with that God by prescribed reverential behavior.  In order to succeed, one must be quiet, alone and far away from civilization in unspoiled Nature.  Experiencing the Sublime, one then could and should express their exalted feelings through paintings or literature that, in turn, inspired others to believe that the landscape had supernatural powers.  In other words, having a Sublime experience whose source was the wilderness landscape meant the recipient was elevated personally and aesthetically above most of humanity, and was then duty-bound to share the wonders of the experience so that other might be ‘pulled up’ as well.  A sublime experience was an ultimate experience, and much more complex than the limiting descriptions of ‘beautiful’ or ‘picturesque’.

To convey sublimity, Hudson-River painters depicted landscape features as so overpowering they inspired shudders of fear and feelings of awe, both at the enormity of the divine creation and uncertainty as to its resolution.  One of the most effective techniques was Romanticism, which was the combining of realism with exaggeration such as distortion of natural forms as in eerie forest interiors with much grotesquely shaped dead wood, tree trunks split by lightening, and waterfalls cutting excessively jagged paths through rock.  Other Romantic devices were destabilizing contrasts of light and dark, rich color and dark tones, and rough and smooth textures.  Among Hudson River painters known for Romanticism are German immigrant Johann Hermann Carmiencke (1810-1867); New Yorker, Henry Augustus Ferguson (1845-1911); widely traveled William Louis Sonntag (1822-1900), and river painter Frederic Rondel (1826-1892).

A part of Romanticism is Luminism, an exaggeration device whereby the effects of light are manipulated so that it appears to be saturating or atmospheric, and so that certain natural forms seem ‘stage lit’.  Many Hudson River School painters showed a fascination with Luminism because of their generally held view that the natural light, especially of sunrise and sunset, on the American wilderness was clearer and more radiant than the counterparts of England and the European continent.  Expressing this idea gave American painters a feeling of superiority about their subject matter.  Also creating this special light on canvas had the potential of spiritually transporting the artist and viewers to the ‘Source’, meaning the place of origination of the emanating light from where one could more clearly understand the universe.  Painters noted especially for Luminism are Martin Johnson Heade , Sanford Gifford (1823-1880), George Inness (1824-1894) Albert Bierstadt, John William Casilear (1811-1893), Francis Augustus Silva (1835-1886), James Augustus Suydam (1819-1865) and Jasper Francis Cropsey.

Because of the alignment with deity and inspiration that transcended every day life, Hudson River School paintings were perceived as much more than just a luxury or poetic expression.   Paintings of the School became an essential part of many mid to late 19th-century American households.   Reinforcing celebration of the natural beauty of America by paintings was literature.  Crayon magazine, a widely read art journal published between 1855 and 1861, promoted the idea that nature was a healing place for the human spirit.  For this publication Asher Durand wrote a series called  “Letters on Landscape Painting”, which outlined his view of allegorical principles characteristic of the Hudson River School.  His ideas corresponded with the dominant men of literature of that era, all promoting the idea that nature and God were one.  In his “Letters on Landscape Painting” for an 1855 edition of Crayon, magazine, he espoused these theories and urged American landscape painters to develop their own style and to go directly into nature and paint, leaving behind the studio tradition and narrative-theme reliance of European landscape painters.

Of that period, eminent literary figures and painters were reinforcing each other with theories of the sublime, as well as related ideas of transcendentalism and pantheism.   Among the men of letters were Ralph Waldo Emerson, James Fennimore Cooper, William Cullen Bryant and Washington Irving.   Cooper wrote romantic stories of frontier settlement in his ‘leather stocking novels’ including The Last of the Mohicans; Washington Irving, who lived in the Hudson Valley, wrote his famous Catskill stories of Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow; and William Cullen Bryant wrote Picturesque America, a book with many Hudson River references that was illustrated by Harry Fenn (1845-1911).  Many of these writings, especially by Cooper and Irving, had ‘sublime’ character encounters with superstitious, fear-provoking, Old World myths transferred to their lives in the Catskill Mountains.  They also contained romanticized, mysterious descriptions of the Hudson River Valley.  On one of his rambling walks, Rip Van Winkle saw “the lordly Hudson, far, far, below him, moving on its silent but majestic course, . . . he looked down into a deep mountain glen, wild, lonely and shagged, the bottom filled with fragments from the impending cliffs,” (Wilton 20-21). 

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