Our first national artistic movement, the Hudson River School provided a balm to a public searching for the concrete, the real, and the beautiful in an age of increasing abstraction. It takes its place in the long and glorious Western tradition as a body of art which continues to provide refreshment, enchantment and wonder…
“Truly all is remarkable and a wellspring of amazement and wonder. Man is so fortunate to dwell in this American Garden of Eden.”—Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902)
At the dawn of the Romantic era, the artists of Europe and America awoke to the beauties of nature and to the potential of depicting them realistically. The nineteenth century was the era of the Impressionist and Barbizon painters in France, the Düsseldorf painters in Germany—and, in the United States, our own homegrown school of landscape painting, the Hudson River School. This closely associated group of painters started out depicting the scenic area of the Hudson River and eventually, in the second generation, branched out to include other locales in New England, Canada, the American West, and Latin America. Their majestic, painstakingly realistic landscape pictures constitute a distinctive American contribution to Western art and helped define the nation’s identity in the era of the early Republic and westward expansion. But what most distinguished these artists was their desire to portray not just the realism of nature, not just its sheer beauty, but the presence of the Divine in it. Hudson River art was founded on a spirituality which assumed a classical vision of world as intelligible and rationally ordered, and which dealt with man’s experience of nature as a ladder to the transcendent and sublime—that is, to God.
The English-born painter Thomas Cole (1801-1848) is generally considered the founder of the Hudson River School. Largely self-taught as an artist, he was influenced by such earlier Europeans as Claude Lorrain, John Constable, and J.M.W. Turner, all of whom had helped develop landscape as an independent genre of painting. Cole’s art was informed by the idea of the Sublime, which underlay much English Romanticism. The American Transcendentalism of Thoreau and Emerson—with its back-to-nature emphasis—would also later feed into the Hudson River movement. Cole’s best known works are the cycle of narrative allegorical paintings known as The Voyage of Life (currently housed in the National Gallery of Art in Washington); these portray man’s spiritual journey from childhood to old age, accompanied by angels and incorporating a rich array of symbolism.
The concept of the sublime (from the Latin for “beyond the threshold”) attempted to account for the feeling of awe, majesty and even terror that man experiences when contemplating the wonders of the natural world. The concept, which goes back as far as the Greek author Pseudo-Longinus, received new impetus from British thinkers such as Edmund Burke. In his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), Burke posited a distinction between the beautiful—which is rationally ordered and “classical”—and the sublime—which is wild, irregular, and “romantic.”
Cole and the other Hudson River artists sought to instill the canons of the sublime in their pictures. One notices, for example, that the vast landscapes often dwarf the small human figures found in them. This discrepancy of scale reflects the sentiment behind Psalm 8: “when I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and stars which you have established; what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?”
Although rooted in European thought, the Hudson River School could not have existed without the inspiration of the American landscape itself. Early American Romantics spoke of our landscape as the boast of the nation, our pride and joy. Whereas Europe was steeped in a long history and had the “cultivated” landscape to prove it (from castles to public gardens), America could boast vast miles of unspoilt, untamed wilderness—the embodiment of the Romantic notion of the Infinite. In particular, the Autumn season in North America was believed to be more intense and colorful than anywhere else and was duly exploited by American painters. The idea of America as Paradise or Eden, often tied in with the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, worked powerfully upon the minds of the Hudson River artists during this period of the exploration and settlement of the West.
After Thomas Cole’s untimely death at the age of 47, his mantle passed to Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900), whose panoramic landscapes of Niagara Falls and other sites combined (according to one critic) the “sensual and intellectual.” Other giants of the second generation of Hudson River artists included Jasper Francis Cropsey (who specialized in Autumn scenes of the northeast, including the breathtaking Autumn—On the Hudson River), John Frederick Kensett, Sanford Robinson Gifford, George Inness, Thomas Moran, and the German-born Albert Bierstadt, who took the Hudson River School into the realm of celebrity by charging tickets to theatrical-style showings of his stupendous American West canvases. The work of Kensett, Gifford, and Inness is often labeled Luminism, an offshoot style of the Hudson River School which emphasized the effects of light in landscapes, achieving an almost mystical quality.
Together, these artists produced a body of work which, while not traditionally religious in subject matter, was saturated with the Divine, attempting to show how the natural world reflected the “higher order and plan of God.” The presiding presence of God as Creator and Sustainer is palpable in Hudson River canvases, coming through especially in the light, in the imposing majesty of sky and mountains, and in the vitality of foliage and vegetation. Through all these elements, we sense God both immanent in his creation and transcendent above it.
The vision of the Hudson River School would not remain unchallenged, however. Of great concern to these artists was the burgeoning Industrial Revolution, which by the second quarter of the nineteenth century was cutting a swath across the American wilderness, destroying virgin land. This worry fed creatively into the paintings themselves, some of which—such as George Inness’ The Lackawanna Valley (in which a locomotive chugs its way across the upstate New York countryside)—depict the encroachment of modernization upon the landscape. Like much of Romanticism, Hudson River art was to a great extent nostalgic, lamenting a goodness and bounty that were being lost.
“If I live to be old enough,” declared Thomas Cole, “I may sit down under some bush, the last left in the utilitarian world, and feel thankful that intellect in its march has spared one vestige of the ancient forest for me to die by.” By the end of the century, the ruin of nature was palpable to many artists.
An even tougher challenge to the Hudson River worldview came from the theories of Charles Darwin. In 1859, right in the middle of the Hudson River School’s golden period, Darwin published On the Origin of Species, in which he expounded his theory of natural selection and the transmutation of species. Darwin’s work was of a piece with other scientific efforts of the time aimed at determining the origins of the earth, which tended to foster skepticism about the biblical accounts. The Darwinian worldview proved a shock to many, since it described nature as the scene of competition and struggle, directionless, and without guiding force or ultimate meaning. Man was au fond not different at all from the other animals; he possessed no indwelling spiritual power.
It’s not hard to see how such doctrines would clash with an artistic style predicated on the idea of the internal harmoniousness of nature and the indwelling presence of God. The scientist Stephen Jay Gould, in his essay “Church, Humboldt, and Darwin: The Tension and Harmony of Art and Science,” asserts that Frederic Edwin Church in particular experienced a crisis of confidence because of Darwin’s theories. Gould ascribes Church’s declining artistic production after the 1860s precisely to this crisis. Idealized, poetic landscape paintings seemed increasingly irrelevant in an age which was discarding any notion that God had an organizing role in the natural world.
It was an ironic turn of events, given that the Hudson School had from its inception been at one with the scientific spirit of the age. Frederick Church and his peers regarded themselves as scientific chroniclers of nature, with all its flora and fauna. Much like Darwin himself, a number of Hudson painters became explorers, taking up rucksacks and trekking to exotic locales in order to record their natural wonders. It should be emphasized too that Darwin did not regard his theories as being an argument for atheism; indeed, in The Origin of Species he still leaves room for a divine role in nature. Some thinkers attempted to harmonize Darwin’s theories and Christian beliefs. But for many others Darwinism seemed to leave God a diminished role, and nature itself seemed to have been disenchanted, depleted of the magic which the Romantic landscape artists strove to express.
Changing aesthetic fashion provided the final nail in the coffin for this artistic school. The very term “Hudson River School” was first used in the 1870s and was meant disparagingly. At a time when the more intimate landscape style of the French Barbizon and Impressionist schools was coming into vogue, many felt that Hudson River paintings were overly grandiose, heroic and contrived. The Impressionists painted almost entirely outdoors (en plein air), whereas the Hudson River painters typically started outdoors but finished their paintings in their New York City studios. Impressionist paintings aimed to depict what the eye saw in a fleeting moment of time; accordingly, they had a spontaneous, visceral quality, with loose brushstrokes and splotches of color, that contrasted with the fastidious realism and high polish of the Hudson School. The Luminists, mentioned above, had already veered away from Hudson River aesthetics toward Impressionism in their explorations of light effects.
With the early-Romantic dream apparently superseded by industrialization, Darwinian theory, and newer styles of art, the Hudson River School and its worldview fell by the wayside. Yet the mid-to-late twentieth century saw a resurgence of interest in the school, and it is once more held in high esteem. Perhaps Hudson River art provided a balm to a public searching for the concrete, the real and the beautiful in an age of increasing abstraction. The paintings can be viewed in museums across the United States, among them the Smithsonian American Art Museum (Washington, D.C.) and the Wadsworth Atheneum (Hartford, Connecticut), which boasts one of the largest collections of the school. True devotees can take the Hudson River School Art Trail, which starts at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site in Catskill, New York and allows one to experience the actual terrain depicted by the artists.
It could be argued that the artists of the Hudson River School were some of the last representatives of an old worldview: the idea of nature as a “book of signs” giving insight into the workings of God. Thomas Cole himself described nature as a “teacher of lessons” and spoke of the “book of nature.” This idea of nature as speaker and teacher—one might almost say God’s first Word—connects with the Middle Ages and its sacramental view of reality. It also connects with the Renaissance and its emphasis on faithfully copying nature, which in turn goes back to the ancient Greek artistic concept of mimesis. Thus the Hudson River School, our first national artistic movement, takes its place in the long and glorious Western tradition. It is a body of art which continues to provide refreshment, enchantment and wonder.
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