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HUDSON RIVER SCHOOL


The first coherent school of American art, the Hudson River painters, helped to shape the mythos of the American landscape. Beginning with the works of Thomas Cole (1801-1848) and Asher B. Durand (1796-1886) and evolving into the Luminist and late Romantic schools, landscape painting was the prevalent genre of 19th century American art.

THE OXBOW by Thomas Cole
THE OXBOW by Thomas Cole
With roots in European Romanticism and with correspondences to European painters such as the Nazarenes and Caspar David Friedrich in Germany or John Constable and Joseph Turner in England, the Hudson River painters, nonetheless, set about to heed Emerson's call "to ignore the courtly Muses of Europe" and define a distinct vision for American art. The artists who came to maturity in the years of egalitarian Jacksonian democracy and expansion translated these ideals into an aesthetic that was sweeping and spontaneous. Like the vast nation that lay before them, which they celebrated not chauvinistically but with a sense of awe for its majestic natural resources and a feeling of optimism for the huge potential it held, the Hudson River painters depicted a New World wilderness in which man, minuscule as he was beside the vastness of creation, nevertheless retained that divine spark that completed the circle of harmony.

Play/Download Quicktime video, 848 K
Thomas Hampson on Duran's KINDRED SPIRITS
Go Next Transcendentalist Themes

As Thomas Cole maintained, if nature were untouched by the hand of man--as was much of the primeval American landscape in the early 19th century--then man could become more easily acquainted with the hand of God. Sharing the philosophy of the American Transcendentalists, the Hudson River painters created visual embodiments of the ideals about which Emerson, Thoreau, William Cullen Bryant, and Whitman wrote. Concurring with Emerson, who had written in his 1841 essay, THOUGHTS ON ART, that painting should become a vehicle through which the universal mind could reach the mind of mankind, the Hudson River painters believed art to be an agent of moral and spiritual transformation.

The impetus to celebrate the glories of the Hudson Valley began before Thomas Cole with painters such as Thomas Doughty, Thomas Chambers, and Jasper Francis Cropsey, but it was Cole with his literary and dramatic instincts and his years of European study who made the most coherent and articulated case for a new art for a new land. With Asher B. Durand, he did much to revolutionize not only the styles and themes of American painting, but the methods. Cole sketched from nature, frequently dramatic vistas in the Catskills or White Mountains, and then returned to his studio to compose his large scale canvasses, alive with tactile brushwork and atmospheric lighting that seemed to breathe.

end Luminists &
Late Romantics

The influence of the Hudson River School was carried into the mid-19th century by artists like John Frederick Kensett and Martin Johnson Heade, who came to be known as Luminists because of their experiments with the effects of light on water and sky, and by Frederic Edwin Church. Church, who based himself in his panoramic home in the Catskills at Olana, sought more extensive horizons for his canvasses. Like Walt Whitman he tried to contain multitudes. He traveled the globe, painting scenery from the Hudson Valley to the American West to the Andes, Amazon, and Arctic, and he laid the foundation for the post-Civil War generation of landscape painters, among them Albert Bierstadt and George Inness.

A painting which has become a virtual emblem for the Hudson River School is the dramatic 46" x 36" canvas by Asher B. Durand, KINDRED SPIRITS, which hangs in New York City's Public Library. In it Durand depicts himself, together with Cole, on a rocky promontory in serene contemplation of the scene before them: the gorge with its running stream, the gossamer Catskill mists shimmering in a palette of subtle colors, framed by foliage. In the foreground stands one of the school's famous symbols--a broken tree stump-- what Cole called a "memento mori" or reminder that life is fragile and impermanent; only Nature and the Divine within the Human Soul are eternal. Tiny as the human beings are in this composition, they are nevertheless elevated by the grandeur of the landscape in which they are in harmony. As Cole and Durand firmly believed, if the American landscape was a new Garden of Eden, then it was they, as artists, who kept the keys of entry.


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