HUDSON RIVER SCHOOL
|THE OXBOW by Thomas Cole|
Quicktime video, 848 K|
Thomas Hampson on Duran's KINDRED SPIRITS
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.
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.