The Hudson River School and Western Expansion
The Hudson River School and Western Expansion
Expansion and Debate. American painting in the first half of the nineteenth century was dominated by the artists of the Hudson River School: Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand, Jasper Cropsey, Frederick Church, and others who found in the American landscape a distinctly American subject. Cole wrote that “the most distinctive, and perhaps the most impressive, characteristic of American scenery is its wildness.” The painters of the Hudson River School celebrated this “wildness” in romantic terms; they infused their landscapes with transcendent truths and moral beauty. As the United States expanded westward, displacing Indian nations and intensifying sectional rivalries, the landscapes of the Hudson River School were shaped by (and helped shape) the national debate. Their panoramic views engaged American optimism, beckoning the observer’s eye and imagination to the horizon, and by extension, the frontier. Yet even amid this celebration some of the works of the Hudson River School expressed skepticism about the advances of the American empire.
Cole’s Skepticism. It was in the works of Cole, the founder of the Hudson River School, that such skepticism was most clearly present. Cole was committed to American democracy, but at the same time he questioned the nation’s ability to fulfill its ideals. Cole’s work reflected this ambiguity; while his paintings often celebrated the beauty and grandeur of the American landscape, some expressed an uneasy pessimism. In View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, or The Oxbow (1836), a view of the Connecticut River and a nearby settlement from the peaks of Mount Holyoke, a dark storm cloud appears in the upper left corner of the painting. Is the storm entering or exiting the plane of the painting? Does it portend a sunny future for the settlement or strife ahead? The question-mark appearance of the oxbow heightens the sense of ambiguity. While the immediate subject of The Oxbow is Eastern, the painting also suggested, by analogy, the tenuous survival of settlements in the West.
The Course of Empire . In his series of canvases titled The Course of Empire (1836), Cole quite literally questioned the promises of Manifest Destiny. The series, depicting the rise and fall of an allegorical empire, begins with the primordial Savage State, continues through The Arcadian or Pastoral State, reaches its zenith with The Consummation of Empire, and from there declines into the war-torn Destruction and ends in Desolation. While some Americans viewed the United States as the New World fulfillment of the great Greek and Roman empires of the Old World, Cole’s Course of Empire series asked them to also consider the fates of those empires. He considered the Mexican-American War “vile,” and the year before completing The Course of Empire he wrote in his journal, “it appears to me that the moral principle of the nation is much lower than formerly … It is with sorrow that I anticipated the downfall of the pure republican government—its destruction will be a death blow to Freedom.”
Cole’s Followers. Cole’s uncertainty was recast into optimism by his Hudson River followers in the 1840s and 1850s. William Sonntag’s Progress of Civilization series (1847), now lost, echoed Cole’s Course of Empire but ended with a scene of progressive urbanization paralleling Cole’s Consummation. Cropsey reversed Cole’s Course of Empire with a pair of paintings, moving from The Spirit of War to the idyllic Spirit of Peace (1851). Durand’s Progress (The Advance of Civilization) (1853), commissioned by Charles Gould, broker and treasurer of the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad, celebrated the advances of American civilization and technology. In the left foreground a group of Indians on a dark and craggy outcropping peer out over a light-filled settlement in which they view a wagon, steamboat, and train. Such a vision suggested an evolution from an allegedly unenlightened culture to a sunny blend of pastoralism and technology. If Cole’s work expressed doubts about American expansion into the West, Durand’s vision was one of optimism and peaceful progress.
Church’s Ambiguity. Cole’s only pupil, Frederick Church, expressed both his optimism and his skepticism. Vast panoramas such as Niagara (1857) combined scientific precision and botanical detail with a sense of grandeur and promise. Church’s South American landscapes, such as his spectacular Cotopaxi (1862), beckon Americans beyond regional differences; Church’s global vision suggested that the nation could fulfill its promise, not only over the North American continent but also over the entire hemisphere. Yet at the same time ambiguity lurked in some of these landscapes. Church’s Twilight in the Wilderness (1860) depicts an intense, tropical sunset. It might be seen, as many saw the approaching Civil War, as a baptism by fire, the dawn of a new millennium, or as an apocalyptic ending similar to Cole’s Desolation. As the nation headed toward a war provoked in part by tensions surrounding westward expansion, Church’s Twilight in the Wilderness returned to the ambiguity of Cole’s The Oxbow, questioning the future of the American empire.
Angela Miller, Empire of the Eye: Landscape, Representation and American Cultural Politics, 1825–1875 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993);
John Wilmerding, American Art (New York: Penguin, 1976).
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