Hudson River School of Painting
Hudson River School of Painting
Theories of Art . American artists began to move away from traditional artistic standards and explore Romantic thought, which emphasized the intense expression of tumultuous emotion and suggested that individual and national feeling would shape an artist’s work. Painter Washington Allston’s career reflected the shifting theoretical currents that shaped American art in the early nineteenth century. After a period of travel and study in Europe from 1801 to 1804 Allston returned to the United States and struggled in his painting to reconcile the two major schools of artistic thought. On the one hand was the traditional standard of painting represented by the work of Sir Joshua Reynolds, an English
artist who stated that a painting should faithfully reproduce nature as it was seen by the artist and should also carry a clear moral message. For traditioonalists such as Reynolds depictions of historcial or biblical events were the highest from of painting, followed by landscapes; portraits were the lowested form because pictures of an individual could not deliver any higher moral message unless the subject happened to be especially worthy of imitation. On the other hand Allston was also interested in the new Romantic artistic theory of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who argued that art should reflect the artist’s own subjective perceptions of natural obvjects. Throughout his career Allston struggled with these two viewpoints, trying to find a style of painting that would deliver a universal moral meaning while also reflecting the subjective feelings and impressions Allston experienced while considering the object of the paintiing. Allston’s later paintings were poetically sjuggestive landscapes which reconciled to some extent his interest in Romanticism with his desire to produce accurate representations of nature.
Beauty and Sublimity. Allston strongly influenced his successors in the United States, who struggled with similar conflicts. Several painters, led by English thinker Edmund Burke between the beautiful and the sublime in nature and it art. Beautiful images, such as ordered gardens, flowers, or thickets, conveyed a sense of harmony and peace; sublime images, such as mountains or owaterfalls, produced violent feelings of strength or forcefulness. The scenery of the Hudson River valley area offered painters a wealth of models of both types. American artists such as Cole were also influenced by the Romantic idea that the artist’s perception of nature reflected his national identity as well as his individual thoughts and feelings. An American artist would thus brings to his painting a particularly American way of seeing and representing objects. According to this theory the American landscape, as panited by American artist, would result in an art that would be distinctively and uniquely American.
Cole. Thomas Cole’s paintings, which drew heavily on images taken from the Hudson River valley, were the most famous examples of this school of thought. The success of his early biblical paintings and landscapes, in cluding Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (1827–1828) and Sunny Morning on the Hudson River (1827), brought Cole enough money to allow him to travel to Europe to study art. After returning in 1833 Cole settled in the Hudson River valley and began to paint landscapes, using the scenery around him as the inspirations and subject of a variety of paintings, inculding The Course of Empire and The Voyage of Life (1830–1840) series. Cole was especially gifted at landscapes, almost seeming to turn physical settings into living characters in his work. In Manfred (1833), based on George Gordon, Lord Byron’s poem of the same name, Cole used the image of an enormous waterfall to convey the explosive, passionate power oof the poem. Cole expressed his beliefs about American scenery in an 1836 essay published in the American Monthly Magazine; in spite of the Americcan landscape’s lack of historical associations, argued Cole, “the great struggle for freedom has sanctified many a spot, and many a mountain, stream, and rock has its legend, worthy of poet’s pen or the painter’s pencil. But American
associations are not so much of the past as of the present and the future.” With his paintings Cole hoped to inspire observers to dreams of the American future as well as to reverence for the American past.
Durand. Another artist usually associated with the Hudson River School was Asher Durand, engraver and painter. As an engraver Durand played an important role in popularizing the works of American painters. Durand specialized in landscape painting although, like Cole, he also painted biblical and historical works. His paintings inclined toward the beautiful, whereas Cole tended to favor more-sublime subjects; if Cole viewed nature as an awesome force in itself, Durand saw it as a benevolent site of human activity. One of Durand’s best-known paintings was Kindred Spirits (1849), painted after Cole’s death in 1848, which portrayed Cole and his close friend, the poet William Cullen Bryant, as small figures set against the grandeur of the Catskill Mountains.
John W. McCoubrey, American Art, 1700–1960: Sources and Documents (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1965);
Daniel M. Mendelowitz, A History of American Art, second edition (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1973);
Elwood C. Parry III, The Art of Thomas Cole: Ambition and Imagination (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1988).