The Hudson River School represents the first native school of American Art. Dating from the 1820s, it was a loosely organized group of painters who took as their subject the unique naturalness of the American continent, starting with the Hudson River region in New York, but eventually extending in time and space all the way to California and the 1870s. The time period in which the school's artists were active was a time of momentous social, political and economic change in American history, and the work of the Hudson River School artists represents part of the process of national self-conceptualization taking place in those years.
In the course of its fifty year history, the paintings of the Hudson River School spoke in symbolic language to both a great hopefulness and a wistful remnicience of the American experiment, a celebration of the primeival American landscape, the entrance of technology into that landscape, and eventually sorrow at its passing, to both a belief in a Provinically ordained destiny and the crisis of the Civil War. Despite, or perhaps as a result of this fluidity of meaning, these landscape paintings lay claim to an important place in American art history and in the American cultural consciousness. They represent the undeniable place that nature has and continues to occupy in the American imagination.
During his travels in America, Alexis de Tocqueville observed many things about the American character, but the American identification with nature was not one of them. In fact, he thought that nature was primarily a European concern, of no interest to Americans. He wrote in Democracy in America: "Europeans think a lot about the wild, open spaces of America, but the Americns themselves hardly give them a thought."
This opinion, however, is contradicted by two facts. First, the Hudson River School had come into being to great critical and popular acclaim five years before Tocqueville arrived in the United States and ten years before Democracy in America was published. Second, these images and images like them were not solely the intellectual property of the cultural elite but were widely disseminated throughout the public through their publication in newspapers, the mass production of prints and as illustrations in American novels such as the Leatherstocking Tales of James Fenimore Cooper, which concerned themselves, at least in part with the place of nature in the American experience.
As a hypertext to Democracy in America, this site seeks to do several things. First, to examine Tocqueville's statements on nature and its relationship to the American experience. Second, to look at the Hudson River School as both an outgrowth of the pastoral genre in Western art and as a unique genre for which a system of iconography has been developed that is singular to the American tradition. Third, to examine how these images were disseminated to the public and came to be firmly planted in American minds. And finally, to present some of the images that represent the evolution of American landscape painting tradition.