"We are still in Eden": Iconography of Hudson River School

Cole suggests that the differences in America's physical landscape which set it apart from Europe are proof of America's communion with God and His Provincial plan. Although they used the landscape model developed by early European artists, Cole and the other Hudson River School artists developed an individual iconography that was expressive of this vision, of the characterization of American as a Garden, provinically set aside by God for his chosen people, the Americans. In so doing, they developed an iconography that, as Barbara Novak writes reflected: "providential planning that reinforced the national purpose"(p60).

For Cole believed that these landscape paintings, "those scenes of solitude from which the hand of nature has never been lifted, affect the mind with a more deep toned emotion than aught which the hand of man has touched. Amid them the consequent associations are of God the creator - they are his undefiled works, and the mind is cast into the comtemplation of eternal things."

The first part of this iconography was an almost scientific attention to detail. A contemporary critic James Jackson Jarvis explained this attention to detail as the desire of the artists to equate Truth and Beauty. "Art should exhibit a scientific correctness in every particular, and as a unity, be expressive of the general principle at the center of being. In this manner feeling and reason are reconciled, and a complete and harmonious whole is obtain. In the degree that this union obtains in art its works become efficacious, because embodying, under the garb of beauty, the most of truth."


Lakes represented the "eye of the human countance" a mirror reflecting the sublimity of the rest of the landscape, and, most importantly, linking the sky and the earth, God with man.


Like the French and Dutch, the Hudson River artists show man as a small part of a larger environment, but to different purpose. Man's small stature implies a harmony with nature as well as his place in God's larger plan.


Mountains represented physical geology, that is, our physical differences from Europe as well as the great age of the American continent and the sign of God's hand on the American landscape.

A lack of ruins on the American landscape

The lack of ruins was one of the surest signs that America was both young and new and free of the corruption of monarchy implied by the presence of ruins on the landscape. Cole wrote "you see no ruined tower to tell of outrage - no gorgeous temple to speak of ostentation; but freedom's offspring - peace secutiy, and happiness, dwell there, the spirits of the scene."


To Cole, the sky represented "the soul of all scenery", the truly sublime in the landscape as well as spirituality.


Storms had several different meanings. While they would eventually come to represent both the coming sectional crisis and tension over the encoaching technology that threaten the landscape, their original purpose was to represent the dark and violent side of the sublime, the terribilita, the primitive garden of which Leo Marx writes.


Trees are the true heros of Hudson River art, as Cole wrote "they are like men...they exhibit striking peculiarities, and sometimes grand originality." The trees of the American landscape have a primitive quality that sets them apart from Europe, and their autumnal color "surpasses all the world in gorgeousness".


Waterfalls suggested something special in the American experience according to Cole, both "unceasing change and everlasting duration", both "fixedness and motion".

Introduction | Tocqueville & the American Landscape | The Hudson River School | Gallery of Paintings | The Persistence of Memory