The Hudson River School

European Roots

Stylistically, the Hudson River School artists were following in the footsteps of European predecesors.

Landscape first began to emerge as a genre in its own right in the mid 17th century. Both Dutch and French artists began to produce paintings of large scale in which the relationship between traditional narrative subject matter and the setting in which the narrative elements were placed was inverted. Instead of foregrounding figures and architectural details of Biblical and mythic tales like the Rest on the Flight From Egypt, the Embarkation of Saint Ursula and the Judgement of Paris, whose narratives called for settings out-of-doors, artists like Claude Lorrain, Jan van Goyen and Jacob van Ruisdael used these subjects as an excuse to paint the grandiose landscape scenes in which they were truly interested. The figures and structures were included solely as minute elements of their large canvases.

The Europeans also showed an almost scientific attention to detail within the natural landscape. They moved out of doors to do their preliminary sketching instead of trying to capture nature through an observation of rocks and branches inside their studios as the Renaissance astists had done. Even in their sketches, their attention to light and shadow is evident.

These elements can be clearly seen in the work of the Hudson River School artists. Most paintings are of a large scale and lack narrative subjects, those that include figures do so in small scale. Sketching out of doors, the artists paid careful attention to the correct rendering of the minute details of the landscape, although they were not afraid to literally move mountains in order to create an effect that would fit their sense of the picturesque.

But while the Americans picked up much of the style of European landscape artists, they embued their canvases with very different meanings that can only be called uniquely American.

Philosophical Underpinings

In 1841, writing a review of James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales, Honore de Balzac wrote "The magical prose of Cooper not only embodies the spirit of the river, its shores, the forests and its trees; but it exhibits the minutes details, combined with the grandest outline. The vast solitudes, in which we pentrate, become in a moment deeply interesting...When the spirit of solitude communes with us, when the first calm of these eternal shades pervades us, when we hover over this virgin vegetation, our hearts are filled with emotion."

Balzac could just as easily been describing a painting by any Hudson River School artist. In those few sentences he captured not only their stylistic imprint - attention to the minutest details on the grandest scale but also their desire to communicate the hand of divinity at work in the American landscape. It was not a new theme, but it was a uniquely American one, a theme that had it's origin in the words of John Winthrop and the sermon that he delivered en route to New World aboard the Arabella in 1630. In A Modell of Christian Charity, Winthrop explained to his fellow Puritans that

To truly understand the immediate success and continuing popularity of the Hudson River School artists, it is necessary to fit their work into a larger cultural context.

In December of 1993, a random survey of Americans from the 48 continental states was conducted in order to establish whether Americans had any sort of uniform preferences in art. When the results were compiled, the two artists who had designed the survey took the information that they had recieved and created a painting that represented the answers that they had been given.

Overwhelming, Americans described artwork that bears striking similarity to the work of the Hudson River School artists. 88 percent voted for an outdoor scene, 49 percent wanted to see lakes and rivers, 19 percent forest, in comparison to only 3 percent who were interested in a work depicting a city. 44 percent stated that blue was their favorite color for artwork, follwed by those who chose green at 14 percent. Black, fuschia and other harsh colors counted for less than 5 percent of the response. As for size, the majority voted for a painting the size of a dishwasher.

The artists who created this project, Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid expressed their initial surprise at the fact that individuals from all races and classes expressed a preference for large scale landscape art, art that closely resembles the landscape painting of the 19th century. They agreed with the art historian Robert Hughes who stated that "the quintessential American paintings are landscapes."

Thomas Cole, Thomas Doughty & Asher B. Durand

Thomas Cole is generally credited with launching the Hudson River School in 1825 with the exhibition in New York City of a group of his paintings which were the products of a trip that he had taken up the Hudson River. In 1826, Thomas Doughty exhibited two landscapes at the first show held by the National Academy of Design and two years later in 1828, Asher B. Durand showed his first landscape painting. These three artists formed the first group of Hudson River School artists, which would continue through the 1880s.

Of the three, Thomas Cole had the clearest vision of what the artists were seeking to accomplish in their painting and how the images that they were creating complimented the American concept of national character. Ironically, Cole was not American by birth. Born in England in 1801, Cole did not emegrate to the United States until he was twenty years old. His Essay on American Scenery was published in American Monthly magazine in January 1836. In it, Cole addressed nature as the characteristic that set America apart from Europe.

"In civilized Europe", he wrote, "the primitive features of scenery have long since been destroyed or modified - the extensive forests that once overshadowed a great part of it have been felled- rugged mountains have been smoothed, and impetuous rivers turned from their courses to accomodate the tastes and necessities of a dense population - the once tangled wood is now a grassy lawn; the turbulent brook a navigable stream - crags that could not be removed have been crowned with towers, and the rudest valleys tamed by the plough." These differences are quite visible when comparing the works of Cole and the other Hudson River artists to those of their European contemporaries, such as John Constable (1776-1837).

The Hudson River artists, were therefore in search of an art form that would allow them to express and celbrate that which set America apart from Europe. And they found it in the paintings that captured the grandeur of the American Landscape.

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