Although most of us are still “social distancing” in our homes, we can still appreciate the beauty of America through the unforgettable landscapes of some of our greatest artists.
THE FIRST ENVIRONMENTALIST ARTISTS:
THOMAS COLE & THE HUDSON RIVER SCHOOL PAINTERS, PART I
Take a journey with the Hudson River School artists, whose works are at the root of environmental awareness in the United States, from the establishment of the National Parks to twentieth first century activism.
Nothing is more disagreeable to me than the sight of lands that are just clearing with their prostrate trees, black stumps burnt and deformed. All the native beauty of the forest taken away by the improving man. And alas, he replaces it with none of the beauties of Art.
When Thomas Cole (1801-1848), father of the Hudson River School of painters, complained of the growing destruction of the American countryside in the early days of the new nation, the specter of climate change was unimaginable. Yet, during the peak of his popularity in the 1830s and 1840s, thousands of miles of roads, canals, and railroad tracks were desecrating the natural landscape which, in his words, was a temple in which to worship God.
One of his most spectacular productions, The Notch of the White Mountains (Crawford Noth), is a testament to the vastness of the then wilderness of the Northeast. Cole took two long and arduous trips to this area of New Hampshire, describing his first encounter in 1828:
We entered the Notch and felt awe-struck as we passed between the bare and rifted mountains, rising on either hand some 2000 feet above us. With the exception of a few curling round the airy pinnacles, the clouds had now dispersed, and the sun shone down brilliantly upon the scene of wild grandeur.
But by 1839, on his second journey, after which the painting below was created, a local family had been recently killed in a landslide at Crawford Notch. Has Cole depicted the doomed settlers—the man on the black horse riding towards his wife and child waiting by the house? Oblivious of their impending fate, evident only in the stumps and dying trees in the foreground, signs of the destabilization of the surrounding ground.
(Note: please click on the images to magnify them.)
Cole’s heart, though, was in the Hudson River Valley which was the source for his overnight success in 1826. A British emigrant, who had moved to the United States at 17, he was basically self taught as an artist. While living in New York City, Cole traveled up the scenic river one summer and produced three landscapes that would be the foundation of an entire art movement, launching the careers of at least two generations, including Cole’s student Frederic Church, Albert Bierstadt, and Thomas Moran, as well as the other painters presented below.
From his home in Catskill, he was able to observe the changing moods and seasons of his dramatic surroundings, particularly the omnipresent mountains towering in the distance. Sunrise was a special time of day for Cole, as he portrayed both visually in Sunrise in the Catskill Mountains and in prose:
The mists were resting on the vale of the Hudson like drifted snow: tops of distant mountains in the east were visible—things of another world. The sun rose from bars of pearly hue…..
However, Sanford Robinson Gifford (1823-1880), who grew up near Cole’s residence, takes us out in the middle of the river in Morning on the Hudson, Haverstraw Bay of 1866. Although usually considered a follower of the Hudson River School, Gifford is also known as a Luminist, whose canvases whether of land or water are enveloped by an almost otherworldly light.
While in Lakes and Mountains of 1865, John Frederick Kensett (1816-1872) offers us access to another memorable spot, the Highlands, probably the most inspiring section of the Hudson between Haverstraw Bay and Newburgh Bay. Kensett, like many of his colleagues, was attracted to its striking topography recalled so poetically in the unpublished diary of tourist W.H. Willis in 1834:
The passage of the Highlands….strikes the imagination with peculiar force especially of him who views for the first time the bold scenery through which the noble Hudson winds its way to the ocean. Their mountain peaks rising abruptly from the water, the deep shadows cast upon the tranquil stream…..
The Highlands appear again in Jasper Francis Cropsey’s panoramic Autumn on the Hudson River. They loom in the background, represented by what is likely Storm King Mountain, standing in the path of the sunlight’s rays. The crisp scarlet and orange leaves, too, are illuminated, dominating the front of the nearly 10 foot wide canvas that once impressed Queen Victoria when shown in London in 1861.
The work itself was done from memory by Cropsey (1823-1900), an important figure of the Hudson River School, during an extended stay in England. Yet, he would spend his last days at Hastings-on-Hudson in his dwelling at Ever Rest, currently open to the public.
The sources for the blog include: The Hudson River and Its Painters by John K. Howat, The Viking Press, New York, 1972 and Thomas Cole by Matthew Baigell, Watson-Guptill Publications, New York, 1985. The quotes above are also from these books.
Enter the world of another Hudson River School artist, Frederic Church, in Through an Artist’s Eyes: Learning to Live Creatively by Joan Hart.
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