Monday, March 14, 2011

Art review: Hudson River painters captured glory of a rising nation

Adirondack Mountains,‭ ‬N.Y.‭ (‬1870‭)‬,‭ ‬by Asher Brown Durand.

By Jenifer M.‭ ‬Vogt

In the final room of the exhibit‭ ‬Hudson River School Masterpieces from the New-York Historical Society,‭ ‬now on view at The Society of the Four Arts through Sunday,‭ ‬there are two striking portraits of the men considered to be the fathers of the movement:‭ ‬Thomas Cole and Asher Durand.

One could also pronounce them the fathers of‭ ‬American art because,‭ ‬during their lifetimes,‭ ‬they gave credence to the United States as a place where artists could find unparalleled inspiration‭ – ‬and make a viable living with their work.

Thomas Cole was merely‭ ‬22‭ ‬when his work was discovered,‭ ‬in‭ ‬1825,‭ ‬in a New York City shop by Durand and two other painters,‭ ‬John Trumbull and William Dunlap.‭ ‬They quickly purchased all three of his paintings‭ (‬for a mere‭ ‬$25‭ ‬each‭) ‬and Trumbull remarked to the dealer,‭ “‬I am delighted,‭ ‬and at the same time mortified.‭ ‬This youth has done at once,‭ ‬and‭ ‬without instruction,‭ ‬what I cannot do after‭ ‬50‭ ‬years of practice.‭”

Durand and Cole would develop a bond of friendship that lasted until Cole’s untimely death in‭ ‬1848.‭

Self-Portrait‭ (‬1835‭)‬,‭ ‬by Asher Brown Durand.

When you look at the portraits of Cole and Durand,‭ ‬you are looking at two men who are emblematic of the idealism that dominates the work of the‭ ‬Hudson River‭ ‬School.‭ ‬These painters boldly traipsed the‭ “‬path less taken‭” ‬and returned,‭ ‬not just with pretty pictures,‭ ‬but with pictures that would later be recognized as ones that built a national identity.‭

The portrait of Cole was done by his friend,‭ ‬Daniel Huntington.‭ ‬In it he looks like the kind and humble man that he is often portrayed as.‭ ‬Durand painted his own self-portrait in which he shows himself as an earnest young man who seems to be on the verge of doing something great.

The Hudson River,‭ ‬which flows south‭ ‬315‭ ‬miles from its origin in the Adirondacks to the port of New York City,‭ ‬was the epicenter of American art because of both its proximity to the city,‭ ‬a major center for commerce and therefore a place where wealthy collectors would congregate,‭ ‬and because of its unbridled beauty.‭ ‬The painters worked from the city northward and that is how the exhibit is arranged.

Greenwood Lake,‭ ‬New Jersey‭ (‬1871‭)‬,‭ ‬
by Jasper Francis Cropsey.‭

“The paintings are grouped together to illustrate a trip up the Hudson River into the heart of the Catskills and beyond and then also further afield,‭” ‬said curator Linda Farber,‭ ‬senior art historian for the New-York Historical Society.

As you travel northward on the river from the city,‭ ‬you move into the valley that surrounds it.‭ ‬It is a place of sublime beauty.‭ ‬There is a plethora of magnificent vistas that can still be seen today,‭ ‬though not quite as uncluttered.‭ ‬These are what inspired Cole,‭ ‬Durand and their followers.‭

Those that have seen it know that the river has moods.‭ ‬These depend on season and light.‭ ‬In the winter it can be stark and foreboding.‭ ‬In the autumn it can be glorious surrounded by a myriad of changing colors.‭

“There is dramatic weather on the Hudson and in the Catskills,‭” ‬Farber said.‭ “‬Artists would use this to evoke an emotional response.‭”

There is one mood,‭ ‬though,‭ ‬that seems to dominate and that is the serene mood that is evoked by the glow of sunlight found at either the beginning or the end of the day.‭ ‬This famous glow actually led to the second generation of artists‭ – ‬such as Frederick Edwin Church and John Frederick Kensett‭ – ‬to be later aptly named the Luminists.‭

New York Harbor,‭ ‬N.Y.‭ (‬1880‭)‬,‭ ‬by Francis Augustus Silva.

The glow is evident,‭ ‬at the beginning of our journey,‭ ‬in‭ ‬New York Harbor,‭ ‬N.Y.,‭ ‬by Francis Augustus Silva.‭ ‬It was the Hudson,‭ ‬after the completion of the Erie Canal,‭ ‬which contributed to the vibrant growth of New York City.‭ ‬Here,‭ ‬Silva captures both the busy port and returning boats with a quiet stillness.

But it was actually to escape the bustle of city that artists fled northward into the Hudson River Valley for retreat and respite.‭ ‬The most famous paintings of this era are of unblemished views of the valley awash in greenery with little other than nature,‭ ‬and an occasional traveler or animal,‭ ‬to dominate the canvas.‭ ‬Nature plays the starring role in these works,‭ ‬causing many to view these painters as the first environmentalists.‭ ‬For many,‭ ‬nature represented not just an escape from the banal,‭ ‬but also a spiritual mecca.

You can see the type of worship that was bestowed on the natural landscape in paintings such as‭ ‬Adirondack Mountains,‭ ‬N.Y.,‭ ‬by Asher Durand.‭ ‬It would be easy to think that Durand may have embellished in the work,‭ ‬perhaps making the scenery more beautiful than it actually was.‭ ‬But admirers of the Hudson Valley,‭ ‬even today,‭ ‬will tell you that this is actually how beautiful the region is.‭ ‬So one sees through Durand’s eyes how even more awe-inspiring it was before there were houses,‭ ‬shopping malls and corporations dotting the landscape.

Study for Dream of Arcadia‭ (‬1838‭)‬,‭ ‬by Thomas Cole.

This exhibit also draws attention to the fact that many of these artists traveled to‭ ‬Italy as an additional source of inspiration.‭ ‬Cole studied and lived in Italy twice.‭ ‬You can see this influence in works such as his‭ ‬Study for Dream of Arcadia.‭ ‬Italy is beautifully depicted in‭ ‬View of the Roman Coliseum at Sunset,‭ ‬Italy,‭ ‬by Thomas Hiram Hotchkiss,‭ ‬amongst others.‭ ‬ Italy represented a place of romantic ideals and historical lessons learned.

The exhibit also brings you to areas beyond the‭ ‬Hudson where these artists traveled for additional respite,‭ ‬recreation and inspiration.‭ ‬Jasper Francis Cropsey’s‭ ‬Greenwood Lake,‭ ‬New Jersey‭ ‬depicts the location of his summer home.‭ ‬It’s the place where he met and courted the woman who became his wife.‭ ‬Additional works show other areas throughout New‭ ‬England where these painters traveled for inspiration.‭ ‬It’s a joyful journey—one that has not just artistic,‭ ‬but deep historical,‭ ‬significance.‭

View of the Roman Coliseum at Sunset,‭ ‬Italy‭ (‬1860-69‭)‬,
‭ ‬by Thomas Hiram Hotchkiss.

The most important part of the legacy of these artists is that they bore witness to a nascent country that would soon be engulfed by the effects of industry,‭ ‬which would forever change this landscape.‭ ‬They captured a moment and their work defined our nation to outsiders before modern communications devices were available to capture or transmit images and sounds.‭ ‬They felt it was their duty,‭ ‬and‭ — ‬for many‭ — ‬their‭ ‬calling,‭ ‬to do so.

They would convey on canvas how one feels‭ — ‬the quiet gasp for air‭ — ‬that results when being overwhelmed by the powerful beauty of nature.‭

Jenifer‭ ‬Mangione Vogt is a marketing communications professional and resident of Boca Raton.‭ ‬She’s been enamored with painting for‭ ‬most of her life.‭ ‬She studied art history and‭ ‬received her B.A.‭ ‬from Purchase College.

Hudson River School Masterpieces from the New-York Historical Society‭ ‬is now on view at The Society of the Four Arts until March‭ ‬20,‭ ‬2011.‭ ‬Hours for this exhibition are Monday through Saturday‭ ‬10‭ ‬a.m.‭ ‬to‭ ‬5‭ ‬p.m.,‭ ‬and Sunday‭ ‬2‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬to‭ ‬5‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬Admission is‭ ‬$5.‭ ‬For more information call‭ ‬655-7226,‭ ‬or visit

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