Research: The Hudson River School

The Hudson River School (HRS) was a group of American landscape painters who were active from about 1825 to about 1880.  Their work was characterised by an interest in realistic depictions of nature and a burning desire to celebrate distinctly American scenery.  Until the emergence of the HRS, most American artists seemed more interested in doing portraits than painting landscapes.  The few American artists who did landscapes generally looked to Europe for guidance on subject matter and technique.  Greek and Roman ruins, Norman castles, and other similar subjects from the other side of the Atlantic were more likely to appear on their canvases than American scenes.  In addition, much of the landscape painting done prior to the emergence of the HRS was allegorical and therefore not necessarily intended to represent a real place.

The HRS is well worth examining in some detail because it combines elements of Romanticism (talked about in Nash, chapter 3) and nationalism (discussed in Nash, chapter 4).  The first Europeans who came to the New World tended to view nature either as an evil, forbidding wasteland (Nash, chapters 1 and 2) or as a storehouse of economically valuable resources (Steinberg).  In either case, wilderness was something to be quickly civilized, brought under human control in the name of progress.  In associating nature with divinity, valuing the sublime, and exalting a life close to nature, the Romantics provided an alternative framework through which to see and appreciate the natural world.

After the American Revolution, and especially after the War of 1812, nationalism provided another ground for appreciating nature.  The basic argument ran something like this.  America might not possess the cultural heritage of Europe–it lacked, for example, the Parthenon, Gothic Cathedrals, the Mona Lisa, and Shakespeare.  But America did still have something that Europe no longer possessed–an abundance of majestic wilderness, where sublime encounters with the divine might still take place.  Under the influence of Romanticism and nationalism, wilderness was something the young nation could point to with pride, something uniquely its own.  This nationalistic pride in American wilderness first developed among a largely urban, educated cultural elite in the late eighteenth century, and during the nineteenth century it gradually diffused to the wider culture.  Remnants of these ideas remain with us to this day.

It was within these cross-currents of Romanticism and nationalism that the Hudson River School burst onto the American cultural scene.  In 1835 Thomas Cole, the founder of the Hudson River School whose photograph is featured on the left, wrote an “Essay on American Scenery” that nicely captures this sense that New World wilderness might serve as a source of nationalistic pride:

Though American scenery is destitute of many of those circumstances that give value to the European, still its has features, even glorious ones, unknown to Europe. . .the most distinctive and perhaps the most impressive, characteristic of American scenery is its wildness. . . .  [I]n civilized Europe the primitive features have long since been destroyed or modified. . .And to this cultivated state our western world is fast approaching; but nature is still predominant, and there are those who regret that with the improvements of cultivation the sublimity of the wilderness should pass away; for those scenes of solitude from which the hand of nature has never been lifted, affect the mind with a more deep toned emotion than that 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 contemplation of eternal things.

The HRS gained its name from the fact that many of the early paintings from this school were of the region surrounding the Hudson River, whose commercial importance as a link between New York City and the Great Lakes greatly increased with the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825.  Later followers of this school began depicting more far flung locations, including New England, the American West, South America, and others.  Many HRS artists also maintained homes and studios along the Hudson River.  The other element that unites many of the HRS images is a strong element of the sublime–waterfalls, mountains, volcanoes, thunderstorms, dramatic sunsets, and other suggestions of  immense power loom large in many of these paintings.  As Nash explains, the sublime provoked a combination of feelings–awe, amazement, fear, and terror–that Romantics found particularly attractive.  For many the sublime also suggested divinity and spirituality.

Nash stresses the role that HRS artists played in helping Americans to come to appreciate nature and wilderness.  It is true that thousands of American flocked to see the images of HRS artists, which were not only displayed in galleries and museums but also widely reproduced in books, periodicals, and engravings.  But, as is often the case, the story is more complex than may first seem the case.  Nash’s interpretation has been subjected to much revision since he published the first edition of Wilderness and the American Mind more than thirty years ago.  Historians now recognize that Hudson River School artists did tend to celebrate American wilderness and that they were important in helping Americans to come to see the aesthetic and spiritual value in landscapes that were relatively untouched by human hands.  But often they also seemed to celebrate the ‘middle ground’ between civilization and wilderness, to glorify ‘progress,’ and to praise westward expansion.  There is clearly more ambiguity in their stance toward wilderness and progress than Nash’s early interpretation suggests.  This should become more evident in as you look through and think about the images below.

Thomas Cole (1801-1848)

Cole was the founder of the Hudson River School.  He was born in England and came to America at age 18, to work as an engraver in his father’s wallpaper factory.  He became interested in painting, and in 1825, the same year that the Erie Canal linked the Hudson River to the Great Lakes, he produced several images of the Hudson River that quickly attracted the attention of the art world.  The image on the right was produced two years later (in 1827) and is entitled “Sunny Morning on Hudson River.”  Notice that the Hudson River is in the background.  In the original, you can just make out planted fields along its banks.  The middle part of the painting is dominated by the mountain on the left and the foreground contains a tree that has been blasted by lightening or blown down during a thunderstorm.  Both the mountain and the broken trees suggest the sublime.  They are clearly created by some immense power.  But the overall effect of the painting is not one of fright.  The light blue sky, the morning light, and the whispy clouds suggest a calm and peacefulness.  This is not the forbidding, threatening wilderness of the Puritans.  Instead, it is a pleasing place of quiet contemplation.

As you look at the rest of these images, notice that mountains, with their suggestion of sublimity, appear in most HRS paintings.  Another favorite subject was waterfalls, which also suggest an immense power.  An example is “Kaaterskill Falls” (1826), another of Coles’s early images.  With its jagged rocks, blasted trees, storm clouds, and mountains, this painting includes multiple sublime elements.

Like subsequent HRSers, Cole often included pastoral elements in his paintings.  For example, one of his most famous images, “The Oxbow” (1836), looks down on a community on the banks of the Connecticut River, in Massachusetts.  If you look carefully, you can see well-maintained fields and orchards as well as smoke coming from the chimneys of the homes that dot the valley.  Clearly this is no untamed wilderness; rather, it is an idyllic agricultural community.  The left side of painting, complete with mountain, blasted tree, and storm, is much more suggestive of the sublime.  As with other Romantics, Cole seems to be attracted to wilderness at the same time he is idealizing the pastoral middle ground between civilization and wild nature.  If you look really closely at the mountain you can also see an artist who is depicting the scene below.

Frederick Edwin Church (1826-1900)

Many of Cole’s contemporaries found inspiration in his new approach to landscape painting.  Frederick EdwinChurch began formally studying with Cole at age 19.  Like his mentor, Church tended to sketch his subjects in the field and then complete the actual paintings in his studio.  But unlike Cole, whose subject matter was largely confined to locations in the northeastern part of the United States, Church eventually ventured as far away as South America to find subjects.

Much of Church’s early work was confined much closer to home.  Like other HRSer’s he often depicted waterfalls, particularly Niagara Falls, which became an increasingly popular tourist destination with the opening of the Erie Canal and the growth of Romanticism.  This impressive waterfall was yet another expression of the sublime, as Church’s painting, “Niagara Falls” (1857), reveals.  As you view this painting you can almost hear the deafening sound of the crashing water, and note the dark storm clouds on the horizon.

Church also depicted “The Natural Bridge” 1852.  It too is highly suggestive of the sublime.  Clearly some awesome power must have been responsible for this large unusual rock formation which Thomas Jefferson had pointed to with pride in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1887).  I suspect many of you have visited this site at some point.

One of Church’s most famous paintings is “The Heart of the Andes” (1859), which was one of a number of South American subjects he completed during his career.  In this painting, depicted on the left, Church combines several manifestations of the sublime–the jagged mountains and stormy clouds in the background and the waterfall in the center.  Toward the left in the middle of the painting are cows grazing in a field, providing a hint of the pastoral.  Overgrown tropical foliage punctuated by a single grave site occupy much of the foreground.  Note also the Church’s beautiful use of light.  One thing you can’t tell from this reproduction of Church’s painting is the size of the original.  It was huge, 5 1/2 feet tall and 10 feet wide, as this photograph of it mounted in a gallery helps to reveal.  The image was also quite popular.  One day in 1859 more than 2400 people paid 25 cents each to see it .  Some art historians believe that more Americans viewed this painting before the Civil War than any other.  Along with other examples from the Hudson River School, this painting undoubtedly played a role in the development of a more sympathetic attitude toward wild nature.

Church became extremely adept at portraying changes in natural light.  His “Twighlight in the Wilderness” (1860) for example, dramatically captured a colorful sunset.  Here Church seems to be suggesting not only the overwhelming beauty of the natural world, but also its fragility.  He was undoubtedly aware that many of the places he was painting were threatened with development.  Because light plays such an important role in Church’s paintings and because he was so good at depicting it, some art historians have pronounced him one of the founders of the “Luminist” School of landscape painting, a spinoff from the Hudson River School.

Church’s exquisite use of light is also quite evident in “Mount Ktaadin” (1853).  This is the same mountain in Maine where Thoreau had become became disoriented, where he began questioning whether humans should strive to re-establish a home in the untamed wilderness.  The foreground of the Church’s painting is a pastoral scene, including a young man gazing out toward the mountain, cows drinking water, a small bridge, and a mill.  In the background the sublime mountain is bathed in a beautiful light.  Church seems more sympathetic to the wild Mount Katahdin (one of the many variant spellings of this location) than Thoreau.

Asher B. Durand (1796-1886)

Asher B. Durand was apprenticed to an engraver at a young age.  Soon he became well known for his banknotes and his engravings of other artists’s paintings. In 1825, he purchased one of Cole’s early Hudson River scenes.  He was so inspired by what he saw that he began devoting more and more of his time to landscape painting and soon became a prominent member of the Hudson River School.

Durand’s painting “The Beech’s” (1845) displays his skill in depicting light and a much more subdued notion of the sublime than many other HRS paintings.  Here the ancient trees on the left hand side of the painting provide only the merest hint of the sublime.  Notice too the suggestion of the pastoral: the shepherd leading his flock down the road.

One of Durand’s most fascinating and complex images, entitled simply “Progress” (1853), is depicted at the right.  The lefthand side of the painting is sublime wilderness, complete with blasted trees and native Americans peering at the scene below them.  Coming in from the lower far right corner of the painting is a wagon road, which meanders until it reaches a bustling manufacturing center.  If you click on the image, you can see a larger reproduction in which more of the details are visible.  The smoke of chimneys and steamships are clearly visible in the original (though you may not be able to see them even in the larger version).  So too is a railroad viaduct moving west in the direction of the river toward the setting sun.  Durand has succeeded in compressing into a single image the march of civilization across the landscape.  As the viewer moves his or her eyes across the canvas, wilderness gives way to settlement and countryroads, which give way to industry and factories.  While there are many ways to read’s Durand’s painting, he does not necessarily seem to be troubled by the march of economic progress and westward expansion that he depicts.

George Inness (1825-1894)

The artist George Inness pursued similar themes in his work.  As with other Hudson River School artists, nature predominates in many of his paintings.  A good example is “Peace and Plenty” (1865), with its sublime background and is more pastoral foreground.  But in “Lackawanna Valley” (1855), depicted here, Inness seems more ambivalent.  The foreground is dominated by tree stumps and a young man gazing down into the valley.  One or two trees in this part of the painting remain standing.  In the top half of the painting is the bustling town of Scranton, Pennsylvania, and the complex of the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad Company, the business enterprise that commissioned this particular work.  The distant mountains seem to be shrouded in a smoky haze that will be quite familiar to anyone who has spent time in this part of the country (and for the same reasons–whether you realize it or not, much of the haze we see around here is due to air pollution!).  In between are some remants of wild nature, which seem increasingly in danger as the town expands in the valley and land is cleared for agriculture in the countryside.  Inness may be saying he prefers the human touch on the landscape.  He may also be warning how modern industrial society threatens wild lands.  Either reading seems plausible.
Jasper Cropsey (1823-1900)

The HRS artist Jasper Cropsey also seems ambivalent about progress.  In some of his paintings, like “Catskill Mountain House” (1855), the natural world and the sublime clearly predominante.  But even here, in the very center of the painting, there is a human habitation, the hotel where urban New Yorkers came to temporarily escape into the wilds of the Catskill Mountains to be renewed and invigorated by the sublime scenery.

Cropsey’s “Starrucca Viaduct” (1865), on the right, is a view of the most famous bridge on the route of the New York and Erie Railroad, a stucture that was once touted at the Eighth Wonder of the World.  The bridge was gigantic–some 1,200 feet long and 114 high–and made of hewn stone.  It convincingly demonstrated how railroads might safely overcome natural obstacles, like mountainsides and rivers.  Yet this collosal human structure seems dwarfed by the wilderness it cuts through.  Sublime mountains and threatening skies predominate in the top half of the picture, while a quiet body of water and beautifully colored foliage occupy the foreground.  From a quick glance of the picture it is easy to miss its ostensible subject–the railroad bridge–almost entirely.  Notice also the way the railroad is moving from the right side of the painting to the left.  This is analogous to moving from east to west on most maps, and many HRS paintings including some suggestion of this kind of westward movement.

Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902)

Several HRS painters began specializing in scenes of the American West.  They are sometimes talked about as a separate “Rocky Mountain School,” but many of the themes they explore and the approaches to landscape painting they pursue are quite similar to other HRS artists.  One of this period’s best-known artists who specialized in western scenes was Albert Bierstadt, who was born in Germany but raised in Massachusetts.  He received formal training at the Dusseldorf Academy back in his native Germany, and then, like Church and Cole, established a studio along the Hudson River.  He traveled repeatedly to the West to paint.  His “Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak” (1863) is a marvelous example of his work.  Dramatic mountains and sweeping cloud formations form the backdrop for the work.  Through a careful use of light and shadow, the artists draws the viewer into the center of the painting, which depicts a sublime waterfall.  And the foreground includes a pastoral scene, but in this case it’s of a native American encampment, complete with teepees, herds of horses, and tribal members milling about.  Paintings like this one brought realistic (though carefully chosen) views of the American West to eastern viewers at a time when long distance travel was difficult, expensive, and uncertain.  This particular painting was quite large (ca. 6 feet by 10 feet) and quite popular.  It sold for $25,000, the most anyone had paid for an American painting up to that point.

One of Bierstadt’s favorite places to depict was Yosemite.  His “Domes of the Yosemite” (1863) played a role in convincing Congress to give the Yosemite Valley to the State of California to be set aside as a park “for public use, resort, and recreation” (See Nash, pp. 106-07).  Later (in 1890) Congress would establish the second national park in Yosemite.  As we shall we later in the course,  at the turn of the century site became the center of a controversy when the city of San Francisco tried to build a dam inside the boundaries of the Yosemite National Park. Notice how various manifestations of the sublime predominate in the painting.  You should also realize that this painting is huge, 10 feet by 15 feet.  “Looking of the Yosemite Valley” (ca. 1865-67) is a later version of this same general area.  Notice here the dramtic rock outcroppings, the sun bursting forth through the clouds, and the waterfall, all suggestions of the sublime.  As in many paintings, there are also a few humans in the foreground to give the viewer more of a sense of the immense scale of the background.  A final example from this series, “Yosemite Valley” (1868) is also a really gorgeous image and explores similar themes.

Thomas Moran (1837-1926)

Thomas Moran was also known primarily for his western landscapes, but he also painted scenes in the East.  An example of one of the latter views is “Under the Trees” (1865).  Notice the marvelous use of light, the human figure giving the painting a sense of scale, and the incredibly beautiful foliage.  When paintings like these were first exhibited in Europe, some viewers thought they were frauds because they had never seen trees with such brilliant colored leaves.  At one point Jasper Cropsey even attached dried leaves to one of his paintings to prove he was not a fraud.

In addition to being a painter, Moran was also an explorer.  He accompanied Ferdinand Hayden’s 1871 Yellowstone Expedition and produced a number of sketches and paintings of the area.  Hayden’s expedition eventually led to Congress’s decision to established the first true national park at Yellowstone in 1872 (see Nash, chapter 7).  Two years later Congress paid $10,000 to purchase one of Moran’s paintings of the region, “The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone” (1872), which was hung in the Capitol Building (and is pictured here).  Jagged mountains and strange rock formation surround a waterfall, which is in the center (You guessed it–more sublime elements, clearly designed to enchant and impress the viewer).  And if you look carefully in the center of the picture you will see two tiny human figures standing on a rock in the foreground.  Moran produced numerous other paintings of Yellowstone, including the famous geyser, “Old Faithful” (1873), which is yet another representation of the sublime that we have not encountered before.


As the nineteenth century drew to a close, the Hudson River School fell into disfavor.  Realistic landscape painting was increasingly viewed as old fashioned and quaint with the emergence of new styles (like Impressionism) coming out of Europe.  Galleries began refusing to show HRS artists, and art museums often hid them away.  Albert Bierstadt, who had once received record-breaking prices for his landscape paintings, died in poverty.  Interest in the style was finally revived in the 1940s.  Today you can view paintings by Hudson River School artists at many major art museums across the country.

Hudson River School artists encouraged Americans to think about nature in new and different ways.  Their realistic landscapes were widely displayed and widely copied.  Clearly the HRS promoted a more sympathetic view of wild nature.  Sublime scenes provoked the reader to see the divine in nature and to want to experience the actual sites firsthand.  As Nash has tried to argue, sometimes the paintings even contributed to the preservation of particular wild sites.  But, like other Romantics, HRSers also seemed quite attracted to the middle ground between civilization and wilderness–the pastoral, the arcadian, the rural.  Some even seemed to celebrate progress and western expansion.


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