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From the April 2013 Conservationist

An oil painting of an older man looking over a field with cows grazing and some trees in summer

Plein Air:

How Hudson River School Art Influenced the American Spirit

Text adapted from: The Albany Institute of History & Art exhibit "The Making of the Hudson River School: More than the Eye Beholds" and The Hudson River School: Nature and the American Vision by Linda S. Ferber & the NYS Historical Society. Unless otherwise noted, all paintings represented here are from the collection of the Albany Institute of History & Art.

Many of us are familiar with the muted colors, nearly invisible brushstrokes, and sprawling landscapes of the Catskills and Adirondacks by Hudson River School artists. Some of us might even know names like "Thomas Cole," "Asher B. Durand," and "Frederic Edwin Church."

But what was this so-called Hudson River School?

A painting of a military man posing on a rocky bluff with his sword
George Gerhard's Major (Charles
Temple) Dix, oil on canvas (1865).

Three statements offer only a beginning to understanding the term. One: The Hudson River School refers to landscape painting, specifically works created between 1825 and roughly 1875. Second: The School was not an actual school. Rather, it identifies a group of artists who mainly lived and painted in the Hudson River Valley of New York. Third: The name "Hudson River School" was not used by the artists themselves, and it did not come into general use until the 1870s, at a time when the popularity of their style was waning.

Hudson River School (HRS) paintings are best recognized for their exaltations of wild and uncultivated nature, aspects of the American continent that differentiated it from Europe where wilderness had almost completely vanished. Emphasis on this wild, American landscape paved the way for a new sense of national pride and identity-one that the American people could call their own.

An oil painting of a portion of the Watkins Glen gorge, in a gold frame
James Hope's Watkins Glen, oil on
canvas (c. 1870)

In addition to their decorative appearance, landscapes impart a wealth of information about individuals portrayed, including their social standing and aspirations, as well as information about the economic and political climate in which a portrait was painted. In Gerhard's painting, the water in the distance most likely represents the Hudson River, and the rocky ledge on which Major Dix stands is likely the eastern extension of the Helderberg escarpment west of Albany.

In the autumn of 1825, artists John Trumbull, William Dunlap and Asher B. Durand (a leading HRS painter) purchased several of British-born artist Thomas Cole's paintings. The three established artists promoted Cole's talents, setting him on his course to success and notoriety. What attracted viewers to Cole's landscapes were his depictions of wild American scenery-views of the Hudson River Highlands and Catskill Mountains.

If European cities represented the grand museum that was western civilization, the natural scenery of North America symbolized moral worth and identity.

Spiritual truths and transcendence to a higher state of being could be witnessed and experienced through all that nature placed before the American people. Hudson River School paintings captured the emotional and contemplative forces found in the American landscape.

An oil painting of the town of Hudson and the Hudson River
Henry Ary's View of Hudson, NY, oil on
canvas (1852)

Landscape art of the period depicted both the enthusiasm for progress-the harmonious union between man's developments and nature-and a warning of nature's fragility. View of Hudson, New York offers a look into this dichotomy by showing a city entering the industrial age. Note the several smokestacks that expel plumes of smoke into the air.

An oil painting depicting a view up a creek surrounded by woods
Thomas Cole's View on Catskill Creek
oil on composition board (c.1833)

Cole and later HRS artists ventured to scenic areas throughout the nation, capturing sites that would become favored tourist destinations. Their paintings influenced the way Americans viewed the landscape as locations of wonder, beauty and historical association.

HRS artists were part of a generation of artists who made New York State's Hudson Valley the landscape that defined America.

Many artists preferred the "en plein-air" (French for "in open air") technique of landscape painting, advocating a close observation of nature. ". . . I would urge on any young student in landscape painting, the importance of painting direct from Nature as soon as he shall have acquired the first rudiments of Art," advised Durand. Preserving such truth in appearance was thought to lead to higher truths-moral, spiritual, and truth of ideas.

A colored lithograph showing a group of sailboats sailing up the Hudson River
Up the Hudson, published by Nathanial
Currier adn ames Merritt Ives, hand-
colored lithograph (c. 1872)

Even though few Americans could afford paintings by the HRS's most acclaimed artists, many could purchase landscapes from lesser-known painters, or they could purchase painted copies or prints. One such publisher that produced copies of Hudson River School paintings was Currier & Ives (see American Spirit in this issue)

Editor's Note: For more information about the Hudson River School and its artists, see "River Visions" in the February 2008 Conservationist.