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This Week in History
October 26 - November 1, 2014

The Hudson River School of Painting
Established in 1825

by Steve Carr

Alexander von Humboldt, (1769-1859 ).

The Hudson River School was not a school, nor even an organized club, but rather, a group of artists who often worked together at their 10th Street Studio in New York City.  They provided much of the leadership of the National Academy of Design in New York, which was created so that art could be used to address some of the great challenges facing both the nation and mankind, liberating art from the control of pseudo-aristocratic patrons.  

Many of these painters were also regular attendees of the frequent gatherings hosted by the famous writers, James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851) and Washington Irving (1783-1859), which were held in the back room of the shop of their publisher, Charles Wiley.  Similar to Ben Franklin’s American Philosophical Society, Cooper’s informal “Bread and Cheese Club” attracted the intellectuals of the region, and from these meetings at the corner of Wall Street and Broadway, Cooper’s circle published a newspaper, The Patriot.  This newspaper promoted large infrastructure projects, like the Erie Canal, to build the nation, and the cheap credit policy of the Second National Bank which made these projects possible.  Many thought that the best way to abolish slavery was to develop the most advanced economy and make it obsolete.  Cooper, in 1820, would, in fact, run the election campaign in Westchester County for New York Governor DeWitt Clinton, known as the father of the Erie Canal.  Earlier, during the War Of 1812, Washington Irving had been a military adviser to then Governor of New York, Daniel Tompkins.  Cooper and Irving encouraged the nascent arts community to take an active role in creating a cornerstone of culture, morality, and national pride in the young nation.  One can see this influence expressed in the paintings of the Hudson River School. 

Thomas Cole (1801-1848).

Indeed, the date and location given as the official founding of the Hudson River School was the celebration for the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, when three landscapes by Thomas Cole were sold from a shop window in New York.  While some religious fundamentalists viewed the dangers of the wilderness as “the devil’s workshop,” the Hudson River School painters took the opposite approach.  To them, this vast wilderness was God’s gift to mankind and symbolized the promise of America.  Much of America’s brains and brawn were dedicated to “Manifest Destiny”--extending civilization across the continent--and much of the artistic community took an active role in every aspect of this.  The painter, Robert Fulton, built the first steamboat, the painter Samuel Morse experimented with electromagnetism and developed the Morse code, and the childhood of painter, James Whistler, was spent traveling around the world as his engineer father, George Washington Whistler, was designing some of the first railroad lines in the world.  Writers, painters, photographers, and musical composers were eager to focus attention westward, with the intent of bringing the benefits of civilization everywhere.  

Transcendentalist Subversion

A major exception to this rule was the American writer and orator, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), and his Transcendentalist movement, which did everything possible to subvert this mission of technological progress.  Instead of man bringing development to the wilderness, man would regress to a “natural” hunting and gathering mode.  A Transcendentalist utopian farm, Fruitland, west of Boston, would even prohibit the use of candles, animal power, and honey, since honey represented the exploitation of bees.   

Emerson developed an intense zeal to promote this backward outlook, while traveling in England, in 1830.  During this trip he met John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), the head of intelligence for the colonial British East India Company, and Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), whose reactionary diatribes called for the reinstating of slavery and serfdom for the “servant” races.  Carlyle’s goal was to rebuild a European style, feudal society, and he feared that industrialization would render feudalism obsolete.  Mill and Carlyle were delighted that Emerson would help to subvert the national mission of America from development and progress, to that of self-imposed backwardness.  Carlyle worked to make Emerson famous across Europe, and the two became business representatives for each other in their respective countries.  While they were lifelong friends, Emerson always called Carlyle, “My General,” and it was clear that “American” Transcendentalism was controlled from London. 

Figure 1
Thomas Cole’s “The Oxbow” is the quintessential Hudson River School painting showing how man can improve nature

Thomas Cole

It would be impossible to study the Hudson River School without studying Thomas Cole (1801-1848), known as the founder of the group.  Cole’s most celebrated painting is “View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm” (1836), usually called “The Oxbow” (Figure 1) which is highlighted in the exhibit.  In both subject and style, this painting is considered by many as the quintessential Hudson River School painting.  The word “Oxbow” refers to the curve in the Connecticut River, but this is also a play on the word, referring to the yoke used on oxen, a symbol for man’s harnessing of nature.  Indeed, the entire right side of the painting is devoted to mankind’s intervention to improve nature, turning the valley into productive agriculture.  It would seem that God has given his blessing to man’s civilizing role in nature by bestowing a bright sunny day over the entire valley of peaceful farms.  The depiction of the shadows cast by clouds over the landscape were unprecedented in American art history, as Cole invites the viewer to see the world as only God could see it.  This postcard-perfect scene of rural America is in stark contrast to the left side of the painting, where the sky is blotted out with the dark, violent storm which has left a path of destruction as evident by the twisted tree stump in the foreground.  Cole often used a passing storm to illustrate impending change.  On the left side of the painting there is neither balance nor harmony, and the raw power of nature is left to run its destructive course.  The artist shows himself in the center foreground, not on the tranquil side of the painting but the rugged, stormy side, where he and his umbrella serve as a bridge between the two worlds.  He, however, is not looking out over the picturesque valley, but rather, over his shoulder, engaging you, the viewer. 

Frederic Edwin Church

Many consider Fredric Edwin Church (1826-1900), who traced his ancestry back to the earliest Puritan settlers, to be the greatest of the Hudson River School painters. Church was an amateur scientist, an enthusiastic supporter of Abraham Lincoln, and a devoted follower of the German scientific genius, Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859). Humboldt insisted that the universe was not random, but rather, tended towards an harmonious unity, and that landscape paintings were critical in revealing this principle. In 1853, Church followed Humboldt’s 1799 travels throughout South America (accompanied by Cyrus Field, who financed the first transatlantic telegraph cable), and even to the Artic zones of North America.  He strived to confront you, the viewer of his paintings, with the densest of tropical jungles, the highest of active volcanoes, and the most agitated crashing of waterfalls.  The viewer is made to feel that he or she is participating in these scenes of his tour de force renderings of the natural sciences.  While his paintings are dramatic in both breadth and depth, his true purpose is to create a pensive mood.  Just as the American, Thomas Eakins, could not paint a horse unless he first studied every muscle and bone inside the horse, Church felt obliged to understand the smoke and lava emitted from volcanoes before he could honestly render it on canvas. 

Figure 2
Frederic Church followed the travels of his mentor, Alexander von Humboldt to the jungles of South America where Humboldt said the vast variety of species demonstrate his view of a harmonious universe

Church climbed the19,000-foot cone of an active volcano, Chimborazo, located in Ecuador, and was very pleased with himself when he made a few discoveries that not even Humboldt had made when he climbed the same volcano. His panoramic views, presented on massive canvases, also give attention to each microscopic detail, with scientific precision.  His preliminary painting, shown in this exhibit for his 1862 epic work of the volcano, “Cotopaxi” (Figure 2) which is also in Ecuador, may have less detail than the final product, but here we are given a front row seat to the artist planning his strategy.  Not just the Earth itself, but the scientific principles of the creation of the Earth, are revealed in the chasm walls, with their millennia of geological history, depicted in painstaking detail.  Cotopaxi is one of the highest active volcanoes in the world, and Humboldt wrote extensively about it.  This painting, completed during the dark days of the American Civil War, called to mind the many bloody, horrific battles, as the landscape is drenched with smoke, red glare, and violence, where civilization itself is threatened. Yet, the bright yellow Sun, which hangs in the distance, ambiguously suspended between Heaven and Earth (is it rising or setting?) offers hope for the future.  This is a scene of destruction and renewal, and although the air was heavy with gloom, Church was confident that the nation would emerge from the Civil War as a more perfect Union, where every citizen would have the opportunity to contribute to the advancement of mankind.