The Making of the Hudson River School

The Making of the Hudson River School


This exhibition originated from the frequently asked question “what is the Hudson River School?” We can begin with three basic facts.

First, the Hudson River School refers to American landscape painting created between 1825 and roughly 1875.

Second, the Hudson River School was not an actual school, but a group of artists who mainly lived and painted in the Hudson River valley of New York. They frequently knew one another, went on sketching trips together, and exhibited their paintings side by side at exhibitions and galleries.

Third, the name Hudson River School was not used by the artists themselves. The name came into general use in the 1870s, at a time when their style was losing popularity.

In addition to these three statements, this exhibition reveals that much more went into the making of the Hudson River School, such as the influence of European traditions and cultural movements, as well as America’s natural environment and commercial spirit. The Hudson River School also emerged alongside the new medium of photography, the new science of geology, and new technologies that transformed travel and inaugurated an industrial revolution. The Hudson River School ultimately helped shape an American identity.

Between Man and Nature

During the years when Hudson River School artists were painting their most significant works, manufacturing began to supersede agriculture as the mainstay of the American economy. Between 1849 and 1879, the number of factories and hand-production shops in the nation more than doubled from around 123,000 to more than 253,000. New York State contributed significantly to that growth. J. H. French’s Gazetteer of the State of New York (1860) noted: “The manufactures of the State are very extensive, embracing an almost endless variety of articles. In many sections the manufacturing interests surpass those of agriculture or commerce.” Water and steam power drove America’s manufacturing. It operated machinery, ran printing presses, and shaped wood into fashionable furniture. Steam also revolutionized America’s transportation network with steamships and railroads.

The new technologies and industries fostered feelings of national pride and proved that the United States could compete with Europe. In 1847, the American statesman Daniel Webster expressed his own astonishment: “It is an extraordinary era in which we live . . . I will not pretend, no one can pretend, to discern the end; but every body knows that the age is remarkable for scientific research into the heavens, the earth, and what is beneath the earth; and perhaps more remarkable still for the application of this scientific research to the pursuits of life.”

Not everyone was so optimistic. A few individuals began to sound alarms like Vermont lawyer and businessman George Perkins Marsh, who published his concerns as Man and Nature: or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action (1864). His book explained the detrimental effects on natural systems caused by human intervention, and it set in motion the modern conservation movement. 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 from Mount Ida

DeWitt Clinton Boutelle (1820–1884)

Oil on canvas, 1845

Kinderhook, New York, Collection

Several artists painted this view from Mount Ida, looking south past the communities of Watervliet and Albany on the Hudson River toward the Catskill Mountains in the background. It must have been a scene of delight, the agreeable union of civilization and nature. Each seems to have its place; each resides peacefully with the other.

A native of Troy, New York, Boutelle surely had personal connections with Mount Ida since the elevated peak lies just north of his home community. He probably climbed the steep road depicted in this view on several occasions. Although self-taught as an artist, View from Mount Ida displays Boutelle’s accomplishment in landscape painting.

Mill on a Stream

Régis François Gignoux (1816–1888)

Oil on canvas, c. 1860–1870

Courtesy of Nicholas V. Bulzacchelli

Haverstraw on the Hudson

Marie-François-Régis Gignoux (1814-1882) | 1860-1865

Medium: Oil on canvas

Dimensions: 13 1/2 H x 35 1/4 W

Credit: Albany Institute of History & Art Purchase

The 1860 New York Gazetteer states: “Immense quantities of brick are manufactured on the Hudson for the New York and Southern markets.” Gignoux's panoramic view shows several brickyards and kilns along the western bank of the Hudson River at Haverstraw. Their industrial operations seem to coexist harmoniously with the natural beauty of the Hudson River and the pastoral landscape in the foreground complete with grazing cattle.

Born in Lyon, France, and educated at the Academie St. Pierre, Gignoux later attended the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris before studying with the noted history painter Paul Delaroche. When an American woman caught his eye, Gignoux followed her back to the United States where the two married. The American landscape captivated the French artist and he spent most of his life painting its woods, waterways, and wilderness areas. But he found the nation’s more cultivated and settled areas equally appealing. His winter landscapes caught the attention of art critics and patrons early in his career, yet, regardless of season, most of his landscapes exhibit the same delicate hand characteristic of his French training, and most show his subtle rose and lavender color palette. In 1870, Gignoux returned to France where he lived the rest of his life.

Grassy Island Shaft, Delaware and Hudson Canal Co.

Thomas H. Johnson, Scranton, PA | c. 1863–1865

Photographer: Thomas H. Johnson, Scranton, PA

Medium: Albumen print with original letterpress mounts

Dimensions: 12 1/2 H x 15 3/4 W, mounted 17 1/2 H x 20 3/4 W

Credit: Albany Institute of History & Art Library, gift of the estate of J. Tabor Loree

During the 1860s, the Delaware & Hudson Canal Company hired photographers to document its canal and gravity railroad that linked the rich coalfields of northeastern Pennsylvania with the Hudson River and the industrial centers of New York City, Albany, and Troy. The project resulted in a portfolio of thirty-two large-plate albumen photographs. Most of the photographs were taken by a mysterious “Johnson, Photographer, Scranton, Pa.,” very likely Thomas H. Johnson, who operated a photographic studio in Scranton in the 1860s.

Von' Storch Breaker, Delaware and Hudson Canal Co.

Thomas H. Johnson, Scranton, PA | c. 1863–1865

Photographer: Thomas H. Johnson, Scranton, PA

Medium: Albumen print with original letterpress mounts

Dimensions: 12 1/2 H x 15 3/4 W, mounted 17 1/2 H x 20 3/4 W

Credit: Albany Institute of History & Art Library, gift of the estate of J. Tabor Loree

The photographs of Grassy Island Shaft and the Von’ Storch Breaker are contemporaneous with the great Hudson River School landscapes of Frederic Edwin Church, John Frederick Kensett, Sanford R. Gifford, and others. In truth, landscape photography was emerging as an artistic medium during the middle decades of the nineteenth century. Johnson’s views, however, capture a landscape succumbing to human intervention.

View of Hudson, New York

Henry Ary (1807-1859) | 1852

Medium: Oil on canvas

Dimensions: 26 H x 36 W

Credit: Albany Institute of History & Art Purchase

The artist Henry Ary was born in Rhode Island around 1807, but is associated mainly with the city of Hudson, New York, and the surrounding countryside, especially MountMerino, which stands just south of the Hudson River community. Ary left Rhode Island by 1831, at which date he lists himself in the Albany city directory as a portrait painter. Within a few years he moved to Catskill, New York, and by 1840 had crossed the river to settle in the thriving community of Hudson.

Ary took up landscape painting when he moved to Catskill around 1834, the same year Thomas Cole established a residence there. Cole influenced Ary and encouraged him to study landscape painting. Ary entered his first work at the National Academy of Design in 1845 and also exhibited at the American Art-Union. Even though he was actively painting landscapes by the mid-1840s, he continued to accept work doing portraits and decorative painting, which provided a steady source of income. In 1854, he was listed as an instructor of painting and drawing at the HudsonFemaleAcademy.

View of Hudson, New York, offers a look at a city entering the industrial age, as suggested by the several smokestacks that expel plumes of smoke into the air. The tallest and most prominent ones in the center of the painting belonged to the Hudson Iron Company, which was organized in 1848 and commenced operations in 1851. By 1878, the History of Columbia County noted, “in the construction of these works the furnaces were originally set upon piles in the South bay. The company purchased about ninety acres of the bay, and by filling in with débris and cinders from the furnaces, have reclaimed some ten or twelve acres, on which other manufactories have since been erected.”

Landscape with Hudson in the Distance

Sanford R. Gifford (1823–1880) | c. 1851-1860

Medium: Oil on wood panel

Dimensions: 6 1/3 H x 9 W, 10 1/2 H x 12 3/4 W (framed)

Credit: Gift of Arthur H. Lloyd, Bertha, and Ethel Lloyd in memory of their parents Thomas Spencer Lloyd and Emily B. Pulling Lloyd

In this small oil sketch of his childhood home of Hudson, New York, the artist Sanford R. Gifford juxtaposes a pastoral foreground against an urban and industrial background. The two, however, seem at harmony. Gifford may have painted the scene to illustrate his father’s business, the Hudson Iron Company, positioned in the center of the landscape with a wind-blown trail of smoke emanating from one of its smokestacks. Already in this small sketch, Gifford’s golden atmospheric light is apparent. It illuminates the shepherd and his flock, much like the warm glow that fills the pastoral paintings of seventeenth-century painter Claude Lorrain.

Mount Merino and the City of Hudson in Autumn

Sanford Robinson Gifford (1823-1880) | c. 1852

Medium: Oil on canvas

Dimensions: 18 1/2 H x 26 1/2 W

Credit: Gift by exchange, Governor and Mrs. W. Averell Harriman

Dobbs Ferry on the Hudson

Granville Perkins (1830–1895)

Oil on canvas, c. 1870

Collection of Nicholas V. Bulzacchelli

A busy scene confronts the men and women who gaze down on the Hudson River from the hillside at Dobbs Ferry, New York. Steamships and sailboats traverse the pellucid water. The dock bustles with activity. Even the empty railroad track anticipates the roar of a passing locomotive. Yet, despite the goings-on of the world, Granville Perkins’ landscape conveys a hushed calm, a tranquility that is distant from the movement of men and machines.

Perkins was born in Baltimore, Maryland, and studied art in Philadelphia with William E. Smith, the son of noted drawing master John Rubens Smith. He earned his living primarily as a book illustrator and engraver on wood, taking a position at Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper in 1855, and five years later joining the Harper Brothers publishing company. Perkins also contributed designs for the popular illustrated book Picturesque America that was issued serially by subscription from 1872 to 1874.

Prior to beginning his professional career, Perkins’ wanderlust led him to the Caribbean Islands and Central America, where the tropical sun, the ocean, and the luxuriant foliage influenced his sense of color. The art journal The Aldine (February 1872) praised his color palette, commenting on the impact of his tropical sojourn: “His intimate knowledge of coast and tropical scenery, which may be considered as his specialty, finds its best expression on canvas. His paintings are much esteemed for their warmth of color, and for the natural life-like beauty of their sky and water effects.” The article concluded by declaring Perkins “a born colorist.”  Dobbs Ferry on the Hudson exhibits his mastery of color and his effective composition that contrasts the brilliance of water and sky with the darker foreground.

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