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.

European Sojourns

Although Hudson River School artists found their most inspiring and powerful subject matter in the American landscape, at some point in their careers most did travel abroad to study and paint the time-honored sites and ruins of Europe. The European sojourn, however, did not take place without arousing feelings of apprehension that exposure to European landscapes and culture would somehow corrupt the freshness and originality of American landscape artists. The poet William Cullen Bryant composed his “Sonnet—To an American Painter Departing for Europe” on the occasion of Thomas Cole’s first journey to Europe in 1829. He warned Cole:

Fair scenes shall greet thee where thou goest—fair,
                 But different . . . .
                 .  .  .  .  .  .   . .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .
     Gaze on them, till the tears shall dim thy sight,
                 But keep that earlier, wilder image bright.

The “wilder image” that Bryant referenced was the American landscape, wild and unspoiled by centuries of human use.

Despite Bryant’s warning, Cole and other American artists did travel to Europe where the experience was personally and artistically rewarding. In his Book of the Artists (1867), art critic Henry T. Tuckerman remarked, “A visit to Italy is perhaps more of an epoch in the life of an American artist than in that of any other.” The ideas and techniques brought home to America allowed Hudson RiverSchool artists to incorporate Old World artistic conventions with New World inspiration.

Interior of the Colosseum, Rome

Thomas Cole (1801-1848) | c. 1832

Medium: Oil on canvas

Dimensions: 10 H x 18 W

Credit: Albany Institute of History & Art Purchase, Evelyn Newman Fund

The Classical ruins that littered Rome with broken columns and crumbling walls fascinated Thomas Cole during his four-month stay in the Italian city in 1832. “I would select the Colosseum as the object that most affected me,” he wrote in his journal on May 14, 1832, “it looks like a work of nature not of man for the regularity of art is in great measure lost in ruin.” Cole noted the plants and flowers that covered the weathered stone arches and walls of the Coliseum, and which visibly displayed the regenerative and cyclical forces of nature.

The Roman ruins inspired Cole to paint his multi-canvas Course of Empire series (finished in 1836) and his Voyage of Life series (1839–1840), both of which illustrate the passage of time. Art historians have noted the sense of pensive melancholy captured in these works and Cole himself voiced similar thoughts upon viewing the Coliseum: “To enter within its ruined walls . . . gives to mind melancholy though delightful meditations.” Interior of the Colosseum, Rome remained with Cole throughout his life, undoubtedly serving as a souvenir of his time in Rome.


Thomas Cole (1801–1848) | c. 1831

Medium: Oil on board

Dimensions: 8 7/8 H x 7 1/8 W, 12 H x 13 7/8 W (framed)

Credit: Albany Institute of History & Art Purchase

The abbey of Vallombrosa stands about nineteen miles southeast of Florence, Italy, on a wooded hill covered with beech and fir trees. During his first excursion to Europe Cole established a studio in Florence between May 1831 and October 1832. It was most likely during that time that he painted this small oil sketch of the abbey. Vallombrosa was a popular spot with tourists because of its picturesque beauty and its associations with the seventeenth-century English poet John Milton, who based his description of Paradise on the abbey: “In Vallombrosa, where th’Etrurian shades high over-arch’d embow’r.”

Cole painted Vallombrosa from below, looking up at the white monastery building through the dark green band of fir trees. His approach was similar to that described by fellow American traveler, Nathaniel Hazeltine Carter, who visited in 1826: “The approach to Vallombrosa bears but a faint resemblance to the gates of Paradise. A curtain of mountain fir forms the vestibule. The grove is artificial, which detracts much from its beauty. It is, however, thick, dark, and umbrageous, forming rather a pretty screen to hide the convent from the rest of the world.”

Hampstead Heath

Sanford Robinson Gifford (1823-1880)

Medium: Oil on paper

Credit: Promised gift of Albert B. Roberts

Sanford R. Gifford first traveled to Europe in 1855, spending time in London and also traveling and sketching throughout the English and Scottish countryside. Hampstead Heath, an ancient park that sits northwest of London, is marked by its sprawling and hilly terrain. It has been a popular destination for day excursions and for viewing the city of London from its elevated ridges. Gifford probably made this oil sketch of Hampstead Heath some time during 1855, since similar oil sketches on paper exist from that same stay in England.

Olive Grove Near Rome

George Inness (1825-1894) | 1870

Medium: Oil on canvas

Dimensions: 30 H x 45 W

Credit: Gift of the estate of Marjorie Doyle Rockwell

In April 1870, George Inness traveled to Rome, Italy, where he remained for the next four years. It was his third trip to Europe, and this one was his most productive. Before leaving, he made arrangements with the Boston art dealers Williams and Everett to sell his paintings in exchange for regular monthly payments. The agreement funded Inness’s stay in Rome, but it also pressured him to paint landscapes that appealed to a broad commercial market. To make certain his paintings were salable, Inness paid close attention to detail and finish. As he said, “finish is what the picture-dealers cry for.” The painting did find a ready buyer in the Boston collector Thomas Wigglesworth, who lent it to the Boston Art Club for exhibition in 1873.

Olive Grove near Rome (The Alban Hills) depicts the Italian countryside as seen from the Alban Hills southeast of Rome. The area was popular with tourists because of its views, lakes, and refreshing air free from summertime malaria that plagued the marshlands around Rome. Because it pictures a popular tourist site, and because it had to be readily marketable to meet the agreement with Williams and Everett, Inness’s painting is similar to Italian vedute, popular painted or printed views of Roman ruins, civic and religious buildings, and tourist locales.

Inness was a second generation Hudson River School artist who changed his style repeatedly throughout his career. Most noticeable is the influence of the French Barbizon School that favored loose brush strokes and pastoral landscapes of quiet, solemn mood.

Ruined Tower (Mediterranean Coast Scene with Tower)

Thomas Cole (1801-1848) | 1832-1836

Medium: Oil on composition board

Dimensions: 26 3/4 H x 34 W

Credit: Albany Institute of History & Art Purchase

Ruins of ancient buildings captivated Europeans and Americans in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a time when European romanticism placed emphasis on individual emotions and feelings as the way to understand nature and contemplate the meaning of human existence. Ruins stood as powerful reminders of the passage of time and the process of decay; they embodied the natural cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth.

Thomas Cole’s painting of a ruined tower originated from his travels in Europe between 1829 and 1832. Soon after his arrival in England, Cole met with the highly regarded British landscape artist John Constable, who exhibited his painting, Hadleigh Castle. The Mouth of the ThamesMorning after a Stormy Night (1829), at the June exhibition of the Royal Academy. Cole’s painting practically mirrors Constable’s work. In addition to seeing ruins captured in paint, Cole viewed several actual ruins, both classical and medieval, during his travels to Italy in 1831 and 1832.

Mt. Aetna

Sarah Cole (1805-1857) | 1846-1852

Medium: Oil on canvas

Dimensions: 11 1/2 H x 17 1/2 W

Provenance: This painting was descended in the Cole family to Florence Cole Vincent (d. 1961) and sold at an auction of Thomas Cole material through O. Rundle Gilbert in 1964

Credit: Albany Institute of History & Art Purchase

There is no evidence to suggest that Sarah Cole, the younger sister of artist Thomas Cole, ever traveled to Italy, yet her painting of Mount Aetna on the east coast of Sicily is a beautiful example of the American fascination for European views. Sarah is mostly remembered for painting copies of her brother’s work, and Thomas did paint several landscapes featuring Mount Aetna, but none of them match exactly the composition of Sarah’s piece. It could be that Sarah’s painting copies an unknown, and now lost, landscape by her brother. Sarah may also have altered Thomas’s views of Mount Aetna to create her own composition.

Amalfi Coast

Thomas Moran (1837–1926)

Oil on canvas, c. 1867–1868

Private Collection

Thomas Moran left Philadelphia for France in June 1866 with his wife Mary and son Paul. It was his second trip to Europe after emigrating from his birthplace of Bolton, England, in 1844. Moran used this trip to study the great masters of the past and the works of contemporary artists. It was on this excursion that he met the French painter Camille Corot, and, while in Paris, he viewed the paintings being assembled for the 1867 Exposition Universelle. The stylistic variety of Moran’s paintings reflects the influence of those many artists he met and studied while in Europe, including J. M. W. Turner, Alexandre Calame, Claude Lorrain, and others.

At the end of February 1867, Moran traveled to Italy. He stationed himself in Rome but spent much time traveling and sketching in the Roman Campagna and venturing as far south as Naples and Amalfi. After his return to the United States in May, Moran began painting European landscapes. He used the sketches and drawings from his travels to inspire his creativity and form his paintings’ compositions. On December 13, 1867, the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin reported on Moran’s contributions to the Artists’ Fund exhibition: “Several of the works now exhibiting are from studies made in Italy and elsewhere during his late European tour. They are charming in composition and splendid in color . . . Mr. Moran’s works are poems as well as pictures.” Amalfi Coast combines the realism of place with the poetic lyricism often associated with the works of Claude Lorrain.

In 1870, Richard Watson Gilder, the managing editor of Scribner’s Monthly Magazine, hired Moran to rework illustrations of the Yellowstone region for an upcoming article. Having not seen the area in person, Moran took the opportunity the following year to accompany Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden on a geological expedition of the Upper Yellowstone region. It was a momentous event in Moran’s life, which had lasting repercussions. The sketches and paintings derived from his travels in the Yellowstone and Rocky Mountains have shaped Moran’s identity as a painter of the American West, perhaps to the detriment of his other subjects.

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