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.

Landscape and Transcendence

The Hudson River School matured during years when European romanticism had significant influence on American arts and culture. Romanticism was an approach to understanding the world and humankind’s place in it. Unlike the Enlightenment that searched for order and knowledge through empirical observations, romanticism emphasized the self, one’s feelings and emotions, and it attempted to discover an essential spirituality in nature.

The American writer and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson called for the self-discovery of spiritual truths in his essay Nature (1836), which became one of the seminal works of American Transcendentalism, an offshoot of European romanticism. In a well-known passage, Emerson likened himself to a transparent eyeball, observing and becoming part of the world around him. Many Hudson River School artists captured the contemplative mood that Emerson expressed in his metaphor. Calm, quiet landscapes of still lakes, reflective sunlight, and lone figures observing nature attempt to transcend the physical structure of nature to uncover the eternal and divine.

Romanticism likewise valued emotions of fear and dread, an aesthetic known as the sublime. Nature in its most violent moments—storms, volcanic eruptions, threatening waves—forced observers to sense their own insignificance, their own mortality, and discover higher truths. The Scottish philosopher Archibald Alison maintained that human beings experienced different moods in nature through associations. In his Essays on the Nature and Principles of Taste (1790), a work widely read in America, Alison made the following observation of an autumn scene: “The leaves begin then to drop from the trees; the flowers and shrubs, with which the fields were adorned in the summer months, decay; the woods and groves are silent . . . Who is there, who, at this season, does not feel his mind impressed with a sentiment of melancholy?”

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.

"I become a transparent eyeball"

Christopher Pearse Cranch (1813–1892) | c. 1840

Medium: Ink and ink wash on paper laid on card

Dimensions: 7 1/2 H x 9 3/4 W (drawing); 12 H x 15 W (card)

Credit: Gift of Lewis Greenleaf, Jr.

In January 1839, Christopher Pearse Cranch and James Freeman Clarke began drawing caricatures to illustrate passages from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s influential work Nature (1836). It was a form of amusement for the two and a time for them to discuss Emerson’s transcendentalist philosophies. In a letter to Clarke dated May 20, 1839, Cranch predicted, “We are linked in celebrity, and thus will descend to posterity as the immortal illustrators of the great Transcendentalist!”

"They nod to me and I to them"

Christopher Pearse Cranch (1813–1892) | c. 1840

Medium: Ink on paper laid on card

Dimensions: 6 5/8 H x 7 3/4 W (drawing); 12 H x 14 15/16 W (card)

Credit: Gift of Lewis Greenleaf, Jr.

Born in 1813 in Washington, D. C., where his father served as a judge in the District of Columbia circuit court and the second reporter of decisions of the United States Supreme Court, Cranch attended Columbian College (now George Washington University) and then entered Harvard Divinity School. After graduating from Harvard in 1835, the young and somewhat timid Cranch began work in the UnitarianChurch as a supply minister, substituting for permanent preachers who were on temporary leave from their congregations. He was never ordained and the work of supply minister kept him traveling. By 1837 he was in Louisville, Kentucky, where he worked for Clarke as contributing editor of The Western Messenger, a Unitarian magazine devoted to religion and literature. Cranch and Clarke became close friends and both fell under the influence of Emerson.

The American Transcendentalists were a closely connected group of progressive and reform-minded individuals, who were most active from the 1830s to the 1850s, and, who, in large part, resided around Boston, Massachusetts. Emerson was recognized as the founding member He and most of his fellow Transcendentalists believed that great spiritual and moral truths could be found in nature, and that it was for each individual to discover and understand those truths through his or her own observations rather than through instruction from others. European romanticism, which embraced individual feelings and emotions, and America’s religious revivalism, which emphasized individual salvation, formed the background for the Transcendentalist movement.

Peaceful Evening

Christopher Cranch’s caricatures that illustrate Ralph Waldo Emerson’s writings became a way for Cranch to visualize the great Transcendentalist’s complex and frequently abstruse ideas. They foreshadow his later landscapes, which he began painting in earnest in the early 1840s with his decision to change profession from Unitarian preacher to artist.

Cranch’s paintings are often contemplative in mood and include figures observing or communing with nature, as in the landscape Peaceful Evening, which pictures a solitary man sketching the scenery. His landscapes reveal the basic tenet of American Transcendentalism, that nature is the embodiment of spiritual truths. “Every picture should be a poem,” Cranch observes in his article “The Painter in the Woods,” published in the January 1852 issue of Sartain’s Union Magazine of Literature and Art, “it should tell some story, or embody some idea, or appeal in some way to the love of the Beautiful. For all Art is but a mosaic pavement for the mind to step upon as it moves onward to its inmost sanctuaries . . . It for ever points on and on, as all symbols should, towards central and interior truths.”


Thomas Cole (1801–1848) | c. 1842

Medium: Oil on board

Dimensions: 5 ½ H x 8 ¼ W, 11 ¼ H x 14 ½ W (framed)

Credit: Gift of Mrs. Harold G. Henderson

Morning, Looking East Over the Hudson Valley from the Catskill Mountains

Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900) | 1848

Medium: Oil on canvas

Dimensions: 18 1/4 H x 24 W

Credit: Gift of Catherine Gansevoort Lansing

Morning, Looking East over the Hudson Valley from the Catskill Mountains is an early work by Frederic Church, completed just four years after he began studying with Thomas Cole. Even at this early date, Church shows his bravado for atmospheric effects, particularly the vivid spectacles of sunrise and sunset.

Looking out from the eastern ridge of the Catskill Mountains toward the Hudson River and the first golden rays of dawn, Church’s solitary figure stands mesmerized as if witnessing the creation of the world. Indeed, many of the tourists who flocked to the Catskill Mountains and viewed the sunrise spoke about the gradual illumination in spiritual terms. In James Fenimore Cooper’s novel, The Pioneers (1823), the main character, Natty Bumpo, describes in similar terms the view from the mountains for his young hunting companion Oliver Edwards:

“You know the Cattskills, lad . . . looking as blue as a piece of clear sky, and holding the clouds on their tops, as the smoke curls over the head of an Indian chief at a council fire. Well, there’s the Highpeak and the Round-top, which lay back, like a father and mother among their children, seeing they are far above all the other hills. But the place I mean is next to the river, where one of the ridges juts out a little from the rest, and where the rocks fall, for the best part of a thousand feet, so much up and down, that a man standing on their edges is fool enough to think he can jump from top to bottom.”
            “What see you when you get there?” asked Edwards.
            “Creation,” said Natty . . . “all creation lad.”

Thomas Cole’s Account Book

Bound volume, marbled paper boards, ink and

pencil inscriptions on paper, 1837–1847

Albany Institute of History & Art Library, CV


Frederic Edwin Church studied painting with Thomas Cole for the course of a year. On June 4, 1844, Cole recorded Church’s arrival: “Church came to study under me on the 4th June 1844. He is to pay me $300 for the year.” Joseph Church, Frederic’s father, paid Cole a total of $341.36 for tuition and supplies, including pigments and a copy of “Burnet’s work on painting,” most likely John Burnet’s Practical Hints on Composition in Painting, first published in London in 1822.

Dawn of Morning, Lake George

Jasper Francis Cropsey (1823-1900) | 1868

Medium: Oil on canvas

Dimensions: 20 1/4 H x 32 1/2 W

Provenance: Purchased from the artist by James L. Brumley in 1868; probably descended to Edward R. Brumley (who owned the companion Lake George, Evening in 1944); Albany Institute of History & Art purchased from Joseph A. Muller in 1943. According to William S. Talbot, the painting was once with Leroy Ireland

Credit: Albany Institute of History & Art Purchase

Sunset on the Coast

Charles Temple Dix (1838-1872) | 1859

Medium: Oil on canvas

Dimensions: 20 H x 29 ½ W

Credit: Albany Institute of History & Art purchase


Jervis McEntee (1828–1891)

Oil on canvas mounted on board, 1860s

Courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Herbert L. Shultz, Jr.

Rondout, New York, lies on the west bank of the Hudson River, near Kingston, in the shadows of the Catskill Mountains. It was the community Jervis McEntee called home. He once commented, “From my home in the Catskills I can look down a vista of forty miles, a magnificent and commanding sight. But I have never painted it.” Sunset is one of McEntee’s few paintings that captures such an expansive scene; most of his work tended to focus on the narrower landscape.

Sunset, however, is characteristic of McEntee’s work. The artist had a predilection for painting the somber side of nature—autumn scenes, rainy days, cloudy skies, and dusk. “Some people call my landscapes gloomy and disagreeable. They say that I paint the sorrowful side of Nature, that I am attracted by the shadows more than by the sunshine,” he remarked for the writer George Sheldon. “But this is a mistake. I would not reproduce a late November scene if it saddened me or seemed sad to me. In that season of the year Nature is not sad to me, but quiet, pensive, restful.” His small painting of orange and yellow glow of sunset is indeed quiet and pensive. It is the time of day when life’s activities and nature, herself, come to a rest.

Hudson River Sunset

James Augustus Suydam (1819–1865)

Oil on canvas, 1850s

Courtesy of Nicholas V. Bulzacchelli

The artist Sanford R. Gifford wrote of his friend and fellow artist James A. Suydam: “Although he was not lacking in full appreciation of what is splendid or imposing in nature, his peculiar sympathies led him to prefer the simpler, quieter phases, those phases which win our affection rather than those that compel our admiration and wonder.” Hudson River Sunset exemplifies Suydam’s quiet style, his affinity for contemplative landscapes filled with reflective light.

Suydam was born to an affluent family in New York City. His father, John, owned a successful dry goods business, and upon his death in 1841, left his son the financial means to pursue his interests free from work. Suydam did finish medical studies at the University of the City of New York (now New YorkUniversity) by 1842, but decided the career of a physician did not suit his artistic leanings. Between 1842 and 1845, Suydam and his brother Peter Mesier, traveled through Europe. While in Florence in 1843, they met the American artist Miner K. Kellogg, who showed the two the great art collections and architecture of the city.

Suydam returned to New York in 1845. His artistic pursuits over the next eleven years are uncertain, but in 1856, Suydam debuted his first painting at the National Academy of Design, a painting titled From North Conway. Most of his early landscapes depict scenes in the Hudson River valley, the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and other inland locations. In 1859, Suydam made an abrupt change, focusing his attention for the next several years on coastal scenes. He became close friends with the artist John Frederick Kensett, and many similarities exist between the serene coastal views painted by both artists. Suydam died suddenly in 1865 from dysentery while painting in the White Mountains.

Grand Manan

Alfred Thompson Bricher (1837–1908)

Oil on canvas, 1870–1890

Collection of Nicholas V. Bulzacchelli

Alfred Thompson Bricher probably first visited Grand Manan Island off the coast of Maine in 1874. It became one of his favorite sketching destinations throughout the rest of his life. Writing in 1879 for his book American Painters, George William Sheldon made the following comment about Bricher: “He is fond of depicting the indolent and easy swaying of the summer sea in the Grand Menan region; the rocks and weeds along the coast; the sunlit stretch of waters, flecked with distant white sails.” Bricher’s painting of Grand Manan does indeed portray the lazy, sunlit sea of a peaceful summer day. Calm, serene, it is the kind of day that catches one in an afternoon daydream.

Grand Manan was not the only location along the Maine coast where Bricher painted. In the summer of 1859, a year after quitting his job as a dry goods clerk in Boston in order to pursue painting as a profession, Bricher accompanied the artists Charles Temple Dix and William Stanley Hazeltine to Mount Desert. The sea captivated the artist and he became well known for his marine coastal scenes.

In 1862, Bricher moved into Boston’s StudioBuilding at Tremont and Bromfield Streets. The artist Martin Johnson Heade also resided in the building, and the two must have met not long afterward. There is no documentary evidence to indicate the two developed a close friendship, but similarities in style between Bricher’s and Heade’s works are evident. Both tended to paint tranquil landscapes, smooth waters, and they both effectively communicated in their paintings an inaudible stillness.

Lake George

Ralph Albert Blakelock (1847–1919)

Oil on canvas, c. 1870–1880

Courtesy of Nicholas V. Bulzacchelli

There is something haunting in the paintings of Ralph Albert Blakelock, some mysterious articulation arising from the somber shade that darkens the foreground. Blakelock has often been called a visionary, like fellow artists Elihu Vedder and Albert Pinkham Ryder, and his insanity, which imprisoned him within asylums for the last seventeen years of his life, has only fueled the public’s fascination with the quiet and unassuming artist.

Blakelock was born in 1847 on Christopher Street in New York City. He remained there until 1878 or 1879, when he and his wife, Cora Rebecca Bailey, moved to East Orange, New Jersey. Prior to their marriage in 1875,

Blakelock traveled through the American West between 1869 and 1872, sketching the landscape and the Indians he encountered. For years following his return to the East, Blakelock painted landscapes inhabited by Native Americans. The sketches from his western excursion and his imagination composed those striking works. Blakelock later ventured to the Caribbean, and he made his way up and down the Hudson River valley, including Lake George.

During the 1870s and 1880s, Blakelock and his family moved several times. His inability to sell paintings at prices that supported him and his family led to his working for a Newark, New Jersey, furniture manufacturer, doing decorative painting on knickknacks and household items. Blakelock did exhibit at the National Academy of Design and he did have many admirers, but his timid demeanor kept him from actively promoting his art.

On September 12, 1899, Blakelock was taken to the Flatbush Insane Asylum and eventually transferred to the MiddletownStateHomeopathicHospital. It was during the next seventeen years of confinement that Blakelock began to receive the notoriety that he deserved. By the time of his death on August 9, 1919, Blakelock was one of the most famous artists in America. His Moonlight painting sold six years earlier for the amazing sum of $13,900, and three years after that Brook by Moonlight was purchased for $20,000!

Frenchman's Bay, Mount Desert Island, Maine

Thomas Cole (1801-1848) | 1844

Medium: Oil on wood panel

Dimensions: 14 H x 23 W

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

In the late summer of 1844, Thomas Cole traveled to MountDesert on the central Maine coast in search of scenery. In his letters to his wife, Maria, he described the dense forests and sandy beaches, and the remote and crude accommodations. “We are now at a village in which there is no tavern, in the heart of Mount Desert Island,” he wrote on August 29. Several days later, on September 3, Cole was on Sand Beach Head, looking out across Frenchman’s Bay: “Sand Beach Head, the eastern extremity of Mount Desert Island, is a tremendous overhanging precipice, rising from the ocean, with the surf dashing against it in a frightful manner. The whole coast along here is iron bound—threatening crags, and dark caverns in which the sea thunders.”

Cole’s written description matches the terrifying conditions presented in his painting; both evoke the aesthetic of the sublime. According to the eighteenth-century philosopher, Edmund Burke, sublime landscapes elicit emotions of dread and foreboding because they reference forces uncontrollable by human beings and ultimately one’s final demise. The small figure in Cole’s painting, who peers over the precipitous cliff at the dashing waves and thundering sea, may indeed be filled with emotions of fear and dread.

Storm in the Adirondacks

Ernest Parton (1845–1933)

Oil on canvas, 1870

Kinderhook, New York, Collection

Like his brothers Arthur and Henry, Ernest Parton became a landscape painter. He was born in Hudson, New York, and spent his early years sketching regional scenes with Arthur, who encouraged him to pursue his interest in art. Arthur also taught his younger brother to sketch from nature. In 1873, Ernest traveled to England, where he remained and ultimately spent the greatest part of his professional life, returning to New York in 1932.

Storm in the Adirondacks, painted before Ernest’s departure for Europe, recalls Thomas Cole’s early storm-ravaged landscapes, such as A Tornado in the Wilderness (1831), which presents the viewer with dark menacing storm clouds, wind-blown trees, and twisted trunks. The taste for such sinister landscapes was established in the seventeenth-century by the Italian painter Salvator Rosa, whose paintings frequently displayed the power and force of nature. Once in Europe, Ernest fell under the influence of the BarbizonSchool of painting, which favored nature’s calmer side.

Albany Rural Cemetery

James M. Hart (1828-1901) | 1849

Medium: Oil on canvas

Dimensions: 25 H x 30 W

Credit: Albany Institute of History & Art Purchase

The rural cemetery movement, which began in 1831 with the dedication of Mount Auburn Cemetery near Boston, spread quickly to other cities throughout the nation. Rural cemeteries were conceived as parks suitable for both the living and the dead, where visitors could wander and meditate in natural settings and the dead could be interred in areas away from crowded urban centers. In 1844, Albany joined the national trend with the establishment of Albany Rural Cemetery, located north of the city in Menands.

James M. Hart’s painting of Albany Rural Cemetery unites the meditative atmosphere of the cemetery with its natural, park-like landscape. A young man, identified as Isaac Vosburgh, sits at the edge of the family plot in contemplative reverie. The painting makes references to the Latin phrase Et in arcadia ego, translated as “even in arcadia I (referring to death) am also there,” made famous in a painting by the seventeenth-century artist Nicholas Poussin that depicts a group of shepherds gathered around a monument. The painting and the theme are viewed as a memento mori, a reminder of mortality. Hart’s painting would have appealed to the romantic fascination for melancholy and sentimental subject matter.

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