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.

Something Truly American

In the autumn of 1825, the British-born artist Thomas Cole displayed five of his paintings in the window of New York City book and print dealer William A. Colman. Cole was unknown at the time, but contemporary accounts acknowledge that artists John Trumbull, William Dunlap, and Asher B. Durand saw Cole’s paintings, admired them for their originality, and purchased three of them. They promoted the young artist’s talents in newspaper articles and public exhibitions, 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. At the time when Cole’s paintings were discovered, America was searching for its cultural identity, its characteristics and conventions that differentiated it from Europe. Cole, himself, identified the rugged American landscape in his “Essay on American Scenery” (1836) as the nation’s distinguishing feature: “the most distinctive, and perhaps the most impressive, characteristic of American scenery is its wilderness.”

Emphasis on the American landscape as a source of national pride and identity gave prominence to landscape painting during the nineteenth century, despite traditional hierarchies that placed landscape painting far beneath history painting and heroic portraiture. Indeed, the Hudson River School brought awareness not only to the art of landscape painting but also to America’s wilderness regions. Writing for the Knickerbocker magazine in 1839, art critic Thomas R. Hofland observed that “the American school of landscape is decidedly and peculiarly original; fresh, bold, brilliant, and grand.” What he and others saw in the Hudson River School was something truly American.

On the Beach

Thomas Doughty (1793-1856) | 1827-1828

Medium: Oil on canvas

Dimensions: 35 H x 52 W

Provenance: Descended from Olga Gardner Monks (1869-1944) to her son, Rev. George Gardner Monks; to the Albany Institute of History & Art in 1944. (Olga Gardner Monks was the niece of Isabella Stewart Gardner)

Credit: Gift of Rev. George Gardner Monks

Like many artists of his generation, the Philadelphia-born Thomas Doughty was essentially self-taught. Around the age of fifteen or sixteen he began an apprenticeship as a leather worker, and he remembered sketching some of his first pictures during those years. His only art instruction may have been night school, where he learned to draw with India ink. Most of his knowledge of landscape painting came by observing works exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the collection of European paintings owned by Baltimore collector and patron Robert Gilmor, Jr. Gilmor’s collection contained landscapes by the seventeenth-century masters of the genre, including Claude Lorrain, Salvator Rosa, Jacob Ruisdael, Nicholas Poussin, and Albert Cuyp.

By 1820, Doughty had devoted himself entirely to landscape painting. His earlier works were mainly topographical, but by the middle of the decade he moved away from strict representation to paint grander and more ambitious landscape compositions that show the influence of the European masters he studied in Philadelphia and Baltimore. On the Beach, painted 1827–1828, represents the apogee of Doughty’s career. The overall composition of trees, distant mountains, and striking cloud formations, as well as Doughty’s diffused golden light, recall the works of Lorrain and Rosa, but the undomesticated wilderness is purely American. Human beings enter into nature’s domain peacefully and without altering its appearance.

In 1834, the art historian, William Dunlap, wrote in his History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States, “Mr. Doughty has long stood in the first rank as a landscape painter—he was at one time the first and best in the country.” His remark testifies to the great admiration shown towards Doughty’s landscapes, but it also indicates that by 1834 Doughty’s popularity was fading. His landscape compositions of the 1830s and 1840s were more contrived and artificial, and they quickly lost favor to the paintings of younger artist Thomas Cole.

Lake Winnepesaukee

Thomas Cole (1801-1848) | 1827 or 1828

Medium: Oil on canvas

Dimensions: 25 1/2 H x 34 1/4 W

Provenance: The exact line of descent in the Van Rensselaer family is unknown but it is likely that it went from Stephen III's son, William Patterson Van Rensselaer (1805-1872), to his son, Captain Kiliaen Van Rensselaer (1845-1905) to his daughter, Sarah Elizabeth Van Rensselaer (1873-1945), who married Benjamin Walworth Arnold Jr. (1865-1932), and then to his daughter from his first marriage, Dorothy Treat Arnold (Mrs. Ledyard) Cogswell (1892-1984)

Credit: Gift of Dorothy Treat Arnold Cogswell, Jr.

During the summer of 1827, Thomas Cole traveled to the White Mountains of New Hampshire in search of scenery. His patron Daniel Wadsworth of Hartford, Connecticut, suggested the trip and even planned Cole’s itinerary, which took the young artist past Lake Winnipesauke. The following spring, Cole exhibited a work at the fourteenth annual exhibition of the AmericanAcademy of the Fine Arts identified as No. 3. Landscape view on the Winnipisogn Lake (most likely the painting presented here), which Stephen Van Rensselaer III of Albany purchased.

Although the human presence appears in the Cole’s landscape in the form of the two travelers on the rugged dirt road, the sailboat on the lake, and patches of European mullein (an invasive weed unintentionally introduced by early colonists), his painting pays homage to the American wilderness, which dominates the scene, dwarfing its human visitors.

Asher B. Durand engraved Cole’s painting for inclusion in the magazine, The American Landscape (1830), with descriptive text contributed by American poet William Cullen Bryant. Noting the increasing spread of civilization, Bryant assured his readers that “the beauties of the lake can never be lost: they are a feature of nature that civilization may slightly change, but can never destroy.”

View of Catskill Creek (formerly Distant View of Roundtop)

Thomas Cole (1801-1848) | c. 1833

Medium: Oil on composition board

Dimensions: 17 H x 25 W

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

After spending three years in Europe, Thomas Cole returned to New York in the autumn of 1832. According to the New-York Mirror for April 18, 1835, “Mr. Cole, since his return from Europe, has retired every summer to the neighborhood of the Catskill mountains for study, and in the winter opened his atelier in New-York.” View on Catskill Creek probably resulted from his summer’s retreat in1833, at which time he was eager once again to paint the American landscape.

View on Catskill Creek, like many of Cole’s paintings, harmoniously unites mankind and nature. The composition must have been appealing since a duplicate exists at the New-York Historical Society. Cole, in fact, painted slightly different versions of the same view, and in 1838 he completed a larger canvas that exhibits only minor changes (now at Yale University Art Gallery). On the back of the wood panel that supports the Yale painting Cole inscribed an original poem:

     Sunset in the Catskills
     The valleys rest in shadow and the hum
     Of gentle sounds and two toned melodies
     Are stilled, and twilight spreads her misty wing
     In broader sadness oer their happy scene
     And creeps along the distant mountain sides
     Until the setting sun’s last lingering beams
     Wreathe up in golden glorious ring
     Around the highest Catskill peak.

Lecture on American Scenery

Thomas Cole (1801–1848)

Printed in The Northern Light

Letterpress on paper, May 1841

Albany Institute of History & Art Library, CV 553

Originally printed as “Essay on American Scenery” in the January 1836 issue of the Atlantic Monthly Magazine, Cole’s essay appeared a second time as “Lecture on American Scenery” in the May 1841 issue of The Northern Light, after he presented it to the Catskill Lyceum on April 1 of that year.

Cole’s “Essay on American Scenery” is his verbal exaltation of the American landscape, akin to his paintings. His intention in writing the essay was to direct his fellow Americans to the grandeur that surrounded them. “It is a subject that to every American ought to be of surpassing interest,” he remarked, since the American landscape “is his own land; its beauty, its magnificence, its sublimity—all are his.”

Landscape with Figure on Road

Jacob Caleb Ward (1809–1891)

Oil on canvas, 1829

Collection of Bill and Kate McLaughlin

Born in Bloomfield, New Jersey, Jacob Caleb Ward engaged in several branches of the arts. In addition to painting, he occasionally worked as an illustrator, supplying Dr. David Hosack of Columbia College with medical illustrations, and between 1845 and 1848, he joined his brother Charles in Chile to run a daguerreotype business.

Ward began exhibiting paintings at the National Academy of Design in 1829, the date inscribed on the back of this early landscape, and he continued to show paintings into the 1850s. During his own day, Ward received favorable criticism in the press. Reporting on the 1833 exhibition at the American Academy of the Fine Arts, the American Monthly Magazine commented about Ward that “we have rarely seen any landscape painter more uniformly natural, than he is, in all his subjects. He is in our opinion decidedly the best artist we possess, and is daily rising higher and higher in his profession.”

Works by Ward have sometimes been attributed to his better-known contemporary, Thomas Cole, as the two did paint many of the same scenes, and they exhibited together at both the National Academy of Design and the American Academy of the Fine Arts in New York City. Ward has too often been overlooked as one of the early painters of the American landscape.

The Adirondacks

James M. Hart (1828-1901) | 1861

Medium: Oil on canvas

Dimensions: 42 H x 69 W

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

When James M. Hart painted The Adirondacks in 1861, the artist was at the height of his popularity, rivaled only by the master Hudson River School artist Frederic Edwin Church. The Cosmopolitan Art Journal declared in 1860, “Church obtains his own price, for he paints only one picture where one hundred are asked. The same thing may be said of no artist in this country, except it be of James M. Hart, whose superb canvasses are daily becoming more difficult to obtain.”

The Adirondacks represents much of Hart’s work in years preceding the American Civil War. It focuses on the country’s wilderness areas, inhabited by wild animals like the frolicking bear cubs and their watchful mother, painted near the center of the canvas. Following the war, Hart more often painted bucolic landscapes with grazing cows than wild scenery. His change of subject resulted from the growing influence of European art, namely the Barbizon School of landscape painting that favored intimate rural scenes with pastures, cultivated fields, and small woodlots.

Storm King on the Hudson

Homer Dodge Martin (1836-1897) | 1862

Medium: Oil on canvas

Dimensions: 22 H x 38 1/4 W

Credit: Bequest of Mrs. Anna Vandenbergh

Sketch of Lake George

Worthington Whittredge (1820–1910)

Oil on canvas, c. 1864

Collection of Bernard R. Brown

In 1859, the artist Worthington Whittredge returned to the United States after living and painting in Europe for ten years. His time abroad accustomed the Cincinnati native to the European landscape, one tamed and civilized, cultivated and inhabited. His return brought him face to face with a landscape that was very different, a landscape he rediscovered through the work of Asher B. Durand. “When I looked at Durand’s truly American landscape, so delicate and refined, such a faithful if in some parts sombre delineation of our own hills and valleys,” Whittredge wrote, “I confess that tears came to my eyes.” Inspired by Durand’s landscapes, Whittredge took his sketch box and traveled to the Catskill Mountains to paint the American wilderness for himself.

From 1860 to 1866, Whittredge sketched in the Hudson Valley, the Catskills and Shawangunk Mountains, and Lake George. The oil sketch exhibited here demonstrates Whittredge’s reconnection with the American wilderness. Its narrow viewpoint enclosed by tall trees is characteristic of much of his work during the period. In 1866 he traveled to the American West, perhaps encouraged by the success of Albert Bierstadt’s paintings of the Rocky Mountains. The vast, open landscape of Colorado and New Mexico captivated him and influenced his later landscapes. In the 1870s Whittredge became a prominent member of the New York art world, serving as president of the National Academy of Design from 1875 to 1877. He also helped organize the art exhibitions at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia.

Gathering Clouds

James David Smillie (1833–1909)

Oil on board, c. 1860–1870

Collection of Bernard R. Brown

The combination of elevated perspective, dramatic clouds, and the hazy, distant horizon beyond the broad valley gives an air of grandeur to James David Smillie’s painting. Despite its relatively small size, it magnificently captures the expansiveness of America’s wilderness.

Smillie was trained as an engraver by his father James Smillie, and only in 1864, after years of working as a banknote engraver, did he turn to landscape painting as a profession. His decision to do so was not without moments of concern and frustration, resulting from the slow sale of his paintings and the meager income they generated when compared with the annual salary of $6,000 he made as an engraver. “I haven’t a dollar to my name and am out of sorts generally,” Smillie recorded in his diary on May 10, 1865, “I have commissions—but no money.” Yet Smillie did find satisfaction as a painter, and his election as an associate of the National Academy of Design, in 1865, engendered feelings of accomplishment and joy.

Smillie is best known for his Adirondack landscapes and especially his oils and watercolors of the Ausable River and Keene Valley, which he visited on several occasions with his brother George Henry Smillie and fellow artists Roswell Morse Shurtleff and Samuel Colman. Smillie became involved with the American Society of Painters in Water Colors and eventually returned to etching and lithography as his primary means of artistic expression. Much of what we know about Smillie comes from his surviving forty-five diaries, which were donated to the Smithsonian Archives of American Art in 1981.

Lake George Sunset

William Hart (1823–1894)

Oil on canvas, c. 1860

Courtesy of House of Nathaniel Gallery

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