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.

The Tourist's Gaze

Throughout the nineteenth century, Americans built a transportation network that stretched across the country. Turnpikes, steamboats, canals, and railroads gave travelers easy access to the scenic beauties of the American landscape; while published guidebooks, maps, and tourist hotels provided updated information and accommodations.

The Catskill Mountains developed as one of the first scenic areas in the United States to receive tourists. Steamboats cruising up and down the Hudson River easily brought travelers to Catskill Landing and from there stagecoaches transported them to the top of the mountains. In 1824, a group of land investors constructed the first tourist hotel in the Catskills on the eastern ridge overlooking the Hudson Valley. The Catskill Mountain House, as it was named, grew in size and elegance. It stood at the center of regional tourism and became a destination for sightseers and artists alike.

In a small pamphlet titled Scenery of the Catskill Mountains, published specifically for the Mountain House, compiler David Murdoch gathered poems and writings that paid homage to the scenery of the Catskills. Murdoch opened with the following statement: “The matter in the following pages has been collected and published in this form for the information and amusement of the lovers of natural scenery.” Among those included in the book was artist Thomas Cole, who first painted the Catskills in 1825 and brought their rugged beauty to the attention of art lovers throughout the Northeast.

Cole and later Hudson River School artists ventured to scenic areas throughout the nation, from Maine to the Rocky Mountains, capturing the sites that became favored tourist destinations. Their paintings, exhibited in galleries and exhibitions, influenced the way Americans viewed the landscape as locations of wonder, beauty, and historical association.

Perspective Painting of Lake George

Ezra Ames (1768-1836) | 1812

Medium: Oil on wood panel

Dimensions: 27 3/4 H x 36 W

Credit: Bequest of Frank W. Van Dyke

The Albany artist Ezra Ames occasionally veered from his usual practice of painting portraits to engage in decorative painting, including mourning lockets, girls’ needlework projects, and home furnishings. His view of Lake George from the south end of the lake is one of his rare attempts at landscape art.

In 1812, when Ames painted his view, the United States had just entered a period of military conflict with Great Britain. Fear of British attack from Canada transformed Lake George and the small community of Caldwell, shown on the left-hand side of the painting, into a military outpost, as suggested by the two uniformed officers who stand on the earthworks of Fort George, located in the foreground. The scene, however, is not one of armed confrontation but rather the locus of tourist activities. One of the officers converses with two finely dressed women, who may very well be sightseers; and the canopied boat heading toward Caldwell is designed for leisure excursions, not military activities. Horatio Spafford commented in his Gazatteer of the State of New York (1813), “as a place of resort, in connection with the Springs of Saratoga County, Caldwell attracts considerable notice, and few similar waters in the world are more admired than Lake George.”

Catskill Mountain House

DeWitt Clinton Boutelle (1820-1884) | 1845

Medium: Oil on canvas

Dimensions: 36 H x 48 W

Credit: Albany Institute of History & Art Purchase

“Good Reader! expect me not to describe the indescribable . . . It was a vast and changeful, a majestic, an interminable landscape; a fairy, grand, and delicately-colored scene, with rivers for its lines of reflections; with highlands and the vales of States for its shadowings, and far-off mountains for its frame.” The American poet Willis Gaylord Clark wrote these lines for the Knickerbocker magazine after visiting the Catskill Mountain House.

Many visitors expressed the same inability to describe with accuracy the stupendous view from the hotel, but DeWitt Clinton Boutelle, more than most, succeeded in showing why the Mountain House was such a popular destination. Instead of focusing on the hotel building, or, conversely, on the expansive view from the hotel’s porch, Boutelle painted both. On the left he depicted the broad valley, the indescribableness that many visitors saw from the Catskill Mountain House, and simultaneously, on the right, he captures the hotel and its majestic location high on the mountain ridge.

Boutelle was only twenty-five when he completed this large canvas. Quite an achievement considering he was also self-taught! In 1853, he was elected an associate of the National Academy of Design, and in 1862 he became a member of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Boutelle moved frequently, living in Troy, New York City, Basking Ridge, New Jersey, and eventually ending in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where he died in 1884.

A View of the Catskill Mountain House

Sarah Cole (1805-1857) | 1848

Medium: Oil on canvas

Dimensions: 15 1/3 H x 23 3/8 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

Like many of her surviving works, Sarah Cole’s View of the Catskill Mountain House is a copy of a painting by her brother, Thomas Cole. It focuses on the hotel and its architecture, quite unlike DeWitt Clinton Boutelle’s view of the Catskill Mountain House (exhibited at left). In 1845, the hotel’s new owner, Charles L. Beach, added the long colonnaded porch shown prominently in this view; it overlooked the Hudson River valley to the east and offered the perfect platform for viewing the sunrise, one of the activities enjoyed by visitors to the hotel.

Sarah almost certainly knew the Catskill Mountain House firsthand since she and Thomas often ventured into the mountains. In 1838, Thomas recorded in his journal that he and Sarah went hiking with others in the Catskills and camped on the summit of High Peak.

Sarah exhibited her paintings regularly at the National Academy of Design and the American Art-Union. Living in Baltimore, she also exhibited at the Maryland Historical Society. In 1839, Sarah took an interest in learning the art of etching, and based on a letter written by her brother, she may have had some instruction from Asher B. Durand, who worked primarily as an engraver and etcher before turning to painting. None of Sarah’s etchings are known today, but three did appear in an 1888 exhibition at the Union League Club in New York City, long after Sarah’s death in 1857.

The Scenery of the Catskill Mountains

David Murdoch, editor

D. Fanshaw, NY, publisher

Letterpress on paper, c. 1846

Albany Institute of History & Art Library, SpC 974.74738 SCE CAT

Charles L. Beach, the owner of the Catskill Mountain House commissioned the Reverend David Murdoch to compile this booklet of poems and written descriptions of the Catskill Mountains and the Mountain House. The booklet first appeared in 1846 and was reprinted several times into 1870s.

Bolton Landing

Joachim Ferdinand Richardt

Oil on canvas, 1858

Private Collection

Boating on Lake George

Nelson Augustus Moore (1824–1902)

Oil on canvas, 1869

Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Alexander Keeler

Around 1866, the Connecticut photographer and painter, Nelson Augustus Moore, traveled to Lake George in upstate New York, where he spent the summer camping and painting. He so enjoyed the lake and mountains that he returned successively over the next twenty-five summers. A growing number of summer vacationers ventured into the Adirondack Mountains and Lake George region in the years following the American Civil War.

Moore’s impressive canvas, painted in 1869, portrays a scene of tranquil repose, where boaters enjoy a lazy summer afternoon on the lake. “There are plenty of skiffs and boats on the lake, in which we may row and dream upon the placid waters and among the sweet islets of Horicon, until we have forgotten the present, and are reveling in the romantic memories of the past,” informed the author of  Nelson’s Guide to Lake George and Lake Champlain (1858). Moore came to be associated with Lake George, as writer Harry Willard French noted of the artist in his book The Art and Artists in Connecticut (1879), yet French also observed that “pastoral scenes have been made a specialty, and several snow-scenes possessing undeniable merit have gone from his studio.”

Moore began his artistic endeavors as a portrait painter, studying with both Thomas Seir Cummings and Daniel Huntington. Around 1854 he opened a photography studio in Hartford, Connecticut, with his brother Roswell. The two began making daguerreotypes but soon ventured into paper photography. They were among the earliest photographers in America to take up the medium, which already had a wide following in Europe. Moore gave up photography in the mid-1860s to focus on landscape painting. As a landscape painter he was much admired in his lifetime, even receiving a commission from Japanese ambassador Yashida Kionara to paint the sacred mountain of Fujima for Japanese emperor Mutsuhito.

Richfield Springs (taken from North Hill) Otsego County, N.Y.


Medium: Hand-colored lithograph on paper

Dimensions: 20 3/4 H x 29 W

Credit: Gift of Fleet Boston Financial Corporation

A more charming and beautiful location could scarcely be imagined than this view of Richfield Springs, New York, situated about sixty-five miles west of Albany. The small community enjoyed notoriety in the nineteenth century as a destination for summer vacations. The combination of delightful scenery and beneficial mineral springs attracted seasonal travelers who stayed at one of the town’s hotels and boarding houses. According to the 1874 publication, Richfield Springs and Vicinity, by W. T. Bailey, the “location is remarkable for natural beauty, not only in its immediate surroundings, but it occupies a position in the midst of the most charmingly diversified mountain and lake scenery.” Bailey also noted the “place has attained an exalted popularity by the efficacy of its mineral waters in the treatment of many forms of chronic diseases.”

M. De V. Martin, the publisher of the print, lived in Richfield Springs where he maintained a business as undertaker and furniture dealer. He probably sold the print at his James Street establishment and may have retailed it at local hotels where tourists would have found it an attractive souvenir of their visit. When compared with Hudson River School paintings of tourist sites, like the Catskill Mountains and Lake George, Martin’s print is much more topographical in character. It charts in detail the various aspects of the scenery, the town’s buildings and residences, fields, and roadways. Its main purpose was to provide a visual record of the community.

Lake George

Alfred Thompson Bricher (1837–1908) | 1866

Medium: Oil on canvas

Dimensions: 30 H x 60 W (image); 39 1/2 H x 69 1/2 W (frame)

Provenance: Purchased in 1974 from Vose Galleries, Boston, MA

Credit: Albany Institute of History & Art Purchase

The travel writer Mrs. S. S. Colt said of Lake George in her book The Tourist’s Guide through the Empire State (1871), “its tranquility is something like the morning after a ball. There is nothing but to croquet or sit on the piazza, or go boating or fishing upon the lake . . . ‘Most of the visitors are guests of a day, but there are pleasant parties—poets and painters often—who pass weeks at the lake or at one of the private houses near.’” A few years earlier, the artist Alfred Thompson Bricher was one such painter in a pleasant party.

Bricher’s landscape captures the charms of the lake—the beautiful water, the scenic hills and mountains, and the boating and fishing opportunities. In the year that he painted Lake George, 1866, Bricher began working with Louis Prang & Co., a Boston printing business that specialized in chromolithographs, color-printed pictures that faithfully copied the color range of original paintings. Chromolithographic prints of Bricher’s work quickly earned the artist widespread notoriety.

In addition to painting in oils, Bricher also worked in watercolors, and in 1873, he was selected a member of the American Society of Painters in Water Colors. He became an associate of the National Academy of Design in 1879. Bricher died in 1908, in the house he built for his family in New Dorp, Staten Island.

Study of Nature, Dresden, Lake George

David Johnson (1827–1908) | 1870

Medium: Oil on canvas

Dimensions: 13 3/4 H 21 3/4 W (painting); 19 3/4 H x 28 W (frame)

Credit: Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Richard C. Rockwell


John William Casilear (1811–1893)

Oil on canvas, 1862

Gift of the Honorable John E. Holt-Harris, Jr., 1966.110

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