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 Topographical Tradition

The earliest depictions of the American landscape came from the hands of European travelers and military personnel who drew accurate pictures of the terrain to show others in Europe. Publishers frequently engraved these drawings and printed them to accompany written descriptions of the American continent. Such images formed persuasive and lasting impressions of the New World.

Throughout the eighteenth century, repeated conflicts between France and England brought large numbers of military officers to the American colonies, many trained in the rudiments of topographical drawing. The Royal Military Academy in Woolwich, England, founded in 1743, taught topographical drawing to artillery officers and engineers who were expected to record the lay of the land for military positioning. The English topographical artist and engraver Paul Sandby worked as drawing master at Woolwich from 1768 to 1796. He also engraved many views of North America that were published as Scenographia Americana in 1768.

Thomas Pownall, a writer, colonial governor, and military officer who traveled through the American colonies contributed several drawings for Scenographia Americana: “I made many Draughts and Sketches; some few . . . I let the Public have in Engravings.” He also noted “I have seen since many fine Drawings done by our Officers and Engineers, a Collection of Engravings from all which got together would surely be curious, and not unuseful.”

Before the development of photography, the ability to draw accurate representations of the landscape was the only way to record what one saw. In Elements of the Graphic Arts (1802), the first art handbook published in the United States, Archibald Robertson commented on the usefulness of drawing landscapes: “to be able on the spot, to take the sketch of a fine building, a beautiful prospect, any curious production of art, or uncommon appearance in nature; is not only a very desirable accomplishment, but a very agreeable amusement.” The early topographical tradition initiated a growing interest in landscape art that blossomed in the nineteenth century.

Prospect of the City of Albany in Province of New York in America

Attributed to Thomas Thomas Davies (1737-1812), probably after William Burgis (active 1717-1731) | 1763

Medium: Watercolor and ink on laid paper with fleur de lisle watermark of L.V.G. (J. Villedary)

Dimensions: 11 3/4 H x 23 7/8 W

Provenance: Purchased by the donor from the Hall Park McCullough estate in Bennington, VT, for the Albany Institute

Credit: Gift of Marjorie Doyle Rockwell

The English immigrant William Burgis arrived in the American colonies sometime in the early eighteenth century and resided in New York City. He later moved to Boston, where he married the wealthy widow Mehitable Selby. Burgis identified himself as a draughtsman, painter, gentleman, and innkeeper, and is known for his large and detailed panoramic views of New York and Boston, which were engraved in London. Prospect of the City of Albany is probably based on a William Burgis drawing. It is a later copy that has recently been attributed to the British military officer and topographical artist Thomas Davies, who drew many of his own sketches of American scenery.

This view offers a detailed look at the community as it appeared in the 1720s. A stockade surrounds the main settlement, and a fort, built at the top of the hill, guards Albany from the west. The Dutch church and its cock weathervane towers over the village. Prospect of the City of Albany is a view meant to convey information about the settlement, its buildings and fortifications, and its agreeable situation on the banks of the Hudson River.

A View of the Great Cohoes Falls on the Mohawk River

Thomas Pownall (1722-1805) | c. 1761-1768

Engraver: Engraved by Paul Sandby (1725-1809)

Medium: Etching on laid paper

Credit: Bequest of Ledyard Cogswell, Jr

During his travels through the American colonies, the British official and colonial governor, Thomas Pownall, made several sketches of the scenic views and natural wonders he encountered. He later returned to England and had several of his drawings engraved as prints, which were included in the expensive portfolio of North American views, Scenographia Americana (1768). Pownall’s view of Cohoes Falls on the Mohawk River was included in the publication.

Years later, in his published journal, titled, A Topographical Description of Such Parts of North America as are Contained in the (Annexed) Map of the Middle British Colonies, &c. (1776), Pownall explained, “I made a Sketch of this Fall upon the Spot, I afterwards composed a Drawing from it, wherein I was happy enough, after several Trials and Devices, to succeed in giving it it’s proper Scale. Mr. P. Sanby made a coloured Drawing for me from this, and an Engraving has been made after it and published.”

Pownall visited the falls twice, but it was during his second visit, when the river was high, that he encountered its sensational splendor and made his sketch. He recounted “I went a second Time to view these Falls; they were then a most tremendous Object. The Torrent, which came over, filled the whole Space from Side to Side; before it reached the Edge of the Fall it had acquired a Velocity which the Eye could scarce follow; and although at the Fall the Stream tumbled in one great Cataract: yet it did not appear like a Sheet of Water; it was a tumultuous Conglomeration of Waves foaming, and at Intervals bursting into Clouds of Vapour, which fly off in rolling Eddies like the Smoak of great Guns.”

A North West View of the Cohoes

Thomas Davies (1737-1812) | c. 1768

Engraver: Peter Mazell (active 1761-1797)

Medium: Hand-colored line engraving on laid paper

Dimensions: 14 H x 20 W (sheet)

Credit: Albany Institute of History & Art Purchase

The engraved inscription on this print of Cohoes Falls declares that the view was “drawn on the spot by Thos. Davies Capt. Lieut. Of the Royal Regt. of Artillery.” Davies, like many military officers, received training in drawing and watercolor at the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich, England. He was stationed at various posts in North America during the French and Indian War, the American Revolution, and in Canada in the 1780s and 1790s.

More than his fellow military draughtsmen, Davies developed an identifiable approach to representing topography, characterized by simplified, almost abstract, contours and outlines, bold coloring, and stylized pattern that translate even through this print.

Davies exhibited frequently at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, and later in life, devoted his attention to natural history, producing many watercolors of North American flora and fauna, scientific drawings of birds and animals, which earned him membership in 1781 in England’s prestigious scientific organization the Royal Society.

A Distant View of the Falls of Niagara

John Vanderlyn (1775-1852) | 1802-1803

Medium: Oil on canvas

Dimensions: 23 1/2 H x 39 1/4 W

Credit: Albany Institute of History & Art Purchase

The journey from Kingston, New York, to Niagara Falls was an arduous undertaking in 1801, the year artist John Vanderlyn first visited the great cataract. He had just returned from Paris and was looking for a project to provide financial support. His early sponsor, Aaron Burr, probably suggested Niagara Falls as a subject, since he had recently been there with his daugher Theodosia and her new husband Joseph Alston of South Carolina. Vanderlyn decided that engraved prints of the falls based on his paintings could be the lucrative project he sought; after all, Vanderlyn would be the first professional artist to depict the falls.

In September, Vanderlyn traveled to the Canadian side of the falls and stayed twelve days at the Burden farm, an early boarding house. From the sketches he made on the spot, Vanderlyn eventually painted two horizontal canvases, the painting exhibited here, which he finished in Kingston, and A View of the Western Branch of the Falls of Niagara, now in the collection of Historic New England. The second view Vanderlyn did not finish until after his return to Paris in 1803.

After completing A Distant View of the Falls of Niagara, Vanderlyn sent the painting to Burr for his inspection. Burr in turn showed the painting to the British chargé d’affaires to the United States, Edward Thornton, who had seen the falls himself. Thornton wrote, “Mr. Van Der Lyn’s picture contains incomparably the most faithful animated Representation of the falls I have ever seen, it is not for me to judge any of its merits except that of its Perfect Correctness.”

Vanderlyn did succeed in having copper printing plates engraved of his two paintings. Both were engraved in London, A View of the Western Branch by the English engraver Frederick Christian Lewis, and A Distant View by the French immigrant engraver James Mérigot. Unfortunately, a number of delays and problems with distributing the prints resulted in minimal financial reward for Vanderlyn, and today few of his prints survive.

A View of Fort George with the City of New York from the Southwest

Possibly William Burgis (active 1717-1731) | c. 1764

Engraver: John Carwitham (active 1723-1741)

Publisher / Location: Carrington Bowles (1724–1793) | London

Medium: Hand-colored engraving

Dimensions: 16 H x 20 W

Credit: Gift of the estate of Marjorie Doyle Rockwell

John Carwitham's engraved view of Fort George depicts the southern tip of Manhattan Island as it appeared in the early 1730s. Almost certainly the view originated from a drawing by the English immigrant artist William Burgis (active 1717–1730s) since the right half of the print showing the fort and the large ship in the foreground replicates a mezzotint that Burgis dedicated to John Montgomerie, the colonial governor of New York. King George II appointed Montgomerie in 1728, but he governed only a few years before dying in 1731 during a small pox epidemic. The view is one of the earliest depicting New York from the west with the broad Hudson River in the foreground.

A View of Lake George at Bolton

Attributed to Henry Warren (c. 1796–1879)

Oil on canvas, 1817

Private Collection

Dated July 1817, this view of Lake George looking southeast from Bolton captures the general topography, including the distant mountains and foreground farmlands. It also excites our sense of vision through its expansiveness that anticipates the landscape paintings of the Hudson River School.

The initials HW, penned on the reverse side of the canvas, possibly refer to Henry Warren, an English artist known for his paintings of exotic Middle Eastern subjects. If HW is the same Henry Warren, then his view of Lake George represents an early work, before he commenced studies at London’s Royal Academy of Arts in 1818. An article about Warren in The Art Journal for 1861 makes no mention of the artist’s traveling in America, and it is possible the HW represents a still unidentified landscape painter.

Troy. Taken from the West bank of the Hudson, in front of the United States Arsenal

William James Bennett (1787-1844) | 1838

Engraver: William James Bennett (1787-1844)

Publisher / Location: Henry J. Megarey, New York City

Medium: Hand-colored aquatint on paper

Dimensions: 15 7/8 H x 25 1/2 W

Credit: Gift of the estate of Marjorie Doyle Rockwell

The Troy Weekly Whig newspaper published a notice on September 16, 1836, that “an effort is making to procure an    engraved picture representing a prospective view of this city. Such an engraving, well executed, would be worthy of the patronage of our citizens.” Later that fall, on November 21, the newspaper announced greater details about the picture: “It will be done in aquatinta and colord, on an imperial sheet of drawing paper, 16 x 21 inches.”

Engraved prints of American cities and picturesque landscapes had grown in popularity throughout the early nineteenth century, and several large projects had already been completed, such as William Birch’s twenty-eight views of The City of Philadelphia (1798–1800), and William Guy Wall’s twenty engravings for Hudson River Portfolio (1820–1825), published by Henry J. Megarey in New York. Megarey, in fact, was the publisher of the engraved picture of Troy. He hired William James Bennett, the foremost topographical artist and engraver working in America at the time, to do the original watercolor and engrave the printing plate.

On August 2, 1837, the Troy Morning Mail printed a notice for the looking glass establishment of H. H. & T. Hooper that read: “The Picture of Troy.—The above picture is just finished and will be delivered to subscribers this day . . . It was drawn and engraved by a master in his line, Wm. J. Bennett, of the National Academy of Design, N. Y.” The print was valued at $100 in 1837, according to the Troy Morning Mail.

Bennett was born in England and studied at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. He specialized in watercolor views and worked with several print publishers including London’s most successful, Rudolph Ackermann, who specialized in publishing extravagant colored prints, books, and magazines. Bennett learned the relatively new intaglio print process known as aquatint, which closely mimicked the tonal qualities of watercolor. A comparison between Bennett’s original watercolor and his hand-colored engraving demonstrates the fidelity achieved through the aquatint process.

View of Little Falls, New York

William Rickerby Miller (1818-1893) | 1852

Medium: Watercolor on paper

Credit: Albany Institute of History & Art Purchase

View of Little Falls, New York, meticulously describes the village of Little Falls and the Erie Canal as it winds through a rocky ravine just south of the Mohawk River. It is primarily a topographical painting that offers useful information about the geography of the area, the architecture and plan of the village, and the appearance and construction of the canal. William Rickerby Miller’s watercolors reflect his English origins and the work of English topographical artists like Paul Sandby and Thomas Girtin.

Born in the northeast of England, Miller probably received his initial training from his father, who was an animal and landscape painter, and who ran a stationary shop. His early watercolors indicate that he also attended art school in Norwich. Around 1844, Miller immigrated to the United States. He first settled in Buffalo, New York, but eventually moved to New York City. Watercolor was little practiced in the United States at the time, and few Americans appreciated the medium. By 1847, however, he began showing works at the American Art-Union, and after the organization ceased operations in 1852, Miller debuted at the National Academy of Design, where he exhibited for many years.

Miller’s Quaker upbringing significantly influenced his life, and he devoted himself to work and disciplined living. In 1846 he drafted a guide for himself, which he title, “My Rules and Plans of Life.” Miller earned his livelihood by making illustrations for periodicals, including Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, and Putnam’s Monthly Magazine. In the 1870s he devoted himself to creating “A Thousand Gems” of American landscape, a work that was never published. Although he continued to draw and paint landscapes in his later years, Miller spent increasing amounts of time learning languages, writing music, poetry, and plays, and traveling.

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