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.

Truth to Nature

“Go first to Nature to learn to paint landscape, and when you shall have learnt to imitate her, you may then study the pictures of great artists with benefit . . . I would urge on any young student in landscape painting, the importance of painting direct from Nature as soon as he shall have acquired the first rudiments of Art,” advised Asher B. Durand, a leading Hudson River School painter and founding member of the National Academy of Design. Durand published these words in 1855 as part of his “Letters on Landscape Painting,” which appeared in the new art journal The Crayon. His nine letters offered practical advice on landscape painting and they called for artists to paint directly from nature.

Durand, however, was not the first to advocate close observation of the landscape. In 1843, the British art critic John Ruskin published the first volume of his Modern Painters, which instructed artists to be truthful to nature’s forms, as truth in appearance would lead to higher truths—moral, spiritual, and truth of ideas. Ruskin eventually aligned himself with a group of British artists who called themselves the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. These artists relied on close observation and a fidelity to nature that Ruskin espoused, a characteristic they found in art created before the time of the renaissance painter Raphael (1483–1520), who introduced formulaic conventions into painting, thus the name Pre-Raphaelite.

Ruskin’s books were widely read in America and numerous articles about the English critic appeared in The Crayon. His ideas spawned an American version of the Pre-Raphaelites, the American Association for the Advancement of Truth in Art, which organized on January 27, 1863. The Association, along with a new generation of Hudson River School artists inspired by Durand’s “Letters”, guided American landscape painting toward a more visible truth to nature.

From Nature

Thomas Cole (1801-1848) | 1823

Medium: Ink on paper

Dimensions: 9 5/8 H x 7 1/4 W

Credit: Gift of Edith Cole (Mrs. Howard) Silberstein

While still in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1823, and yet unknown in the art community, Thomas Cole drew this sketch of an aged and weather-beaten tree, and documented it “from nature.” His inscription verifies its truthfulness, which all the more intensifies the tree’s peculiar appearance. Cole made other sketches of trees that same year, revealing his interest in each one’s individual form and expressiveness.

Years later, Cole wrote about trees in his “Essay on American Scenery,” (1836), perhaps reflecting back to the drawings he made during the spring and summer of 1823: “Trees are like men, differing widely in character; in sheltered spots, or under the influence of culture, they show few contrasting points; peculiarities are pruned and trained away, until there is a general resemblance. But in exposed situations, wild and uncultivated, battling with the elements and with one another for the possession of a morsel of soil, or a favoring rock to which they may cling—they exhibit striking peculiarities, and sometimes grand originality.”

Sketchbook No. 1, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Philadelphia Pennsylvania

Thomas Cole (1801-1848) | 1823

Medium: Paper and leather, pencil, ink, charcoal

Dimensions: 9 5/8 H x 7 3/4 W, 29 pp.

Credit: Gift of Mrs. Florence Cole Vincent

Thomas Cole's first sketchbook, dated 1823, records the young artist’s fascination with nature, particularly plants and trees. The daubs of color in shades of brown and tan are his attempt to mimic as closely as possible the natural colors of the trees he observed along the Monongahela River near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Cole derived the pigments from tree barks mixed with alum, potash, tarter, and limewater.

Throughout the summer of 1823, Cole added to his notebook, making sketches and jotting notes during his journey from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, where he began studies at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Sketchbook No. 1 is a prologue to Cole’s artistic career.

Albany, Taken from the East Side of the River

Thomas Cole (1801-1848) | c. 1844

Medium: Ink on wove paper

Dimensions: 14 7/8 H x 17 1/2 W

Provenance: Descended in the Cole Family to Mrs. Florence H.Cole Vincent, the artist's granddaughter.

Credit: Albany Institute of History & Art Purchase

Thomas Cole may have carefully drawn this view of Albany, “taken from the east side of the river,” to assist him in making a large painting of the city to hang in the cabin of the warship USS Albany that was being built in Brooklyn Navy Yard. Isaiah Townsend, who enlisted the support of several Albany residents to petition Cole to do the painting, corresponded with the artist throughout the process. In February 1844, Cole asked Townsend to supply him with a daguerreotype of the city: “I now trouble you to enquire whether it may be possible for me to get a Daguerrotype View from near the spot where you left me. I imagine there are persons in Albany who can do this sufficiently well & I should be greatly facilitated in the execution of the pictures by a Daguerrotype.”

Cole finished the painting and had it delivered to Albany from his home in Catskill. The USS Albany was involved in the Mexican War, and in 1854 sunk off the coast of Cuba during a storm.

Letter from Thomas Cole to Isaiah Townsend

Ink on paper, February 15, 1844

Albany Institute of History & Art Library, CV


New York, Febr. 15th 1844
Dear Sir,
            I have at length obtained a pannel on which I can venture to paint the picture of Albany & I hope now to get on with it rapidly. When I made the sketches, you know, the weather was very cold. In consequence the details of the steeples & public Buildings are not drawn with the accuracy I could desire & I now trouble you to enquire whether it may be possible for me to get a Daguerrotype View from near the spot where you left me. I imagine there are persons in Albany who can do this sufficiently well & I should be greatly facilitated in the execution of the pictures by a Daguerrotype. Will you have the goodness to endeavor to get one for me & send it to me No 1 Laight St. by the earliest opportunity. I am desirous of making the Picture accurate as well as effective as possible. I learn that you have had a very severe winter in Albany it has been sufficiently so here. I am in hope now that there will be a change & that the River will begin to show some sign of breaking up. Wishing to apologize for troubling you so much.
     I remain
     Yours truly
     Thomas Cole


Julie Hart Beers (1835-1913)

Oil on panel, 1872

Collection of Douglas L. Cohn, DVM

Walking along a small mountain stream, Julie Hart Beers must have paused for a moment and decided the view she observed was worthy of preserving. Like her brother William, who painted the small oil sketch shown below, Beers worked up this landscape outdoors. She recorded details like the curled and peeling bark of the large tree on the right and the exposed roots that trail down to the water.

Whether Beers intended her oil sketch as a study for some larger project or simply as a keepsake of a pleasant day in the mountains is not known, but Beers did make the effort of inscribing the exact date in the bottom right-hand corner of the painting, September 16, 1872, recording for posterity a moment in her life.

First Sketch from Nature

William Hart (1823-1894)

Oil on canvas, 1845

Collection of Bill and Kate McLaughlin

The artist William Hart inscribed the reverse of this small painting, “My first sketch from Nature in Oil Wm. Hart 1845 Normanskill near Albany N.Y.” Painted at the beginning of his career, the intimate landscape establishes the artist’s use of oil paints in outdoor sketching trips.

Painting with oils in the open air was not always an easy task. Pigments had to be mixed and blended by hand, and then carefully sealed in leather bladder bags for transport. It was a laborious and messy operation. In 1841, the development of collapsible paint tubes revolutionized open-air painting since artists could purchase paints already mixed and stored in easily transportable containers. Hart likely had access to paint in collapsible tubes when he painted this work.

White Pine, Shokan, Ulster County, New York

William Hart (1823-1894) | c. 1850

Medium: Watercolor on paper

Dimensions: 12 H x 8 5/8 W

Credit: Gift of Alan Lewis, in honor of Janice Hart White

Few works can surpass the immediacy and spontaneity of William Hart’s watercolor of a stately white pine tree, which he observed in Shokan, New York, on the eastern edge of the Catskill Mountains (left). Hart frequently went on sketching trips throughout the Hudson River valley and as far away as Maine and Lake Superior. As a draughtsman he experimented with different media and different stylistic approaches, as this watercolor and the following pencil drawing demonstrate. Nearly all of the more than four hundred drawings and watercolors by William Hart that were donated to the Albany Institute in 2004 reveal the artist’s affinity for faithful representations of nature.


William Hart (1823-1894)

Pencil on paper, c. 1848

Gift of Alan Lewis in honor of Janice Hart

White, 2004.46.53

The Mountain Stream

John F. Kensett (1816–1872) | c. 1845

Medium: Oil on canvas

Dimensions: Oval: 14 H x 9 3/4 W

Credit: Gift of Beatrice Palmer

The nineteenth-century art historian and critic Henry Tuckerman wrote of John Frederick Kensett in his Book of the Artists (1867): “In some of his pictures the dense growth of trees on a rocky ledge, with the dripping stones and mouldy lichens, are rendered with the literal minuteness of one of the old Flemish painters. It is on this account that Kensett enjoys an exceptional reputation among the extreme advocates of the Pre-Raphaelite school.” Tuckerman perfectly describes The Mountain Stream, a work that bears witness to Kensett’s close observation of nature.  

The Artist

William Richardson Tyler (1825-1896) | c. 1870

Medium: Oil on canvas

Credit: Albany Institute of History & Art

The American Drawing-Book

John Gadsby Chapman (1808–1889)

Published by J. S. Redfield, New York, 1858

Albany Institute of History & Art Library, SpC

OV 701.8 CHA AME 1858

On the use of oil paints in the outdoors, Chapman remarks, “the conveniences of painting in oil in the open air are much less than they are generally imagined to be, and very little trial will soon render its practice as easy as it is delightful and profitable.” Art instruction books, such as Chapman’s, provided valuable information for both amateurs and professional artists in the various techniques of painting and drawing. By the time Chapman’s book was published in 1858, outdoor painting in oils was becoming increasingly more common thanks to new developments in collapsible paint tubes, brushes with metal ferrules, and prepared artist boards.

Paradise Valley, Middletown, Rhode Island

William Richardson Tyler (1825–1896)

Gouache on paper mounted to board, c. 1880

Kinderhook, New York, Collection

During the nineteenth century, Paradise Valley near Newport, Rhode Island, was a popular destination for picnics and sightseeing. Guidebook writer Sarah S. Cahoone noted in Sketches of Newport and Its Vicinity (1842) that “parties from Newport often go thither during the summer season, to pass the day in rambling about.” William Richardson Tyler’s gouache painting of Paradise Valley looks south from atop the valley’s massive rock walls toward Sachuest Bay. It captures both the area’s fascinating terrain and its spectacular outlook over broad tidal meadows to the ocean beyond.

Tyler’s view is almost identical to a watercolor painted in 1881 by fellow landscape artist William Trost Richards (now in the Newport Art Museum). Perhaps Richards showed Tyler the view during a visit to Newport, or maybe the two artists rested at the same spot by coincidence.

Tyler lived most of his life in Troy, New York, arriving at the age of eighteen to begin work at the Eaton and Gilbert Coach manufactory, where he painted decorative landscape scenes on coach doors and interiors. While some of Tyler’s landscapes resemble the fantasy scenes painted on coaches, Paradise Valley, Middletown, Rhode Island reveals Tyler’s careful observation and attention to detail that characterize his best work.

Summer Stream

William Mason Brown (1828–1898)

Oil on canvas, c. 1860

Private Collection

William Mason Brown’s landscape captivates the eye with its photographic realism, achieved by the artist’s meticulous attention to detail and his short, precise brushstrokes. Although Brown does not appear to have been formally affiliated with the American Pre-Raphaelites, he most certainly came under the influence of John Ruskin, who advocated truthfulness to nature.

Brown was born in Troy, New York, but moved to Newark, New Jersey, in 1850. During the 1850s and early 1860s, he painted mainly landscapes, which, like Summer Stream, depict peaceful summer scenes often including shaded streams. By the 1860s Brown began to paint still lifes of fruit in natural settings. His use of rich colors and attention to detail made his still lifes popular subjects for prints. Currier and Ives published his work Apples in 1868, bringing Brown national attention.

Landscape with Figure on Road

John W. Casilear (1811–1893)

Oil on canvas, c. 1860

Collection of Douglas L. Cohn, DVM

Evening on Lake George

John Henry Hill (1839–1922)

Watercolor on paper, 1869

Collection of Bernard R. Brown

John Henry Hill and has father John William Hill (1812–1879) were both founding members of the Association for the Advancement of Truth in Art, a society of American artists who closely observed nature and truthfully represented what they saw. The dictum “truth to nature” originated with the British art critic John Ruskin, who was an influential figure in the nineteenth century, both in England and in the United States.

Evening on Lake George exemplifies the manner of painting favored by the Association’s members. The tight lines and short, precise brushstrokes are characteristic, as are the close attention to detail and the use of watercolor as a favored medium. The smooth surface of the lake reflects the mountains, the trees on the island, and the small sailboat with mirror exactness. The reflection functions as a visual metaphor for the principles of the Association and for Hill, himself—to be truthful to nature.

Hill first visited Lake George in 1867 and returned several times over the years. By the early 1870s, he had a camp built on one of the islands near Bolton Landing, which he pictured in a later watercolor. His brother George, a mathematician, surveyed parts of the lake, and in 1871, an etching of Evening on Lake George was included on his map titled The Narrows of Lake George. Throughout his life, Hill painted with close attention to nature, leading Ruskin to praise the artist in a letter from 1881, stating that he had a “very great art gift.”

Field of Wild Flowers, 2 July 1847

Thomas Cole (1801–1848)

Oil on canvas, 1847

Private Collection

This quick oil sketch of a field of wild flowers near Thomas Cole’s house in Catskill, New York, displays the immediacy of direct observation and the transience of the moment. Dated “2 July 1847,” Cole made this unusual study during the last summer of his life. He spent the spring and summer of that year at home with his family, instead of traveling and sketching. From the unfinished works left in his studio, Cole was working on several paintings, one titled Proserpine Gathering Flowers in the Vale of Enna, based on the classical myth of Proserpine or Persephone, who was kept in the underworld by Pluto.

In his lecture notes, “Sicilian Scenery and Antiquities,” composed 1843–1844, Cole wrote: “The plain Enna, where Proserpine and her nymphs gathered flowers, was famous for delicious honey; and according to an ancient writer, hounds lost their scent when hunting, in consequence of the odoriferous flowers which perfumed the air.” Perhaps Cole’s flowers were intended for Proserpine.

The Artist’s First House, Rondout, New York

Jervis McEntee (1828–1891)

Oil on board, 1858

Private Collection

In 1825, James McEntee, the father of artist Jervis McEntee, arrived in Rondout, New York (now part of the city of Kingston). His drive and ambition led him from surveying land for the Erie Canal to serving as resident engineer for the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company. By 1848, his hard work allowed him to purchase fifty-two acres of land on an elevated ridge northwest of Rondout Creek. James sold off several lots to prominent citizens but kept much of the land for himself and his family.

In this charming painting, Jervis McEntee captured his first house, which sat on his father’s property. The bright, blue sky and sun-filled meadow is unusual for McEntee, who generally preferred more somber landscapes. A few years after McEntee painted this small tondo, he built nearby a new house with attached studio that his brother-in-law Calvert Vaux designed specifically for him.

Blackberry Picking, Olana Farm

Arthur Parton (1842–1914)

Oil on board, 1863

Private Collection

As a native resident of Hudson, New York, Arthur Parton found himself surrounded by landscape artists.  Sanford R. Gifford, Henry Ary, and Frederic Edwin Church lived and worked in the immediate area, yet Parton’s early training remains uncertain. He may have studied briefly with one of his neighbor artists, or he may have been inspired by his father, who was trained as a cabinetmaker. By 1860 Parton was studying in Philadelphia with the artist William Trost Richards, who followed John Ruskin’s entreaty to be truthful to nature. Richards’ landscapes and seascapes exhibit great attention to detail, something he obviously passed along to his young student. Parton’s first showing at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art in 1861 included a work titled Asters in the Woods, which was purchased by a Philadelphia botanist who admired its “fidelity to nature.”

Blackberry Picking, Olana Farm shows Parton’s careful observation of the landscape, even in its small format. He painted the clouds and atmospheric light with precise brushstrokes, and he meticulously defined the arching branches of blackberry briers and the white seed tufts of golden rod in the patch of dying vegetation in the left foreground.

Throughout his long career, Arthur Parton painted the landscapes of the Hudson River Valley but, by the 1880s, he, like many American landscape painters, fell under the influence of the French Barbizon School and the subdued tonalist style. His late landscapes display the loose brushstrokes and the narrow perspective that characterize these late nineteenth-century approaches to the landscape.

Camping by Greenwood Lake

Jasper Cropsey (1823–1900)

Oil on canvas, 1865

Private Collection

Greenwood Lake straddles the border between New York and New Jersey, northwest of the New York metropolitan area. It was an area Jasper Cropsey knew well since his wife’s family lived in the town of Greenwood Lake, located at the northern, New York, end of the lake. Cropsey kept a summer studio there and painted the lake and the surrounding mountains several times throughout his life. In 1844, Cropsey was nominated an associate of the National Academy of Design because of a painting of Greenwood Lake, which received favorable attention from the artist Henry Inman.

In this oil sketch, dated 1865, Cropsey paints a contented scene of early autumn. A small rowboat glides over the water, and, on the bank in the foreground, a camper lies on the grass near his tent and campfire. The camper may be Cropsey, himself.

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