Searching for a Helderberg Landscape

W. Douglas McCombs, Chief Curator
 
It happened one day earlier this year when I was driving on Tarrytown Road, heading into the hamlet of Clarksville, New York, that I saw the Helderberg Mountains like a painting. That is, the view reminded me of a painting titled Scene in the Helderbergs near Albany by Hudson River School artist William Hart, which now hangs alongside other nineteenth-century landscapes at the Albany Institute.
View of the Helderberg Mountains from Tarrytown Road near Clarksville, New York, photograph by Douglas McCombs
Scene in the Helderbergs near Albany, c. 1848, by William Hart, Albany Institute of History & Art
This early painting by Hart depicts an idyllic pastoral scene in the foreground with cows grazing near a stream, but off in the distance the landscape becomes wilder and mountainous. I always wondered if it would be possible to identify the view that inspired the painting. My drive on Tarrytown Road gave me hope.
 
The long ridge of Wolf Hill with its sharply angled terminus echoed the prominent ridge in the left background of Hart’s painting and the area around Thacher Park appeared on the right side of the painting, only more exaggerated. 
What didn’t match was the prominent hill in the center of Hart’s painting, but Bennett Hill, which it resembled, was just off to the left. Did Hart shift topographical features and exaggerate their forms to make a more interesting painting?
 
Like most landscape painters of the period Hart began his process by making pencil or watercolor sketches in the field. Once back in the studio, he used the sketches as reference to compose aesthetically pleasing pictures that did not always match real landscapes. In 1871 Hart described this very process in a lecture he presented to the Brooklyn Academy of Design where he described the outdoor sketch as a pictorial representation that recalls with truth the landscape’s forms and colors and suggests its sentiment or soul. The studio painting, by contrast, suggests “a perfect beauty not always within our reach for imitation.”
 
I decided to search among Hart’s drawings and sketches in the Institute’s collection for clues and also drive around the vicinity of Clarksville and the Helderberg region, hoping to find more evidence for the painting.
 
In 2004, more than five hundred of Hart’s drawings, prints, and written materials came to the Institute from a descendent. In the collection is an album with several of Hart’s earliest pencil sketches pasted inside. These date from 1847 and 1848, years when Hart focused his sketching trips around Albany, the Mohawk Valley, and Vermont.
Scene on the Helderberg Mountains (no. 1), 1848, pencil sketch by William Hart, Albany Institute of History & Art
Among the sketches, Hart identified two as scenes in the Helderbergs, but only one showing a sharply angled ridge terminus like Wolf Hill had any resemblance to the painting. The other, I discovered later, matches exactly a painting in the collection of the New-York Historical Society, which indicates that Hart did occasionally paint landscapes directly from his field sketches. These kinds of paintings Hart referred to as "portraits" because they were exact likenesses of real landscapes.
 
Scene on the Helderberg Mountains (no 2), 1848, William Hart, Albany Institute of History & Art
During my afternoon drives around the Helderbergs I discovered no other views that more closely matched Hart’s painting than that view from Tarrytown Road, but one afternoon I did discover that a very similar view could be seen from the trail of the Bennett Hill Preserve, suggesting that Hart could have been sketching on the west side of Bennett Hill along Clarksville South Road. Whether from Tarrytown Road or the western slope of Bennett Hill, Hart composed his painting, exaggerating some features of the landscape and moving others to make a more interesting picture.
View of the Helderbergs from the lower trail of the Bennett Hill Preserve, photograph by Douglas McCombs
Details of an 1854 map of Albany County and a Google terrain map show two possible locations for Hart’s view, one from Tarrytown Road and the other from the northwestern slope of Bennett Hill.
Detail of Map of Albany County New York from Actual Surveys by Jay Gould and I. B. Moore, 1854, Albany Institute of History & Art
Detail of Google Terrain Map of Clarksville, New York
If you want to discover the landscape that inspired William Hart for yourself, the trails at Bennett Hill Preserve offer many wonderful views. From the top of the hill, hikers have bird’s-eye views looking across the valley toward Albany and another aimed directly at Wolf Hill and Thacher Park beyond. What better way to spend a summer afternoon.
 
June 23, 2020