The Improved Landscape

     Hudson River School landscapes are best recognized for their exaltations of wild and uncultivated nature, aspects of the American continent that differentiated it from Europe where wilderness had almost completely vanished. Yet, nearly all Hudson River School artists captured landscapes of pastoral repose, scenes that signified abundance, prosperity, and refinement.
     In eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century England, landscapes of grazing livestock, grain cultivation, and haying activities characterized the ideal of land improvement, and Americans embraced the same point of view. In his poem Greenfield Hill (1794), Yale College president Timothy Dwight observed a landscape of improvement in his native Connecticut:
Unnumber’d farms salute the cheerful eye;
Contracted there to little gardens; here outspread
Spacious, with pastures, fields, and meadow rich;
Where the young wheat its glowing green displays,
Or the dark soil bespeaks the recent plough,
Or flocks and herds along the lawn disport.
     Improvement also meant carefully planned and configured parks and gardens. Beginning in the 1730s, affluent English landowners adopted the fashion for naturalistic parklands composed of open fields interspersed with clumps of trees, winding paths, and smooth bodies of water. “As a people descended from the English stock, we inherit much of the ardent love of rural life and its pursuits” noted American landscape designer Andrew Jackson Downing in his Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening Adapted to North America (1841). Downing further commented: “landscape gardening, which is an artistical combination of the beautiful in nature and art . . . is capable of affording us the highest and most intellectual enjoyment to be found in any cares or pleasures belonging to the soil.” Landscape artists similarly captured the “beautiful in nature and art” and portrayed the cultivated countryside as an important expression of American ideals.
The Seats of the Nobility and Gentry
William Watts (1752–1851)
Published by William Watts, London
Engravings and letterpress on laid paper, 1779–1786
Private Collection
     The fashion in England for topographical views of picturesque scenery and gentlemen’s estates generated several publications in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, including William Watts' The Seats of the Nobility and Gentry that were issued serially over several years. His engraved views were marketed to a growing middle class interested in architecture and landscape design, a segment of the population who also considered books an important element of personal refinement.
     When the last engravings were issued in 1786, the complete set contained eighty-four views of the landscaped grounds and elegant houses of Britain’s affluent landowners. Trained by topographical artists Paul Sandby and Edward Rooker, Watts used his own drawings as well as those from several other artists as sources for the fine copperplate engravings that illustrated his book.
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Clermont the Seat of Mrs. Livingston
Alexander Robertson (1772-1841)
Pencil and ink on paper, 1796
Albany Institute of History & Art Purchase, 1945.51
     In September 1796, the Scottish immigrant Alexander Robertson ventured north on the Hudson River, traveling from New York City to Albany and then west along the Mohawk River. Throughout his journey Robertson made sketches of the towns and scenery he encountered, including Clermont, the family home of Robert R. Livingston, Jr. (known as Chancellor Livingston). Robertson’s sketch of the manor house and grounds resembles the engraved views of gentlemen’s estates found in William Watts’ publication, The Seats of the Nobility and Gentry, a book that Robertson likely knew.
     Alexander Robertson and his brother Archibald were born in Aberdeen, Scotland. Both attended King’s College in Aberdeen and trained at the Royal Academy of Arts in London before settling in New York City, Archibald in 1791, and Alexander a year later in 1792. Together they opened the Columbian Academy, one of the first art schools in the United States, where they taught drawing and watercolor. The artist John Vanderlyn attended the Columbian Academy, as did numerous amateur artists, both male and female. In 1802, the brothers ended their partnership. Archibald continued the Columbian Academy, and Alexander opened his own art school, the Academy of Painting and Drawing.
Elements of the Graphic Arts, Table III
Archibald Robertson (1765–1835)
Published by David Longworth, New York (1802)
     Elements of the Graphic Arts (1802) was one of the first art instruction books published in United States. It provides a good idea of the type of instruction Archibald and Alexander Robertson offered their students at the Columbian Academy in New York City. The stylized shapes of leaves and branches resemble those used by Alexander in his sketchbook.
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View of Featherstonhaugh Estate near Duanesburg
Thomas Cole (1801–1848)                        
Oil on canvas, 1826
Private Collection
     “I am extremely anxious to get to painting again & also to feel the comfort of a good country fire,” Thomas Cole wrote on December 5, 1825, in a letter to the English-born land developer, writer, and geologist George William Featherstonhaugh. In October, Cole had sold five of his earliest landscape paintings in New York City and instantly won praise as a new American genius. Featherstonhaugh, who resided on his country estate in Duanesburg, New York, southwest of Albany, became Cole’s first supporting patron.
     As the December 5th letter indicates, Cole had already visited Featherstonhaugh and was accepting his invitation to spend the winter at his home in Duanesburg, where Cole was promised a painting room and accommodations. In return, he would paint several views of the Featherstonhaugh estate, and presumably have time to work on other landscapes. Painting views of gentlemen’s estates had a long history in England, where both Featherstonhaugh and Cole originated, and both would have been familiar with the tradition.
     Cole arrived in Duanesburg the third week of December 1825, and stayed until the end of March the following year. View of Featherstonhaugh Estate near Duanesburg was one of four views he painted of the estate, and probably the first or second in the series. In this painting and a nearly identical work titled The Woodchopper, Lake Featherstonhaugh (Fisher Museum of Art, University of Southern California, Los Angeles), Cole shows the house on the left and FeatherstonhaughLake in the middle ground. A dead, twisted tree trunk in the left foreground immediately confronts the viewer and frames the scene.
     Although Cole used his stay with Featherstonhaugh to paint and sketch the scenery of the Schoharie Valley, it was the wilder, more rugged landscape of the Catskill Mountains that he preferred. In a letter written on February 24, 1826, to the older artist John Trumbull, Cole states, “The scenery from which I have been painting here is certainly fine, extensive, but not of the character that I delight in.” Cole accepted another commission to paint a gentleman’s estate, that of the Van Rensselaer family in Albany, which he undertook in 1840 and 1841.
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Letter from Thomas Cole to George William Featherstonhaugh
December 5, 1825
Pen and ink on paper
Private Collection
New York, December 5, 1825
Dear Sir,
     I have concluded to take advantage of your kind offer & I expect to be with you in about ten days.
     I go to Philad: tomorrow for the purpose of buying colours etc.
     I found all the family well & they are highly gratified with the account I gave of the kindness I received whilst at your house. I am extremely anxious to get to painting again & also to feel the comfort of a good country fire.
     Present my respects to Mrs. F____.
     It is very late & I am going off early to Morrow or I should perhaps trouble you with more.
I am,
Yours respectfully
Thomas Cole
I have disposed of your letters as you wished.
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Gardens of the Van Rensselaer Manor House
Thomas Cole (1801-1848)
Oil on canvas, 1840
Bequest of Miss Katherine E. Turnbull, 1930.7.1
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The Van Rensselaer Manor House
Thomas Cole (1801-1848)
Oil on canvas, 1841
Bequest of Miss Katherine E. Turnbull, 1930.7.2
     Between 1765 and 1769, Stephen Van Rensselaer II built the grand manor house that sat on the west bank of the Hudson River, just north of downtown Albany. The Van Rensselaer family held vast tracts of land on both sides of the river, land originally granted in 1630 to Kiliaen van Rensselaer, an Amsterdam diamond merchant and director of the Dutch West India Company.
     The manor house and grounds descended to Stephen Van Rensselaer III, who lived there with his first wife Margarita Schuyler, and after her death in 1801, with his second wife Cornelia Paterson. When Stephen III died in 1839, his son William Paterson Van Rensselaer commissioned Thomas Cole to paint views of the house and gardens as mementos for his mother and sister, who planned to move from the house to make way for Stephen Van Rensselaer IV and his wife Harriet. Stephen IV was the eldest son, and thus, the inheritor of the manor house and grounds.
     Cole rarely painted strict topographical views, but a commission from the socially prominent Van Rensselaer family was too important to decline. Like his English predecessors who depicted gentlemen’s estates, Cole included narrative devices within his paintings. The empty chair and basket of flowers create intrigue and force the viewer to ask “who was it that just left the scene?”
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The Horticulturist
Edited by Andrew Jackson Downing (1815–1852)
Volume 2, October 1847
Albany Institute of History & Art Library, SpC 630.5 HOR v. 2
     With the publication of his first book, A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening Adapted to North America (1841), the horticulturist and landscape designer Andrew Jackson Downing immediately became an influential force in America. Not only did he design gardens and parks in a new American style, using native plants and trees, he also designed cottages and houses suited to the growing American taste for suburban living that offered proximity to town with the benefits of a rural setting.
     In 1846, Downing accepted an offer from the publisher Luther Tucker to serve as editor for a new journal, The Horticulturist. The monthly magazine gave Downing the opportunity to disseminate his ideas and designs to a greater number of Americans than his books alone. Montgomery Place, a house belonging to the Livingston family, exemplified much of what Downing favored—beautiful gardens, scenic views, paths and drives for communion with nature—and what he described as “accessible perfect seclusion.”
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Pastoral Scene
DeWitt Clinton Boutelle (1820–1884)
Oil on canvas, 1844
Collection of House of Nathaniel Gallery
     The artist DeWitt Clinton Boutelle may have had no other intention in painting this small canvas than to visualize the charms of country life. Indeed, the picture personifies the bucolic ideal—a happy couple enjoying a pleasant summer day while attending their grazing cattle. Poets and writers stretching back to ancient Rome have verbalized scenes similar to this, where the unhurried pace of rural life afforded contentment and peace of mind. In “Ode on Solitude,” the English poet Alexander Pope wrote:
     Happy the man, whose wish and care
     A few paternal acres bound,
     Content to breathe his native air,
     Americans, such as landscape designer Andrew Jackson Downing and the print publishers Currier and Ives, promoted and kept alive a nostalgic longing for rural life throughout much of the nineteenth century.
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Scene in the Helderbergs near Albany
William Hart (1823 – 1894)
Oil on canvas, c. 1849
Gift of Anna R. Spelman, x1940.612.1
     The towns and villages southwest of Albany have traditionally been rural farming communities. William Hart’s Scene in the Helderbergs near Albany depicts the country lanes and open pastures that once characterized the area. Hart, however, did not paint a topographical landscape, that is, a truthful representation of an actual scene. Instead, he composed his landscape by incorporating a variety of elements most likely viewed during several sketching excursions through the region. The high ridge in the left background resembles the Helderberg escarpment that rises abruptly to a height of 1,000 feet, but the rest of the painting shares no resemblance to any specific location. Even long-standing residents have never identified a specific site.
     Hart most likely painted his landscape to evoke an idealization, a glorification of country life that captivated Americans in the 1840s and 1850s. Numerous books and periodicals like The Horticulturist, edited by landscape designer Andrew Jackson Downing, presented Americans with plans for rural residences and advice on laying out attractive grounds and gardens. The tan-colored house, in fact, shown peaking through tall shade trees along the country lane, closely resembles the rural gothic architecture promoted by Downing in his second book, Cottage Residences (1842). It features the steep, peaked roof and scrolling tracery on the gabled end that, as Downing noted, “if well executed it will have a rich effect.”
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Valley Scene (Study near the Catskills)
John Frederick Kensett (1816–1872)
Oil on canvas, c. 1855
Gift of Estate of Marjorie Doyle Rockwell, 1995.30.3
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View of Amenia, New York, from Amenia Island Cemetery
Carl Albert Peters
Oil on canvas, 1861
Gift of Yetta Groshans, 2003.39
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The Van Allen Homestead
Henry A. Ferguson (1845–1911)
Oil on canvas, c. 1860–1870
Gift of Mrs. Anna Van Allen Jenison, 1920.9
     Henry Ferguson’s painting illustrates the Van Allen homestead in Bethlehem Township, in Albany County. It is both a house portrait and a veneration of the old family homestead. In the decades following the American Civil War, American families tended to be less stationary than they were in earlier generations. The old family homestead become a symbol of the past, a nostalgic reminder of what Americans were losing due to rising urbanization and industrial expansion.
     Henry Ferguson was born and raised in Glens Falls, New York. He eventually joined his brother Hiram in Albany as a wood engraver, producing printing blocks for magazines, books, and newspapers. His aspirations to become a painter led Ferguson to leave family and home, and travel through Mexico, South America, Europe, and Africa in search of landscapes. In 1867, he began exhibiting at the National Academy of Design works derived from his travels abroad as well as from more familiar excursions through the Hudson Valley.
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View near Lansingburgh, Looking toward Troy, on the River
Attributed to James M. Hart (1828–1901)
Oil on canvas, c. 1859
Albany Institute of History & Art Purchase, 1943.8
     A pastoral landscape spreads across the island-studded section of the Hudson River just north of Lansingburgh and Troy. Sheep and cattle graze on the islands while four fishermen spend a peaceful day in piscatorial pursuit. At one point in its history, the individuals in the foreground were identified as members of the Burden family, but no evidence has been found to support that claim. The painting has had several titles over the years, and attributions to several artists, but a catalogue for an 1859 exhibition at the Troy Young Men’s Association lists a painting by James M. Hart, titled, View near Lansingburgh, Looking toward Troy, on the River, almost certainly the painting exhibited here.
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Valley Lands
James M. Hart (1828–1901)
Oil on canvas, 1867
Albany Institute of History & Art Purchase, x1940.636.1
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Hudson River at Croton Point
Julie Hart Beers (1835-1913)
Oil on canvas, 1869
Collection of Nicholas V. Bulzacchelli
     Hudson Valley at Croton Point displays the hand of an accomplished artist, one who mastered landscape composition and perspective. Yet for the artist, Julie Hart Beers, formal training was limited to the lessons she learned from her artist brothers, William and James Hart, as no evidence exists to suggest she attended any formal classes. Despite the lack of formal training, Beers and other women in the nineteenth century became professional artists. On November 12, 1866, The New York Times reported: “The number of ladies in America who have taken up the study of Art as a profession is very much greater than is generally supposed.”
     Like the present work, many of Beers’ paintings reflect her travels in the Hudson Valley. They depict bucolic landscapes along the Hudson River or its tributaries, complete with meadows, fences, and occasionally grazing cows.
     In 1857, Beers and her two daughters moved from Albany, following the death of her first husband George Washington Beers, to live with her brother William at his studio in Brooklyn. A few years later, Beers took her own studio in the Dodsworth Building in Manhattan, and 1868 she and her daughters moved there. It was an unusual arrangement for a woman in the nineteenth century, but Beers was devoted to her art. Over the years, she exhibited at several venues, including the National Academy of Design, the Brooklyn Art Association, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and the Boston Athenaeum.