The Relationship Between Humans and Nature Explored in the Hudson River School

Humans have always had a connection to nature. When we are feeling pensive, nature provides us with aesthetics, beauty, and peace. The Hudson River School painters especially appreciated the value of nature, specifically that of the American landscape. The Hudson River School, which lasted from ca. 1825 to 1870, was characterized by picturesque and realistic depictions of nature and the American landscape. The artistic movement overlapped with the Romantic Era (late 18th century to mid-19th century) in which people worshipped the beauty of nature and valued emotion over reason. People have always had this intimate connection with nature, but this relationship is deteriorating because we do not treat the environment well, a topic that is explored and addressed in Hudson River School paintings. Perhaps, we can salvage this relationship yet.

The values of both the Hudson River School and Romanticism are evident in Frederic Edwin Church’s “Morning, Looking East Over the Hudson Valley from the Catskill Mountains” (1848). Through this work, Church conveys the positive relationship between humans and nature and reveals the power nature has over us. The painting depicts a man pausing for a moment on his walk to take in the magnificent wonder of the sunrise over the Catskills. The man in the painting is small compared to the vast mountains and pink skies that surround him. Church is telling us that while we should be humbled by the raw beauty of nature, we should also gain some inner peace or transformation from absorbing the wonder in our natural surroundings.

 

Henry Ary’s “View of Hudson, New York” (1852) shows a very different setting. This painting shows an industrially developed Hudson, NY with factories, gray skies, and relatively less trees. The Industrial Revolution resulted in the creation of more factories and a sharp increase in population that continued to grow exponentially. Human’s negative presence is clearly shown in this painting. The trees in the Hudson River are dead. The river is noticeably greener and murkier. This may be because the river was becoming eutrophic. A body of water may become eutrophic when there is an excess of nitrogen or phosphorus. In this case, it is likely phosphorus pollution which comes from households and industry. The nutrients cause algae blooms and when the algae die, the bacteria that decompose them depletes the oxygen in the water. This leads to populations such as fish to decline and the beauty of the water to diminish. In addition, the Hudson Iron Company, which is shown in Ary’s painting, was dumping their debris and cinders into the river, on top of which more factories would be built. Humans have caused the degradation of natural beauty. Despite this, Ary still emphasizes nature and its beauty by placing the green trees and grass in the foreground. This placement shows that nature is still powerful and that it deserves to be preserved.

In the Albany Institute of History & Art’s Hudson River School Gallery, just below Church’s “Morning,” is Thomas Cole’s “View of Catskill Creek” (1833). Thomas Cole is considered the founder of the Hudson River School movement, and his interpretation of human’s relationship with nature is complex and contrasts with that of Church, who was a pupil to Thomas Cole. In “View of Catskill Creek,” the human presence is shown in a man rowing a boat across the creek. Similar to “Morning,” the man has also paused to look at the beauty of the pink sky over the trees. However, the presence of humans is revealed to have a negative effect on the natural scenery. At the forefront of the painting near the man is a dead and broken tree. Thomas Cole thought that nature was best left untampered with and that the American landscape should be preserved.  Can the positive relationship between humans and nature be preserved as well, or are we bound to continuously exploit and negatively impact the Earth? In Thomas Cole’s “Essay on American Scenery” in 1836, Cole writes, “We are still in Eden; the door that shuts us out of the garden is our own ignorance and folly.” So, is there still a chance that we can preserve our garden in the present day? We can preserve the wilderness by living sustainably. Recycling, using less household energy, refraining from using products that endanger wildlife (and checking labels), eating locally, and voting for candidates who support environmentally friendly policies are all things we can do to help preserve the Earth and all its natural beauty.

Author: Nya, Junior Interpreter