Hudson River   


This informal association was America's first so-called school of painting and the dominant landscape style until the Civil War. The name derives from a group of 19th-century landscape painters working in New York state. With realistic composition, they depicted romantic views of unsettled areas of the Hudson River Valley especially lakes, rocky gorges, and forests in the Catskill Mountains. About a fourth of these artists utilized luminism or effects with special lighting techniques to convey lofty emotions through contrasts of light and dark. Included in this Hudson River luminist category were Washington Allston, Albert Bierstadt, William Hart, and Frederic Edwin Church.

Thomas Cole is considered the leader of the movement, which began in 1825 when other artists, including Asher Durand, discovered Cole's landscapes whose loftiness and sense of high drama suggested communication with God through nature. For Cole and later his followers, the landscape was a sacred place.

An American art journal called The Crayon, published between 1855 and 1861, reinforced the Hudson River School painters and promoted the idea that nature was a healing place for the human spirit. Hudson River painters, including Asher Durand, contributed to this publication as did men of literature such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Cullen Bryant, and James Fennimore Cooper, all of them promoting the idea that nature and God were one.

Hudson River School adherents including Asher Durand and Frederic Edwin Church often did panoramic views in a romantic, semi-realist style, with an underlying mood of serenity and contemplation. After the Civil War, Impressionism and other revolutionary styles, originating in Europe, usurped Hudson River School painters as the dominant influence on American landscape painting.

The School is credited, however, with making landscape for the first time a legitimate subject for canvas and for conveying a sense of place that was uniquely American. Although the compositional and stylistic devices were Old World---at least 36 of the Hudson River artists had been trained in European academies---the subject matter infused Americans with the confidence to turn away from European subjects to their own culture. And today, works by certain members of the Hudson River School remain strong in the market place with leaders being Martin Heade, Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, George Inness, and Albert Bierstadt.

For many of the Hudson River School artists, discovering the wonders of the landscape in upstate New York aroused a desire to explore the wonders of the American West. Artists who went West were: Albert Bierstadt, Albertus Browere, Harrison Brown, John Casilear, Samuel Colman, Henry Fenn, George Fuller, Sanford Gifford, Martin Heade, Ransome Holdredge, John Hudson, George Inness, William Keith, John Kensett, Jerome Thompson, Worthington Whittredge, and Alexander Wyant. As a result of their travels, many historic scenes have been preserved; awareness of other cultures made its way back East; and the world of American art moved westward.

See AskART’s complete essay about the Hudson River School painters.

II. Introduction | Return to Top

America’s earliest group of dedicated landscape painters is The Hudson River School, about 60 painters active from the 1820s and lasting into the 1870s.  Given the title by outsiders, participating artists carry the description because their careers reflect a critical turning point in American art. According to Worthington Whittredge (1820-1910), one of the leading Hudson School painters, the name was first used by a New York Tribune review by Clarence Cook, a critic hostile to the painters who chided them for being ‘provincial and lazy’ because they seemed unwilling to go farther than the Hudson River Valley with its close proximity to their New York studios.

Hudson River School painters never formalized their loose association with written guidelines, membership lists, regular meeting times, etc., and the word ‘school’ is a bit deceptive because the group as an ‘entity’ was never associated with an institution.  However, in a broader sense, the term is apt because participants did share a school of thought or commonalities about their subject matter and its treatment.

In spite of a somewhat “quirky” title, the Hudson River School was revolutionary because, for the first time, landscape was showcased as a serious subject for fine-art painting.  Until then, it had appeared as backdrops in portraits, history and religious works, or in survey sketches and mapmakers' drawings.  Another ‘first’ was that the School focused the public’s attention on the unique qualities of their native landscape, especially as it differed in clarity of light and abundant wilderness areas from the much more inhabited European landscape.  Through special techniques that stirred emotional responses to the land, Hudson River painters generated strong patriotism, which increasingly led to diminishment of the quiet wilderness areas that were celebrated in their paintings.

To describe variances within the movement, art historians have divided the Hudson River School painters into categories of First Generation and Second Generation.  These divisions help when describing age differences, and progression in styles, philosophy, and geography, but they can only be applied generally because many of the painters, in some way, overlap into both ‘generations’.   In varying degrees, Thomas Cole (1801-1848), the founder, influenced all of them, even after his death.  Some artists such as Jasper Francis Cropsey (1823-1900) were full-fledged disciples of Cole and reinforced Cole’s philosophy of God in nature.  Others such as Asher Brown Durand (1796-1886), who became the leading figure of the movement after Cole’s death, went back and forth between full-scale, emotion-driven paintings to less subjective work.  John Frederick Kensett (1818-1872) and his admirers were at the other end of the spectrum in that they tended to depict the land to convey its beauty; in other words, they let the subject speak for itself minus layers of philosophical or religious interpretation.  Other big-name artists in each of the ‘generations’ in addition to Cole, Cropsey and Kensett, and Durand were Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900); Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902); Sanford Robinson Gifford (1823-1880); and Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904).

III. The Land and Its River | Return to Top

Regardless of their personal commitment to Cole, something all Hudson River School artists shared was a willingness to replace the comforts of their studios for hiking into wilderness areas, especially in the Catskill Mountains, to sketch on site. Most of the painters were based in New York City from where they had easy proximity to the Hudson River Valley. Going into this valley in the early and mid 1800s with their sketchpads, these artists, most of them formally trained, were symbolically discarding shackles of academia. It was their ‘declaration of independence’ and a goodbye to prevailing strictures that only history, allegory, portraiture and religion were fit subjects for professional painters.

The headwaters of the River are due north of Albany, and the River runs southward along a valley about 300 miles in length through New York City to the Atlantic Ocean. For artists, and of course, for tourists, the region has fascinating geological diversity including verdant rolling hills, dramatic mountain vistas, waterfalls, sandy beaches and wide-open panoramic views. The Middle Valley spreads from Newburgh to Rhinebeck in Ulster and Dutchess counties; and the Upper Hudson Valley goes north to Chatham in Columbia County on the west. Today the Lower Hudson Valley includes towns and cities that have grown such as Yonkers, Nyack, Newburgh and Beacon in Rockland, Orange, Westchester and Putnam counties; North from Albany the Hudson River leaves the Valley and flows through Saratoga, the high peak area of the Adirondacks, and then to Lake George and on to join the Niagara River on Niagara Falls---all locations much explored by the Hudson River School painters.

The River with its own beauty and its configurations in valleys and rock formations perpetuated the 19th-century belief that American land was a special gift of the Creator. Also, the River for which the Hudson River School painters were named was an early national symbol of America’s present and future because at that time, it was the nation’s most important river for agriculture, for transportation to market of farm and industrial products, and for navigability to international markets through the Great Lakes on the north and the Atlantic Ocean at New York City. It was also the main water route between the East Coast and points westward, especially with the 1825 completion of the Erie Canal. Of that turning point in American history, it was written: “The East was now linked to the West, and New York City crowned King of the United States”. (Flexner, History, 3) In American landscape painting, Henry Ary (1807-1859), a lesser-known Hudson River School painter, was one of the first of that group to note along the River the growing presence of commerce and industry, a tangible result of the Erie Canal.

In addition to the opening of the Erie Canal, the River had links historically to the eastern United States with major transportation advances, which fed the economy in the 17th and early 18th centuries before artists ‘discovered’ the area. In 1609, Englishman, Captain Henry Hudson and his crew were the first recorded persons in western history to sail up the river as far as Albany and likely beyond. Commanding the ship, Half Moon, he was in the service of the Dutch East India Company searching for a route to China. His crew was an unruly combination of English and Dutch sailors, a mix that became the ethnic base for Hudson River Valley settlement of persons who prospered in its fertile, richly green valleys.

Following the Revolutionary War and leading to economic recovery were several events tied to the River. Between 1785 and 1787, a sloop named Experiment traveled round trip from Albany to Canton, China and back via Cape Horn, loaded with trading goods, and this ship was the “first to make a direct voyage from the United States to China. (Faison, 12) In 1807, several decades before artists found it as a subject of much interest, the River ushered in the steamboat era in America with Robert Fulton’s (1765-1815) steamboat, the Clermont, which successfully made a 32-hour trip from New York City to Albany on August 11, 1807. The boat was named for the estate of Robert R. Livingston, Jr., Fulton’s partner, an inventor, and one of the Nation’s founding fathers. He was also President of the New York Society for the Promotion of the Arts.

Beginning in 1817, Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877) started developing a fleet of coastal steam-powered boats, which he served as Captain and which earned him the nickname of “Commodore”. In this capacity, he met many travelers to the area including, of course, the painters whose names became associated with the Hudson River School. Eventually he overthrew the monopoly that Fulton and Livingston had on river traffic between New York and Albany.

Land transportation along the Hudson Valley markedly improved in the early 19th century with the successful completion of the Erie Canal, a feat successfully promoted by DeWitt Clinton (1769-1828). He was a prominent New York political figure, and achieving heroic status because of the Canal, was elected governor of New York. In fact, he was so appreciated that many babies were named for him, including future Hudson River School painter De Witt Clinton Boutelle (1820-1884). In 1831, a few years after artists began regular visits to the Valley, Clinton introduced his DeWitt Clinton locomotive, which was the entry of railroad traffic through the Hudson Valley.

IV. Underlying Hudson River School Philosophies | Return to Top

The theory of the Sublime was the guiding philosophy that inspired Thomas Cole and his followers to sketch and paint along the Hudson River and its environs. Subscribing to this concept meant believing that God had created the land, and that human beings could commune with that God by prescribed reverential behavior. In order to succeed, one must be quiet, alone and far away from civilization in unspoiled Nature. Experiencing the Sublime, one then could and should express their exalted feelings through paintings or literature that, in turn, inspired others to believe that the landscape had supernatural powers. In other words, having a Sublime experience whose source was the wilderness landscape meant the recipient was elevated personally and aesthetically above most of humanity, and was then duty-bound to share the wonders of the experience so that other might be ‘pulled up’ as well. A sublime experience was an ultimate experience, and much more complex than the limiting descriptions of ‘beautiful’ or ‘picturesque’.

To convey sublimity, Hudson-River painters depicted landscape features as so overpowering they inspired shudders of fear and feelings of awe, both at the enormity of the divine creation and uncertainty as to its resolution. One of the most effective techniques was Romanticism, which was the combining of realism with exaggeration such as distortion of natural forms as in eerie forest interiors with much grotesquely shaped dead wood, tree trunks split by lightening, and waterfalls cutting excessively jagged paths through rock. Other Romantic devices were destabilizing contrasts of light and dark, rich color and dark tones, and rough and smooth textures. Among Hudson River painters known for Romanticism are German immigrant Johann Hermann Carmiencke (1810-1867); New Yorker, Henry Augustus Ferguson (1845-1911); widely traveled William Louis Sonntag (1822-1900), and river painter Frederic Rondel (1826-1892).

A part of Romanticism is Luminism, an exaggeration device whereby the effects of light are manipulated so that it appears to be saturating or atmospheric, and so that certain natural forms seem ‘stage lit’. Many Hudson River School painters showed a fascination with Luminism because of their generally held view that the natural light, especially of sunrise and sunset, on the American wilderness was clearer and more radiant than the counterparts of England and the European continent.  Expressing this idea gave American painters a feeling of superiority about their subject matter. Also creating this special light on canvas had the potential of spiritually transporting the artist and viewers to the ‘Source’, meaning the place of origination of the emanating light from where one could more clearly understand the universe. Painters noted especially for Luminism are Martin Johnson Heade , Sanford Gifford (1823-1880), George Inness (1824-1894) Albert Bierstadt, John William Casilear (1811-1893), Francis Augustus Silva (1835-1886), James Augustus Suydam (1819-1865) and Jasper Francis Cropsey.

Because of the alignment with deity and inspiration that transcended every day life, Hudson River School paintings were perceived as much more than just a luxury or poetic expression. Paintings of the School became an essential part of many mid to late 19th-century American households. Reinforcing celebration of the natural beauty of America by paintings was literature. Crayon magazine, a widely read art journal published between 1855 and 1861, promoted the idea that nature was a healing place for the human spirit. For this publication Asher Durand wrote a series called “Letters on Landscape Painting”, which outlined his view of allegorical principles characteristic of the Hudson River School. His ideas corresponded with the dominant men of literature of that era, all promoting the idea that nature and God were one. In his “Letters on Landscape Painting” for an 1855 edition of Crayon, magazine, he espoused these theories and urged American landscape painters to develop their own style and to go directly into nature and paint, leaving behind the studio tradition and narrative-theme reliance of European landscape painters.

Of that period, eminent literary figures and painters were reinforcing each other with theories of the sublime, as well as related ideas of transcendentalism and pantheism. Among the men of letters were Ralph Waldo Emerson, James Fennimore Cooper, William Cullen Bryant and Washington Irving. Cooper wrote romantic stories of frontier settlement in his ‘leather stocking novels’ including The Last of the Mohicans; Washington Irving, who lived in the Hudson Valley, wrote his famous Catskill stories of Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow; and William Cullen Bryant wrote Picturesque America, a book with many Hudson River references that was illustrated by Harry Fenn (1845-1911). Many of these writings, especially by Cooper and Irving, had ‘sublime’ character encounters with superstitious, fear-provoking, Old World myths transferred to their lives in the Catskill Mountains. They also contained romanticized, mysterious descriptions of the Hudson River Valley. On one of his rambling walks, Rip Van Winkle saw “the lordly Hudson, far, far, below him, moving on its silent but majestic course, . . . he looked down into a deep mountain glen, wild, lonely and shagged, the bottom filled with fragments from the impending cliffs,” (Wilton 20-21).

V. Artists on Site | Return to Top

Most of the artists went into the Hudson Valley in small groups or by themselves, and some of them such as Russell Smith (1812-1896) devoted whole summers to painting in the Valley. It was regarded as a special male bonding time, and was not an activity where women artists were welcome. In a tradition learned from European artists, they carried sketchbooks for preliminary work, which they later used in their studios for finished, usually large paintings. For the First Generation of painters, oil and watercolor were the common sketch mediums to record realistic descriptions of the landscapes, which they supplemented with pencil notes about color, mood, and personal feelings. However, by the 1850s most of these landscape painters were doing oil sketches out of doors, usually on board or panel or a small canvas. Asher Durand adopted a systematic practice of making studies in oil directly from nature (Wilton, 71), a method Thomas Cole had begun in the 1820s and 30s. He had then passed it onto Durand and Church, who became highly adept in that medium and completed hundreds of oil sketches. Albert Bierstadt also had learned that method in Dusseldorf at the Academy, and found it very effective when traveling in the western United States. In fact, many of these ‘sketches were later sold as finished art.

The painters usually stayed for several days or longer in Catskill, on Catskill Creek, which flowed into the River near Hudson. The town is on a ridge overlooking the River. Lodging in Catskill included the Cozzen Hotel that had a dramatic view of the deep gorge facing West Point, the Catskill House, which was in the mountains; and Trenton Falls House, which was popular lodging with John Kensett, Jasper Cropsey, and DeWitt Clinton Boutelle whose subjects included Niagara Falls and the Catskill Mountains.

Artists seeking wilderness vantage points and sweeping valley views often based themselves at The Catskill Mountain Hotel, built twelve miles outside of Catskill on a rock ledge on South Mountain in 1824. It is the location where Asher Durand stayed when he did his sketching for Kindred Spirits, his famous memorial painting to Thomas Cole. Getting there meant a daylong carriage ride from Catskill on a zig-zag road landscape changing from broad valley to woodlands to steep ascent. Two miles before reaching the top was a small shanty, which visitors were told was the sleeping place of the area's most famous inhabitant, Rip Van Winkle. Created in fiction by Washington Irving, part of Rip’s 100-year plus lifetime made him a ‘peer’ of the Hudson River School painters. The hotel was constructed of wood, accommodated several hundred people, and was elegant and well furnished. From the veranda was a radius view of about 50 miles that one visitor described as looking “like a distant Eden flooded with light.” That same visitor, writing for the Boston Recorder and Telegraph, Oct 6., 1826, provided a description that explains why so many of the Hudson River painters such as Sanford Robinson Gifford in Catskill Mountain House, 1862, chose this place for sketching scenes they later transferred to their canvases:

The magnificent prospect from this mountain has been often described, and is too familiar to be repeated. It is indeed magnificent - and he who could look upon such a scene and not turn from it a better man, must truly have forgotten his better elements. An area wide enough for the territory of a nation lies beneath you like a picture, with the Hudson winding through like an inlaid vein of silver. The steamboats were just visible, and I cannot give you a better idea of them than is given in the ludicrous remark of someone, that "they looked like shoes with cigar's stuck in them".  The sun rose, and excuse me if I say much to my comfort; for although wrapped in my cloak, I was chilled through. The first beams which streamed across the landscape, looked like sprinklings of white; for at my elevation the hills all sunk to a level, and I puzzled myself to account for the long shadows. They soon diminished however, as the sun rose higher, and the beauty of the scene became transcendent. The rich colours of the "garniture of the earth" stole out and the hundred towns within the range of the eye glittered like studded gems over the scene.

A mile and a half from the hotel, accessible from a walking path, was the Kaaterskill Falls, a violent, fear-inducing drop of several hundred feet, followed by another drop of about 80 feet, with ragged, perpendicular sides, which according to the above quoted newspaper writer appeared “as if they had been rent asunder by an earthquake.” This same reporter also provided insight about “staging” dramatic moments in nature. He said that the waterfall was turned off and on by a miller, who charged for opening the sluice that created the high drama of the gushing water. Then once the switch was activated the water poured “down its fearful path with the noise of a thunder peal, and another beyond leaping from a projecting shelf which seems to you more like an outlet of the clouds than an earthly level. . . .It is a place for man to fall down and confess himself a worm.” Another location nearby was Kaaterskill Clove, which was a popular painting location because it was the “largest of the gaps providing access to the mountain top and to areas west of the mountains.” (Myers, 30) The Smillie brothers, George Henry (1840-1921) and James David (1833-1909) each did paintings of Kaaterskill Clove.

Along the river, artists were offered many dramatic views of the Catskills such as those afforded by Storm King, the mountain near Newburgh, where George Washington had his headquarters during the Revolutionary War. Storm King, often surrounded by mist and seemingly unassailable, was associated with sublime mysteries of nature and became one of the more popular painting subjects. John Frederick Kensett’s views of that mountain included View of Storm King from Fort Putnam. Thomas Doughty (1793-1856) painted View of Highlands from Newburgh, New York, and Edmund C. Coates’ (1816-1871) oil painting, Washington’s Headquarters at Newburgh, 1867, has a south view of Washington’s headquarters towards Storm King. Samuel Colman (1832-1920) painted Storm King on the Hudson in 1866.

West Point, the nation’s military academy, was on the River in a scenic position, and was often depicted in Hudson River School paintings such as Robert Havell Jr.’s (1793-1878) West Point from Fort Putnam; Samuel Lancaster Gerry’s (1813-1891) West Point, Hudson River; and View of the Highlands from West Point by John Ferguson Weir (1841-1926), who for many years was the instructor of art at West Point. Another popular subject was Fort Montgomery, a military post. David Johnson (1827-1908) painted The Hudson River from Fort Montgomery and Scene at Cold Spring, Hudson River.

In great contrast to the Hudson River’s flowing serenity was Niagara Falls, one of the most dramatic, tumultuous physical features on the American continent. About Niagara Falls, Thomas Cole wrote: “And Niagara! That wonder of the world!---where the sublime and beautiful are bound together in an indissoluble chain.” (Wilton, 22) Niagara was a subject of many Hudson River School paintings such as those by Thomas Pritchard Rossiter (1818-1871), Regis François Gignoux, (1816-1882), and Ferdinand Richardt (1819-1895). Niagara by Frederic Church in 1857 is regarded as one of the finest examples of the Hudson River School style. The compositional perspective is directly over the falls, “just at the point where it is about to plunge into the gulf”. . . It is not a meditation on light, but on the power of nature manifested in the grandest geographical phenomena. It is a human tribute to an omnipotent God whose power is most perfectly manifest in such wonders.” (Wilton, 29)

Of obvious interest to the painters was the River itself. William Guy Wall (1792-1864), one of the early Hudson River School painters, was especially known for his watercolor views and completed a series called Hudson River Portfolio. Another physical feature often recorded was the visual beauty of the Valley with its lush grasses feeding grazing cattle and sometime rural figures in the distance such as in the paintings of George Clough (1825-1901). Unlike Europe with civilizations dating back thousands of years, much of the American soil including many of these valley lands was a pervasive green because it was still uncultivated in the 19th Century.  Bucolic paintings especially associated with cattle grazing in these verdant fields were those by the brothers, William M. Hart  (1823-1894) and James McDougal Hart (1828-1901) and Charles Grant Beauregard (1856-1919). And when this green turned to autumn colors, the effect was striking, and unlike anything found in Europe where the weather was much less extreme than in America.   Underscoring the novelty of seasonal foliage in Hudson River painting was an experience of Jasper Cropsey, who, along with Thomas Cole, was especially known for his autumn paintings.  Cropsey spent seven years, 1856 to 1863, in England, where Queen Victoria granted him an audience because she was so impressed by his painting, Autumn on the Hudson River.  She expressed doubt about the reality of the colors, which were so foreign to her that for validation, Cropsey had samples of fall foliage sent to her from New England.

VI. Second Generation: Strong and Moving Beyond | Return to Top

A major reason Hudson River painters were so influential on the general populace was that most of them had academic training that empowered them to create pictures that appealed successfully both to the eyes and the emotions.  It was also a combination that served many of them well financially.  After the death of the founder, Thomas Cole, many were national celebrities by the middle of the 19th Century.  Of their success, it was written that in those years, just before and after the Civil War, these men were “titans of the American art world, . . . considered heroes whose canvases, eagerly competed for, and commanded huge prices. By the end of the 19th century, thanks to this revolutionary School, landscapes “became the most popular, most quintessentially American genre of painting.” (Goodyear 123,129)  And looking back, it is obvious that the strength of the movement was a major factor in the relocation of the centers of the art world changing from Baltimore and Philadelphia to New York City.

Although the name Hudson River School suggests confinement to a single place, many of its participants went far beyond Hudson River boundaries, especially by the mid-19th century when their artwork sales were strong.

Some of the artists whose paintings reflect foreign travel include George Inness, France; Jasper Cropsey, Italy, Scotland and England; William M. Hart; and William Trost Richards (1833-1905), England; Henry Augustus Ferguson; Louis Remy Mignot (1831-1870), and Martin Johnson Heade, South America; Albertus Del Orient Browere (1814-1887), Central America; Horace Wolcott Robbins (1842-1904), Jamaica; Frederic E. Church in the Arctic; and Samuel Colman (1832-1920) in Africa and the Middle East.

Some Hudson River School painters crossed the Mississippi River and became part of a first wave of Americans curious about the make-up of the landscape and economic possibilities in the American West.  Painters in this group, of whom many were tied to the Hudson River School, became known as the “Rocky Mountain School,” a name much too limiting geographically because many of them went much farther west than Colorado.  Albert Bierstadt is the most famous Hudson River School name associated with the westward group.  With his large-scale canvases suggesting never ending expansiveness and devices to stir emotions through dramatic atmospheric contrasts upon natural features, Bierstadt was also the best-known painter of the visual propaganda that sent thousands of persons into frontiers after the Civil War and successfully pressured politicians to fund westward expansion projects.  However, persons looking for exact likenesses to geography learned not to rely upon Bierstadt, who was known for composite views, arranged for affect rather than accuracy. 

John Frederick Kensett was the first of the Hudson River School artists to seek natural wonders in the American West.  In 1854, he went up the Mississippi River, and in 1857, explored the Missouri River.  Nine years later, in 1866, he traveled in Colorado with Worthington Whittredge, and in 1870 he went back to Colorado with Whittredge and Sanford Gifford. Others who went West were Thomas Moran (1837-1926), Thomas Hill (1829-1908), Albertus Browere, Harrison Brown (1831-1915), John Casilear, Samuel Colman, Henry Fenn, Martin Heade (1819-1904), George Inness, Thomas Moran, Alexander Wyant (1836-1892), Thomas Hiram Hotchkiss (1834-1869) and the brothers, George Henry Smillie and James David Smillie.

Closer to home the White Mountains of New Hampshire with their natural beauty, especially with Mount Washington, attracted many of the Hudson River School artists.  Among those painters are Thomas Hill, Harrison Bird Brown, William Trost Richards, Aaron Shattuck (1832-1928), James Hope (1818-1892) and James Suydam.  Others painted in the Allegheny and Berkshires mountains or along the shorelines of New Jersey and Rhode Island.  Maine, which was one of the last of the eastern states to be ‘civilized’, offered intriguing forest interiors and coastline views, especially with Monhegan Island and Casco Bay.  It was a favorite place of George Herbert McCord (1848-1909) who along with Martin Johnson Heade and George Inness also did a lot of painting in Florida.  Also painting in the South was Addison Richards (1820-1900) from Hudson, New York, who became one of the first artists to bring the beauty of the South to widespread public attention.

Although no evidence exists that the Hudson River School members ever met together as a cohesive group, organizations and individuals reinforced their mutual dedication to landscape painting.  In New York City in 1822, James Fenimore Cooper formed The Bread and Cheese Club with writers and artists to share their support of democratic principles of government and their love of the American landscape and promotion of the subject in literature and painting.  Members included William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878), prominent literary figure, and historical-genre painter Samuel S.F.B. Morse (1791-1872).  When Cooper left for Europe in 1826, Thomas Cole and Asher Durand joined The Sketch Club, which had replaced The Bread and Cheese Club in furthering landscape art.  At the gatherings, members did readings about landscape from American literature while artists and writers did interpretive sketching and writing.  John Kensett was a prominent member of The Century Club, which provided socializing and patronage opportunities for landscape painters and authors.  In 1857, many of the Hudson River School artists along with other painters moved into the Tenth Street Studio Building at 51 West 10th Street in Greenwich Village.  This place, which was both housing and studio space, “soon became a focus for painterly camaraderie, while also allowing patrons and critics to visit the workplaces”. (Wilton 47)  Among Hudson River School inhabitants of the Tenth Street Studio were Frederick Church, Albert Bierstadt, Martin Heade, Sanford Gifford, John Ferguson Weir, Jervis McEntee (1828-1891), Arthur Parton (1842-1914), Aaron Shattuck, and Richard William Hubbard (1816-1888).

Also the art gallery of prominent New York dry-goods merchant Luman Reed, a native of Coxsackie, New York, played a significant role in bringing together Hudson River School painters.  In a period of six years, Reed had assembled a significant collection of European and American art, which he displayed in a two-room gallery in his lower Manhattan home on Greenwich Street.  The place was both opened to the public and became a meeting and socializing place for artists and patrons and writers, with a frequent topic being the direction of American art.  This gallery played a key role in the Hudson River School because it was the meeting place of Thomas Cole and Asher Durand.  And, under Reed’s patronage, Thomas Cole painted The Course of Empire (1833-36), an allegorical series about human desecration of their land.  In terms of time and energy spent on a single commission, it was the biggest project of his career, and was completed a decade after he had begun the painting activities that associate his name with founding the Hudson River School.

By the end of the 19th Century, the Hudson River Valley was populated with a combination of very wealthy descendants of early Dutch, English and Scottish settlers, and New York residents, whose finances allowed them a second home with a bucolic river view.   Newly built, these homes with bare walls provided an opening market for regional landscape painters.  Among collectors were members of the Vanderbilt and Roosevelt families.   In turn, some of the artists prospered well enough to become their neighbors, a proximity which often led to more painting sales.

In 1865, Albert Bierstadt built a 35-room home on the Hudson River near New York City.  He named it “Malkasten”, which was German for ‘paint box’.  In 1870, at Olana near Hudson, Frederic Edwin Church moved into his Persian and Moorish style house designed by Calvert Vaux, prominent architect.  Overlooking the river, Olana was filled with Old Master paintings, landscapes by Claude Lorrain and Salvator Rosa, and exotic furnishings from his wide-ranging travels.  Near Warwick, in 1869, Jasper Cropsey’s 29-room home, “Aladdin,” that he designed was completed.

VII. Thomas Cole | Return to Top

In order to have an in-depth understanding of the Hudson River School of painting, it is necessary to know about the life of Thomas Cole.  He was born in England at Bolton-le-Moors, which was a smoke-ridden industrial center for the textile industry and hardly a place of nurture for artistic talent.  His cultured family had suffered bankruptcy, which meant that young Cole had to work hard to make money.  He became a designer in a calico factory and hated the association with persons he considered vulgar.  He routinely escaped by roaming the countryside, writing poetry and dreaming of going to America whose descriptions of romantic forests and great rivers came from books he read.

At age seventeen in 1818, Cole, with his family, immigrated to Philadelphia where ancestors had preceded them.  He so fell in love with his new country that he later wrote: “I would give my left hand to identify myself with this country by being able to say I was born here.” (Flexner, History, 6)  A year after his arrival, he walked 300 miles from Philadelphia to Steubenville, Ohio where his family had settled.  There he briefly took art lessons from a man whose last name was Stein, and then in 1822, set out across Ohio carrying his artist tools to become an itinerant portrait painter, charging ten dollars per painting.  He made many sketches, made copious notes on his surroundings, and also played the flute, which added to his ability to charm potential clients.  However, he did not like portrait painting, a major reason being the forced interaction with his subjects.

For him, the experience led only to debt, and he rejoined his family, who had moved to Pittsburgh but also were impoverished.  They encouraged him to find practical work to earn money and give up art, but Cole decided to experiment a bit more with his talent, and went to the woods to sketch the landscape.  He took immediately to the subject matter, finding that nature stirred his soul and roused his creative energy.  From the beginning, he injected his imagination into his subject, making it more than just a realistic transfer from eye to hand.

Feeling that he had found his artistic niche and knowing that studying in Europe was out of the question financially, he had only the limited goal of being represented by Philadelphia galleries, and studying how to improve his landscape painting at the Pennsylvania Academy.  It was said that he haunted the Academy, and hung around so long that he was scolded for being a nuisance.  Academy officials denied him admission to classes because he showed no interest in the Ancients, Old Masters, antique casts, and modeling of life figures, which were the bases of much of the school’s instruction.  

He was also denied election as a Pennsylvanian Academician because of his association with landscape painting.  Portraiture, such as that by Academy teachers Rembrandt Peale (1778-1860) and Thomas Sully (1783-1872), were the most ‘credentialed’ artwork.  Cole also learned that history painting with figures in tableaux was the ‘high style’ as exemplified by Peter Rothermel (1817-1895), and that even if he pursued landscape painting, he should do so in Europe where he could be influenced by Italian and Dutch scenes such as those of Claude Lorrain (1600-1682) and Saloman van Ruysdael (1600?-1670).  (In fact, it was fifty years later, in the 1880s, before the Academy offered classes in landscape painting, and it was 1902, with the establishment of the Jennie Sesnan Gold Medal, that a prize was offered for landscape-painting excellence.)

Looking at the Academy collection, Cole was excited and humbled by landscape paintings of living Pennsylvania artists, Thomas Doughty, and Thomas Birch (1779-1851), but it was made clear to Cole that neither of these painters was taken seriously by the Academy.  In retrospect, this neglect was short sighted, especially with Doughty whose work is now highly regarded because of his obvious skill and the fact he is often cited as being the first American artist of note to work exclusively as a landscapist.   Although Cole is most often cited as the founder of the American landscape painting tradition, some art historians argue that in fact that credit should go to Doughty who was encouraged by portraitist Thomas Sully to look to nature.  Doughty became one of the first American landscape painters to be elected to the National Academy of Design in New York.  By the time Cole was beginning to focus seriously on landscape painting, Doughty was already established as “the leading landscape painter in Boston, . . . traveled extensively throughout the northeastern United States, painting rivers, mountains, and woods interiors that are memorable for their mood, tonality, and quality of light, especially the pink and gold sunset tones, rather than for their local specificity.” (Howat, 32)  Unlike Thomas Cole, Doughty had no interest in creating a sense of drama in his landscapes, but, using a basic formula he knew would appeal to buyers, painted intimate, quiet, bucolic, realistic scenes.

In 1823, Cole, then a calico designer, had a cordial meeting with Doughty, in Philadelphia, and the men encouraged each other to follow their aesthetic interest.  Looking back, it was a critical time in American art.  Historian James Flexner wrote:  “Still struggling, the young men held the future of American painting in their hands.” (Flexner, Wilder, 187-188)  Thomas Birch had a background in topography and engraving that he applied to the realistic depiction of actual sites without exploration of his reaction to the site.  But Cole appreciated him as well as Doughty for looking to their own surroundings for their subject matter, the land they saw in their daily lives.

In the summer of 1825, Cole took his first trip up the Hudson River and recorded his excitement when he approached the Catskills, mountains that visually combined with the wide, surging river and rich, cultivated valley land.  He wrote of “a varied country through which meanders the Catskill Creek, a beautiful stream . . . ever changing in color, light and shadow.  Later when he was in France, he declared the Rhine River to be “infinitely inferior in natural magnificence and grandeur” to the Hudson River.  (Flexner, Wilder, 18)  After his first encounter with the Hudson, Cole returned to his New York City studio and, using sketches, painted what he had seen.

Art historians date the beginning of the Hudson River School to 1825 when several of Cole’s earliest Hudson River landscapes hung in a picture framer’s shop window with prices of $25.00 each.  John Trumbull, (1756-1843) historical genre painter and then President of the American Academy of Fine Arts, discovered them and immediately “snapped up Kaaterskill Falls,” (Glueck, B27) and involved two other artists, William Dunlap (1766-1839) and Asher Durand.  According to manuscripts at The New York Historical Society as interpreted by James Flexner, the discovery story is as follows: 

At the very moment when the waters of the Great Lakes first moved down the Hudson, a New York frame maker put on display three Hudson River views by an unknown stripling named Thomas Cole.  Happening on the canvases, Trumbull saw the American land depicted in all its native peculiarity with powerful realism and yet a lover’s eye.  As he gazed, the years seemed to fall from him, and he stood again, a young artist jocund in the springtime of the Republic.

Hurrying to the studio of William Dunlap, another veteran who had experienced the fertile years, Trumbull announced his discovery with one of those terrible statements that sometimes escape the lips of the very proud:  ‘This young man,’ he said, ‘has done what all my life I attempted in vain to do.’

Dunlap was amazed, but as he later wrote, ‘When I saw the pictures, I found them to exceed all that this praise had led me to expect.’ He had returned with Trumbull to the frame shop.  Cole, who had been summoned, stood, Dunlap continued, ‘like a school boy in the presence of the trustees’ before the two elderly painters, ‘neither of whom could produce a rival to the works he was offering for the paltry price of twenty-five dollars each. (History, 5)

For Trumbull, the work of Cole with its powerful depiction of American land was a special revelation because he, then aged 67, was America’s best-known living painter but was more depressed by his self-perceived shortcomings than proud of the attention he was receiving.  Trumbull was persuaded that “the great days of American painting were over” and that as a mature painter, he had given in to popular demand for traditional styles and subjects instead of following his original conviction that American artists should chart paths through their own waters.  He was disillusioned that America’s prominent painters spent more time focused on Europe than America, that they “hardly scratched their own soil” and were “men who talked great pictures and painted commercial portraits, or talked so much they hardly painted at all.” (Flexner, History, 4) 

At the time that Cole’s work was being ‘discovered’, two of Trumbull’s equally famous peers, Benjamin West (1818-1854) and John Singleton Copley (1738-1815) were dead, and the other remaining famous artist, Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828), was living in Boston, ravaged by tobacco and alcohol.  These four artists, born on American soil but wanting to be in a center of refinement and art education opportunities, had spent much of their careers in London.

Shortly after the ‘discovery’ by Trumbull and Durand, Philip Hone, New York collector and mayor of New York from 1826 to 1827, purchased two of Cole’s paintings.  Hone had become wealthy in the auction business and was quite prominent in New York society for his sophistication, good taste, stories of extensive travel, and ability to use his fortune to influence events.  This acquisition of his paintings by a prominent figure helped give wide exposure and unique attention to Cole’s work because few landscape painters were active in New York at that time, and landscape views were circulated primarily as reproductions, usually in travel books.

One of Cole’s earliest patrons was Robert Gilmor, Jr. (1774-1848) of Baltimore, and he had much influence on Cole’s treatment of his subject matter.  At that time Gilmor, a wealthy, well-traveled merchant, was the country’s leading collector of Old Master paintings.  He asserted that Cole should always place human beings into his paintings because wild and ruggedness had little to offer unless it was countered by the character and spirit of human beings.  Gilmor also asserted that an artist should paint the landscape just as God had ‘painted’ it, but that the artist could alter foreground detail of the spot from where the artist was positioned.  Cole and Gilmor argued on this point, which became on ongoing debate among those early American landscape painters and continues into the 21st Century.  Cole’s approach was to combine the celebration of nature’s perfections by showing realistic details with elements of romanticism that allowed him to indulge his imaginative powers.  To Gilmor he replied:  “If the imagination ‘is shackled’ to what the eye can see, ‘seldom will anything great be produced in painting or poetry.’ “(Flexner, Wilder, 36)

Loneliness and fear were problems for Thomas Cole found when traveling alone to paint.   He wrote in his notes of a “mysterious fear” that came over him when he was among towering precipices, dark, quiet flowing water, and silence unrelieved by human voices.  He also wrote of philosophical and religious conflicts within himself in that the Biblical story of Adam and Eve associated sin with humans living naturally in nature, but in nature he was finding goodness and purity of thought and feelings of being close to God.  However, he was well aware of countering evil forces, and never was able to commit to the idea of nature as totally synonymous with God, the pantheism adopted by many of his successor Hudson River Valley painters.  He came to the philosophy that his job as a painter was to convey both a sense of awe about nature and the idea that nature could be a civilizing, refining influence and shaping of cultured individuals.  He was well aware that in order for people to have access to nature, civilizing forces had to be applied such as creating paths and roads into the wilderness so that observers had a secure vantage point.  For Cole, one of his ways of taming nature or making it manageable was to impose his own sense of order on seeming chaos by organizing his canvases in certain ways. 

However, Cole’s sense of order violated traditional tenets of landscape painting as prescribed by European artists.  His goal was to convey the idea that nature was untamed, and was not yet amenable to the rules of domination that white settlers assumed they could impose on their new world.  Cole injected the basic elements of color, mood, light, dark, figures, and spatial relationships but threw away the book relative to carefully balancing those elements against each other.  Instead of a vanishing point or single area that focused the eye, Cole’s paintings had a variety of interest points and perspectives, including human figures placed in seemingly random positions, sharing the canvas with other aspects of nature equally as interesting.   He had pockets of light, often nearly hidden by dark structures, and in tone he had both gloom and serenity with nothing dominant.   Elements seemed to be warring, and dark colors such as blacks and browns often dominated bright colors or hues, and dull winter tones colored foliage instead of traditional cheerful colors of spring and summer.

In 1829, with a reputation established as America’s leading painter but denied admission as an Academician at the Philadelphia Academy, Thomas Cole returned to England, which he had left eleven years earlier as a poverty-ridden youth.   He settled in London with the intent of educating himself to strengthen his landscape painting, but instead, the experience reinforced his own already developing inclinations.   And his work was of little interest to the English, as he found out when several of his landscape paintings he submitted to the Royal Academy exhibitions were generally ignored.  He called on John Constable (1776-1837), then England’s leading landscape painter, and was unimpressed by what he saw on his easels.   In retrospect the main benefit to Cole of returning to England was seeing paintings by J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), especially Snow Storm and Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps.  Cole later said that he felt he was in the presence of work by “one of the greatest landscape painters that ever lived.”  Turner, who was doing leading-edge painting for his time period, produced landscapes that seemed alive with nature’s elements, and sublimity. 

For Cole, seeing the luminous paintings by Turner created a lasting inspiration to inject depth, passion and dreamy, emotional qualities into his canvases.  Cole also spent much time in Italy, where he painted views of ruins, architecture and panoramic landscapes and cityscapes such as scenes of Florence.  With Turner as a strong influence as well as the memories of Italy and its atmospheric light, Cole developed and held to his own course of raising to historical importance the art of landscape painting through direct observation and interpretation that imparted a sacred quality to the subject.

In 1839, fully committed to painting scenes of the Hudson Valley and having finished the biggest project of his career, an allegorical series about sublime wilderness and civilization titled The Course of Empire (1833-36), he moved to Catskill.  There, he and his wife and four children lived in a house built in 1816 by her uncles on property known as Cedar Grove.  One of the uncles, Alexander Thomson, continued ownership, and the Coles shared living space with the Thomson family.  They had two-connecting bedrooms on the second floor in a household that sometimes held up to sixteen inhabitants, and was a marked contrast to the quiet and serenity that Cole sought in nature.  However, he did find time alone.   Thanks to an understanding wife, he was freed to “set out on wild rambles through storms or far into uninhabited mountains.”  (Flexner, History, 44-45)

From 1839 to 1847, he set up a studio in part of a grain storage barn at what is now 219 Spring Street.  Restored and called “Old Studio”, it is billed in 2006 as the oldest artist atelier in America.   Here he hosted his wealthy New York City patron, Luman Reed, as well as close friend, Asher Durand, William Sydney Mount (1807-1868), and prominent literary men, William Cullen Bryant and James Fenimore Cooper.   For the last sixteen months before his untimely death in 1848 at age 47, he worked out of another studio, called the “New Studio”, on the Cedar Grove property. 

VIII. Other Leading Figures | Return to Top

Although Thomas Cole was the early influence on the Hudson River School painters and a sustained force, a key person in carrying on the tradition after Cole’s death was Asher Durand.  He was five years older than Cole and markedly altered his career from that of successful lithographer to landscape painter.  The degree of his initial financial sacrifice is apparent from the words of James Flexner, art historian: “Durand had become the only American who can be ranked among major nineteenth-century engravers.” (Wilder Image, 55)  However, Durand was willingly diverted because his interests had changed directions to fine-art painting.

Lumen Reed, who was a patron of Cole, became Durand’s patron, and to support Durand’s change in focus, found enough portrait commissions to support him including a series of portraits of U.S. Presidents.  At first, his paintings were all portraits, especially males, and were admired for their realistic, unembellished, capturing of the subjects’ features and personalities.  He also did figural works, some of them historical genre.  However, by the late 1830s, a decade after Cole’s venturing into landscape painting, Durand made the shift solely to the landscape painting for which Cole had laid the essential groundwork. 

Asher Durand, one of the founding members of the National Academy of Design in 1826, had been raised on a farm near Maplewood, New Jersey (then Jefferson Village), and, not strong enough for heavy labor, spent much of his childhood roaming around the countryside.  He met Thomas Cole in New York in the circle of friends around Luman Reed.

Cole and Durand began taking painting trips together, and it was said that a trip in 1837 to Schroon Lake in the Adirondacks was a deciding event in Durand’s conversion from printmaking to landscape painting.  With Cole, he shared feelings of being country-oriented at heart and trapped by professional demands that did not spring from his soul, and like Cole, he came to believe that nature’s beauty was an extension of God and that contemplation of nature brought the viewer closer to God.  However, Durand’s Hudson River School paintings more closely resembled the actual landscape than those of Thomas Cole, and Durand did not have the inner struggle of Cole between adopting to the New World approach to painting while feeling duty bound to maintain standards and subject matter of the Old World. 

When Cole died in 1848, Durand painted a memorial work that has become the signature canvas of the Hudson River School: Kindred Spirits (1849) The title was taken from the Seventh Sonnet by John Keats:  “Almost the highest bliss of human kind, When to thy haunts two kindred spirits flee.” (Wilton, 68) 

To achieve special dramatic effect in Kindred Spirits, Asher Durand used a technique characteristic of Hudson River School painters, which was selecting landscape structures from various locations and then juxtaposing them on canvas.  For this painting, Durand placed Kaaterskill Falls and Fawn’s Leap together as the upper and lower waterfall, whereas in fact, they were in the general location of each other but not nearby.  The painting also shows devices characteristic of Hudson River School artists to achieve a sense of the Sublime, which, of course, was central to the painting of Thomas Cole.  To demonstrate the insignificance of human beings in natural settings created by God, Durand dwarfs the figures of Cole and Bryant, who ironically were two of the most important human beings of their era. Also there is tremendous tension between the apparent ease and relaxed mode of their conversation and the danger posed by them standing over a precipice where one misstep would carry these men in formal dress to very ‘messy’ circumstances and sure death in the abyss far below.  Tension is everywhere: precarious heights contrast with deep valleys; luminous light counters pockets of foreboding darkness; and lush growing trees with soft foliage grow among jagged timber from fallen, dead trees.  The two men are deep in thought, but nature is churning, ready to obliterate them if they have even slight miscalculation.

Asher Durand, unlike Cole, did not have deep immersion in European art, but traveling in England and the Continent from 1840 to 1841 with three future Hudson River School painters: John Frederick Kensett, Thomas Prichard Rossiter, and John William Casilear, he had lasting influence from some of the things he observed.  However, the overall result was that he became more determined than ever to cast aside allusions to classical themes and depict subjects uniquely American.

After Cole’s death in 1848, Durand became increasingly independent in his approach to Hudson River landscape painting as he traveled the mountains and forests of the Hudson Valley and other parts of New England.  He dropped some of the allegorical interpretations he had learned from Cole and the Virgilian effects left over from European influences and focused much more on the realities of the landscape.  Letting the geology speak for itself, many of his later paintings, unlike Kindred Spirits, had few or no human figures.  Durand felt driven by the desire to study the actual particulars or details.  However, he never left behind his feelings of communing with nature and his underlying regard of the effort as a spiritual journey.   In his 1850s “Letters on Landscape Painting”, published in 1855 in Volume I of Crayon magazine, he wrote that a landscape was “great in proportion as it declares the glory of God and not the works of man.”

Thus, by the mid 1850s, Durand, with his distinct artistic vision, had finally emerged from the shadow of his mentor, Thomas Cole, as an influential artist in his own right and as the acknowledged key figure in American landscape painting.   Reinforcing this position was the fact that from 1846 to 1861, he served as President of the National Academy of Design, the New York entity that set the ‘official’ standards for American painting.  Making his unique mark on American landscape painting, he went on to inspire a second generation of Hudson River School artists to greater heights of artistic achievement.  A major part of his collection, over 500 artworks, plus sketches, prints, etc can be found at the New York Historical Society.

Thomas Cole also directly influenced the painting focus of Frederic Edwin Church, who lived and painted with Cole in Catskill, New York from 1844 to 1848.  Church was Cole's first and only student, and the only person to work with Cole in his studio.   Although he much admired Cole, and after Cole’s death dedicated a painting to him, To the Memory of Cole, Church soon adopted a much differing approach in treatment of subjects and composition.  He did not use landscape as an allegorical vehicle for elevating human behavior, and his treatment with line, shape and color, was much more controlled and orderly.  He loved the landscape for itself, and his paintings reflected his awe of reflected light, varying colors and diverse and often dramatic variations of shapes within that landscape.  But the overall effect was one of order and stirring of subliminal reactions.  For Church the Hudson River Valley came to have such deep personal meaning that he built his home and studio there on a farm he purchased near Hudson at Bee Craft Mountain.  The panoramic view was one he often depicted and one that played a big part in establishing him as one of America’s most often cited panoramic painters.

John Frederick Kensett stayed closer to Cole in his paintings than Church, but his palette was much cooler, and he was not taken with luminist lighting effects nor fascinated with extreme geological formations.  He painted “serene, slate-surfaced lakes and dignified pyramid-like mountains” (Wilton, 25) and by the 1850s did paintings that reflected none of the ‘busyness’ of brushwork of Thomas Cole.

Like Church and Kensett, Jasper Cropsey revered Cole, but unlike them, he did not markedly rebel against some of his basic philosophies.  Like Cole, his subjects were allegorical, were painted with feelings of reverence for ‘god in nature’, and many were seasonal landscapes, especially fall scenes highlighted with Luminist effect.   From 1847 to 1849, he lived in Italy where he too was much affected by the special light he found in the air and the serenity of countryside scenes including peasant life.  While working in Italy, he used the same studio in Rome that Cole had used earlier.

IX. The Movement Fades | Return to Top

Several decades later, Jasper Cropsey, like many of the Hudson River painters, saw that his “star” was falling.  In 1869, work on his 29-room mansion was completed, but his plan to live there securely with his family supported by income from his paintings did not materialize.  The market was re-directed from romanticized landscape scenes to more realistic genre because of the carnage of the Civil War, which “had shattered the idea for many people that nature could solve mankind’s ills and evils.” (Kirk Johnson)  In a letter to his wife in early November 1880, while she was in New York City trying to raise money, Jasper Cropsey wrote of his troubles paying the bills, and how he had clumsily hammered both thumbs working on the house and could no longer paint.  He was 57, ill and nearly broke. "Will it ever grow better? Will the silver lining ever show itself?" Cropsey wrote. "Will good fortune ever smile on you and me again?" Three years later, the Cropseys sold Aladdin and moved into a smaller house in Hastings-on-Hudson, in Westchester County, where he lived until his death in 1900 at age 77. In the mid 1880s, Cropsey had auctioned off 67 paintings, receiving only $2,700., and three years later, the Cropseys moved into a modest home in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. Mrs. Cropsey died several years later.

The experience of Cropsey reflected the waning of interest in the Hudson River Valley style of painting with its basically realist interpretation of the landscape.  Replacing it were stylistic influences from France, brought over by the many Americans studying abroad, especially those at Barbizon learning Tonalism from Jean Baptiste Corot (1796-1875), and Impressionism at Giverny with Claude Monet (1840-1926).  With these movements, the influence of “art for arts sake” was taking hold, meaning the using of nature as the springboard for personal expression and experimentation with new techniques, especially with light and mood. By the end of the 19th century, the American art world was once again focused on that which was going on across the ocean.  It was the end of an era, and “never again would American landscape painting be so American.” (Goodyear 137). 

From the beginning of the 20th century until the 1970s, art historians tended to discredit the Hudson River School of landscape painting as being a momentary “blip” in the unfolding of American art from the Colonial period.  However, recognition of the key roles of these early Hudson River painters in our fine-art heritage is increasing. A turning point towards revived public interest can be linked to the 1972 of John K. Howat’s richly illustrated book, The Hudson River and Its Painters. Howat was the Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.  James Biddle, President of the National Trust for Historical Preservation, wrote the introduction, which included these words: “One of the most important contributions to the development of American artistic tradition is the work of a group of landscape painters of the last century known as the Hudson River School.” 

A collector very important to preservation of the ongoing accomplishments of the Hudson River School is Daniel Wadsworth (1771-1848), and the institution he established.  Wadsworth was a wealthy architect and amateur artist who met Thomas Cole in 1825.  The two became lifelong friends, and Wadsworth introduced Cole to Frederic Church, whose work he discovered in Hartford.  From 1844 to 1846 at Cole’s Catskill studio, Church then became the only artist ever to study with Cole.  Wadsworth bought paintings with the goal of elevating “American taste by sharing his growing collection with the public” (Glueck, B27).  In 1844, to facilitate exhibitions, he founded the Wadsworth Atheneum on the Main Street of Hartford, Connecticut.  “It was stocked with contemporary landscapes by Cole, Church and other painters who formed the vanguard of the Hudson River School.  . . .Their celebration of the discovery, exploration and settlement of wilderness land supported Wadsworth’s own vision of the country’s potential.” (Glueck, B27).   In 2003-2006, an exhibition of the collection toured with more than 60 Hudson School River paintings including 11 by Frederic Church, 13 by Thomas Cole and 5 by Albert Bierstadt.  The high attendance and positive response to this exhibition has had a major impact on raising the public’s appreciation of Hudson River School painting.

During this same period, Andrew Wilton and Tim Barringer organized as curators a highly attended touring museum exhibition, American Sublime, Landscape Painting in the United States 1820 – 1880.  They also wrote a much-lauded scholarly catalogue of nearly 300 pages abundant with color illustrations.  Ironically this exhibition, which so effectively renewed interest in painters that had been ‘put on the shelf’, originated at the Tate Britain Museum in London, meaning that one of the countries against whom the Hudson River painters rebelled, was key to bringing them ‘back to life.”  However, Thomas Cole likely would have applauded the exhibition’s origins because the Tate Britain houses a major collection of paintings by his favorite non-American painter, James M. W. Turner.


Written by Lonnie Pierson Dunbier, October 2006.
Updated 2012.

Sources: biographies; Matthew Baigell, Dictionary of American Art, 1979;  Asher Durand, “Letters on Landscape Painting”, Crayon magazine, Vol. 1, serial articles cited in Sources for Chapter 4, History of American Painting, Volume III, by James Flexner;  S. Lane Faison, Jr. and Sally Mills, Introductory Essay,  Hudson Valley People, Albany to Yonkers, 1700-1900. Vassar College Art Gallery Exhibition Catalogue, 1982;  James Flexner, History of American Painting, Light of Distant Skies (Vol. III), 1969;  Grace Glueck, “Glory of Landscapes, Then and Now”, (Hudson River School Masterworks From the Wadsworth Atheneum), The New York Times, July 28, 2006, B 25 and 27;  Frank H. Goodyear, Jr., “American Landscape Painting, 1795-1875”, In this Academy: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts;  George Groce and David Wallace, The New York Historical Society’s Dictionary of Artists in America, 1564-1860, 1957;  John K. Howat, The Hudson River and Its Painters, 1972;  Kirk Johnson, “Vistas Revisited: Landscapes in Oil and Life”, The New York Times, May 27, 2001.

Kenneth Myers, The Catskills: Painters, Writers, and Tourists in the Mountains 1820-1895.  1987, p. 30 (See Hainsworth Collection, p. 18);  Barbara Novak and Elizabeth Ellis, Nineteenth Century American Painting: Thyssen Bornemiszma Collection, 1986;  Vincent Scully, New World Vision of Household Gods and Sacred Places: American Art & the Metropolitan Museum, 1988;  John Wilmerding, “American Waters: The Flow of the Imagination”, The Waters of America, exhibition catalogue of The Historic New Orleans Collection, 1984. (Stanton Frazar, Director);  Andrew Wilton and Tim Barringer, American Sublime: Landscape Painting in the United States, 1820 to 1880.  Exhibition Catalogue of The Tate Britain Museum;  Michael David Zellman, 300 Years of American Art (2 Volumes), 1986


Internet: (Luman Reed) (Asher Durand.  Essay, courtesy of the New York Historical Society) (Description of Cole’s studios at Cedar Grove in Catskill.) (Geographical description of the Hudson River Valley.) (Bread and Cheese Club) Boston Recorder and Telegraph, October 6, 1826. 
The Catskill Archive. (Mountain House Hotel and environs)

Artists with a connection to Hudson River
Associations may be by subject, geography, school, style, etc.