The Hudson River School of Painters

1. Forces and Philosophies behind the Movement:

At the dawn of the 19th century, everything in America was new. Towns were new. Government was new. Infrastructure was new. Even its spirit was new. And a new breed of painters was about to capture it on canvas. But their origin, like many of the country’s aspects, can be traced across the Atlantic to Europe-in this case, to the Romanticism movement.

Spreading across the continent during the previous century, and serving as the artistic core of poetry, painting, and even architecture, it replaced the traditionally restrictive, intellectual and factual approach to life with one of contemplation and expression, particularly of its awe-inspiring features, such as its vast forests and limitless skies. These, according to this philosophy, could only have been created by a Source far greater than the contemplator, and it took his limitless soul to be able to connect with it. Finite intellectual understanding, it was concluded, was no opponent for infinite creations.

Artistic works served as expressions of what may have been man’s ascent back to his original, enlightened origins-namely, that he had begun to (re)realize that he was a combination of physical, intellectual, and emotional properties, and it was only the latter which had enabled him to replace reason with emotion, gaining a new relationship with nature in the process.

Like a series of lights re-lit after a long, dark winter, this philosophy spread across Europe, each of its countries beginning to flicker as they focused on their natural beauty.

Art, traditionally following form, now did the opposite. Instead of reflecting a formal English garden, for instance, paintings now increasingly represented informal nature, which was seldom so meticulously patterned and planned-at least not by man. Scenes appearing on canvases were representations–not artificial, idealized images-and with them came acknowledgment and acceptance of what “is” and not what “should be.”

A counterforce, opposing order, balance, and symmetry, arose.

Society, again only subconsciously aware of its impinging enlightenment, evolved, as expressed by its shifting beliefs. Medievalists, for example, had viewed nature as sinful, seeped with Christianity-incompatible pagan gods, while Classicists felt that, if nature were left untamed, that it would remain chaotic. As a result, it could only be rearranged into proper order by the touch of man. But Romanticists saw it as a natural expression of faultless beauty to be enjoyed and appreciated, and man’s hand only marred, spoiled, or uncreated it.

Although these forces and philosophies ultimately floated across the Atlantic, there were several fundamental differences to the movement, which began to take root in North America. The European philosophy was, first and foremost, a revolt against classical traditions and their established beliefs. Because the New World had no formal school of arts–whether they be of the painting, prose, or poetry genres–before the dawn of the 19th century, there was no need for such a counter-movement. Traditional portraiture constituted the primary artistic legacy of the latter, 18th- century Colonial period. That few examples of landscape painting remain from this era indicates that little value had been attached to it.

But 1800 would serve as both the threshold to the new century and to its shifting values. Having already established its foundation of independence and government, America now turned its attention to its aesthetic side, establishing pride in the natural beauty its new shores had provided. The principle medium through which this pride was expressed was art.

Like a collective canvas waiting for a brush, the Hudson Valley posed for painters, enticing them with its lush river, forest, and mountain vistas, and providing the stage where that beauty could be captured, expressed, and interpreted. The stage, in essence, served as the incubator of an American painting movement.

The Catskill Mountain House, the country’s first resort, opened in 1824. Along with the Hudson River-dotted summer retreats, it attracted tourists and travelers, who were spurred into exploring the area by a flourishing economy. Since America’s still budding, nature-expressing trend arose in original form as Romanticism in Europe, it is not surprising that it was carried across the ocean by a European, who became one of the earliest venturers to be lured here by its pristine beauty. His name was Thomas Cole.

2. Thomas Cole:

Born in Bolton-le-Moor, Lancashire, England, on February 1, 1801, Thomas Cole served as an engineering apprentice in a calico print factory before relocating to Philadelphia as a young artist. Despite having subsequently embarked on an overland wagon journey to Steubenville, Ohio, with his family, he quickly aborted the attempt, returning to pursue a career as a textile print designer. It provided an initial, albeit tenuous, connection to art.

That connection, however, was more firmly established in 1819 when he was given his first exposure to tropical seas and majestic mountains during a trip to St.. Eustasia. The images impressed on his soul would later be transferred on to canvas.

A self-taught artist, he elected to acquaint himself with painting fundamentals the following year, after which he became an itinerant portrait artist in Pittsburgh and Ohio. He first drew at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art in 1823.

At the quarter-century mark, several career-shaping events occurred: he moved to New York City; traveled to the Hudson Valley for the first time; sold three, notoriety-sparking landscape paintings; and began to spend his summers on a Catskill farm called “Cedar Grove.”

3. Cedar Grove:

Initially traveling to the village of Catskill in 1825, he returned the following year to board at, and establish a rural studio in, a small outbuilding on the 110-acre Cedar Grove farm, which sported a Federal style, mountain-facing house owned by local merchant, John A. Thomson. The view became his life-long inspiration.

Indeed, in his “Essay on American Scenery,” written in 1835, he expressed how the landscape had featured “varied, undulating, and exceedingly beautiful outlines-(the Catskills) heave from the valley of the Hudson like the subsiding billows of the ocean after a storm.”

Taking long, frequent walks alone, he became mesmerized by the vistas of both the Hudson River and the peaks triumphantly raising their heads to the sky behind it, sensing the Source which had created them.

As the arm of that Source, he both liaised between and expressed the two on canvas-in the process sparking the beginning of what would evolve into two early-19th century trends: a strong national interest in American scenery and the religious awe with which it became associated. Because nature was a form of God’s work, landscape painters were credited with alerting others of this fact.

According to Matthew Baigell’s book, Thomas Cole (Watson Guptill Publications, 1981), “…art ought to be a ladder by which people might rise to see spiritual reality shining above base nature…”

Aside from embodying this philosophy, Cole’s paintings offered the viewer a unique perspective, implanting him, for the first time, in the raw, untamed, and uncensored American wilderness, which he recreated by means of colors and techniques, in unprecedented detail, demonstrating what traditionalists considered its “imperfections.” These ranged from broken tree stumps to unsightly underbrush and jagged mountain edges.

Topographical variations, emphasized by sun and shade alike, evoked mystery and terror.

His painting process was also less than traditional. In an 1838 letter to fellow artist Asher B. Durand, he detailed his compositional methods and creative techniques. “…I never succeed in painting scenes, however beautiful, immediately on returning from them,” he explained. “I must wait for time to draw a veil over the common details, the unessential parts, which shall leave the great features, whether the beautiful or the sublime, dominant in the mind.”

Cedar Grove proved instrumental in both his professional and personal life. After a decade of summering there, he permanently planted his roots in Catskill soil on November 22, 1836, when he married Maria Bartow, one of Thomson’s nieces, in the west parlor, subsequently taking up residence in the house’s second-floor rooms. He also completed his first major series of paintings, “The Course of Empire,” for which he was most known.

In order to accommodate the large canvases needed for the second series, entitled “The Voyage of Life” and commissioned by wealthy philanthropist Samuel Ward, three years later, Cole moved into a barn-resembling structure he designated the “Old Studio.” Ward, in the event, died that November, before they could be completed.

The “New Studio,” an Italianate building on a knoll overlooking the Catskills and the only building he ever designed himself, replaced the old in 1846, but it was only used for more 14 months until his own untimely death at age 47, of pneumonia, on February 11, 1848.

In addition to “The Course of Empire” series, which depicted the rise and fall of civilization, and “The Voyage of Life,” which demonstrated its mutability, Thomas Cole left numerous paintings, including the “Lake with Dead Trees” of 1825, “Kaaterskill Falls,” “Falls of the Kaaterskill,” “Landscape,” “A View Near Tivoli,” “The Notch of the White Mountains,” “The Old Mill at Sunset,” and “Mount Aetra from Taormina.”

Despite his short life, he nevertheless set the tone and revolutionized the themes, styles, and methods which became characteristic of American landscape painting, enabling future generations, in his own words, to “know better how to appreciate the treasures of their own country.”

Cole’s initial, and recurrent, inspiration can be viewed from the main house’s porch, which provides a picture postcard view of the Catskill peaks, such as Palenville, gathering spot of Hudson River artists throughout the 19th century; Kaaterskill High Peak; and Thomas Cole Mountain. Their significance to him is expressed by his very poem, “The Wild,” written in 1826 and reprinted on the porch’s plaque. “Friends of my heart, lovers of nature’s works, let me transport you to those wild, blue mountains, that rear their summits near the Hudson’s wave.”

Although Thomas Cole’s untimely death may have signaled the end to his painting philosophies and styles, it had actually been just the beginning of them, since he had already passed the torch to a student. His name was Frederic Edwin Church.

4. Frederic Edwin Church:

Born in Hartford, Connecticut, to a family, which had been prominent since the city’s very founding, Church knew, from an early age, that art had been his life’s calling. The most pivotal step toward that goal had been his acceptance as a student of Thomas Cole, then considered America’s most respected landscape painter, in May of 1844.

The two-year pedagogy, held in Cole’s west bank Catskill studio and costing $300 per annum (plus $3.00 per week for room and board), enabled him to see through his teacher’s eyes before establishing his own style. His teacher’s influence was, nevertheless, evident in his later painting, “Morning,” of 1856.

Like Cole, Church drew inspiration from the area’s namesaked mountains. Serving as “lesson plans,” they were considered “steps by which we may ascend to a great temple,” and were transformed into drawings, sketches, and paintings. One such lesson, taught on a bluff designated “Red Hill” and located on the river’s east side, enabled Church to both capture the Catskills from its greater elevation and lay the foundation from which his home would someday rise.

Although he had initially focused on painting landscapes in the Hudson Valley, he soon hungered to serve as intermediary between more of the world and his canvases. Particularly peaked, in interest, by Baron Alexander von Humbolt’s Mexico, Caribbean, and South American Kosmos volumes, he elected to make his own sketching trips to the southern hemisphere in 1853 and 1857, during which its rich tropical foliage and mountain silhouettes provided the scenes for such paintings as “Chimborazo,” “View of Cotopaxi,” and “Heart of the Andes.”

Church employed a progressive process to his creations, communing with nature during the summer and creating “sketch snapshots” in the form of graphite (pencil) drawings to preserve the visual memories, coupled with notes and verbal impressions. More than observing, he studied nature, becoming immersed in it and gaining considerable understanding of it before capturing it with his brushes. As interpreter, he recorded his translation in painting form, transforming it from three-dimensional reality to two-dimensional representation on usually very large oil canvases in his studio during the winter.

Several elements are indicative of his style. Abundant vegetation, for instance-usually appearing in the foreground-served to draw the viewer into the scene, placing him above and at some distance from the represented landscape. Using light, he captured water and ice with a wide range of colors, while streams and lakes served as sun-illuminated elements. Leaf, flower, rock, and boulder details were painted with infinitesimally detailed accuracy.

The sky served as Church’s most consistent inspiration, enabling him to capture its cloud types, colors, shapes, and hues after obsessive study of them, and rainbows, most often associated with waterfalls, were also frequently featured.

By the end of the decade, Church temporarily turned his attention from painting to searching for a suitable location where he could raise a family, although even that was influenced by his budding years. Indeed, he could conceive of no more appropriate place than that which had allowed him to return to his roots.

5. Olana:

Acquiring 126 acres of fields and woodlands in early 1860, including the very Red Hill from which he and Thomas Cole had sketched, Frederic Church, now married to Isabel Carnes, built a white, clapboard house designed by Richard Morris Hunt and dubbed “Cosy Cottage.” The mountains visible across the azure stretch of river from it at times resembled green velvet pyramids and at others waves suspended at their crests.

With the birth of his third child-and intermittent, premature deaths of his first two due to diphtheria-he purchased an additional 18 acres of land, which blanketed Summit Hill, in 1867, on which to build his definitive domicile, a French manor house equally designed by Hunt.

Yet, inspired by the European and Middle Eastern research trip he took between 1867 and 1869, he restyled it mid-stream, to feature Moorish elements, with the aid of Calvert Vaux, a noted architect who had worked for Andrew Jackson Downing. Aside from providing the material for his eventual, continuity-of-human-civilization series of paintings, the trip also enabled him to determine how a house of true strength and integrity should appear, as demonstrated by the stone structures seen in Beirut. Optimum elements, he had decided, included thick, almost fortress-indicative walls and a central courtyard in Persian style. His success as a painter left no monetary shortage for the project.

Vaux, replacing Hunt as architect, employed his reputation-earned flexibility in designing according to client need and suggestion, as Church definitively determined the house’s height, architectural details, and decoration, using his own artistic talents and consulting books about Persian architecture to determine the most optimum ornamental motifs. The former, particularly, enabled him to create decoratively detailed elements, from staircase balustrades to interior wall stencil patterns, and resulted in a rich, if not eclectic, collection of Moorish tiles, Turkish carpets, Near Eastern brass, Italian Old Master paintings, and teacher (Cole) and student (Church) works.

Construction of the imposing Persian palace propped 600 feet above the Hudson and offering pristine views of the Catskill Mountains, was completed in 1872, but interior decoration was achieved over several more years, during which Church and his family already occupied the rooms.

He described his home as “Persian, adapted to the Occident,” and explained that its “interior decorations and fittings are all in harmony with the external architecture.” Its name, “Olana,” was chosen in 1880 to reflect that of the fortress treasure house in ancient Persia called “Olane.”

Church’s numerous paintings were the result of both the vistas it afforded and his frequent trips. After returning from his European and Middle Eastern sojourn, for example, he produced “Parthenon” and “Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives,” while local scenes were captured in “Scene in the Catskills” and “Catskill Mountains.” Other notable works include “Niagara,” “Sunset,” “Cotopaxi,” and “The Icebergs.”

Illness ultimately proved his enemy. Progressively attacked by degenerative rheumatism, he lost the use of his right arm, electing to add a studio wing with a gallery, observatory, bedroom, storage room, and gilded Moorish glass window overlooking the Catskills in 1888 to replace his 30-year New York facility.

His final brush stroke preceded the loss of his left arm, rendering him incapacitated as a painter during the last two decades of his life.

Because of his wife’s own decline, he offered management of Olana to his 21-year-old son, Louis Palmer Church, to whom he re-bequeathed it when she passed on May 12, 1899. Repurposing his trips from sketching to convalescing, he traveled to Mexico the following winter in search of more illness-compatible climates, but was himself defeated by his afflictions during its return portion on April 7, 1900, ironically the location of the studio where it had all begun while enroute to Hudson, location of the one where it had all ended. In a way, his life had mimicked the soul’s journey in that its origin and destination had been the same.

Frederic Edwin Church had been the world’s most-traveled artist, and the world is exactly what he captured-one brush stroke and one painting at a time. Of his numerous works, Olana had served as his last-and only three-dimensional-architectural and landscaped one.

Located across the Rip Van Winkle Bridge just outside the town of Hudson, and majestically perched on Summit Hill, Olana, now visitor-accessible, emphasizes its connection between student and teacher, who were physically separated by only a swim’s distance. An integrated environment of art, architecture, and landscape, it is a masterpiece in the midst of nature, whose grounds cover 250 acres.

The former stable, coach house, and coachman’s quarters serve as the present-day Visitor Center and gift shop, where the 17-minute film, “Frederic Church’s Olana,” is continuously shown.

Brushed with the same artistic touch as his paintings, Olana is the result of balance, composition, and fidelity to nature, exhibiting what is considered the finest surviving example of the Picturesque Style, whose cornerstone is the framed view. For the first and only time in his life, he rearranged the landscape, creating the “real thing.” Like his paintings, it featured both fore- and middle-ground elements in a composition whose background otherwise remained the ubiquitous and unaltered Hudson Valley and Catskill Mountains.

The scenery, having inspired both student and teacher, provided the natural setting to be depicted on canvas, demonstrating that the earth’s purpose was a stage whose elements did not necessarily change, but whose representation and interpretation varied according to the “actor” currently using it.

According to the Olana website, “the distinctive land form (shaped to form a grassy stepped terrace) inevitably draws all visitors and functions as the viewing platform for the ultimate landscape experience at Olana. From that point, visitors experience the sublime in the truest sense of the word. The land falls away at one’s feet. The Hudson River bends deeply and stretches toward infinity. The Catskill Mountains rise up from the south to their majestic peaks just across from Olana.”

Thomas Cole and Frederic Church, although having settled in the Upper Hudson Valley, were not the only two artists who were inspired by it. Another painter lived further south, in Poughkeepsie. His name was Samuel Morse.

6. Samuel Finley Breese Morse:

Despite his reputation to the contrary, Samuel Finley Breese Morse was only secondarily an inventor. But without attracting any significant recognition of his artistic works, the reverse became the reality in the public’s mind.

Born on April 27, 1791 just outside of Boston, in Charlestown, he was the son of Jedidiah Morse, who was a pastor and creator of geographies, and he traces his artistic awakening to the art class he took when he had been all of 11 years old.

Before graduating from Yale University (his father’s alma mater), he had painted miniatures, but the dabbling evolved into more serious strokes when he had accompanied Washington Allston, a noted painter, to England for four years to study under him at the Royal Academy. It was at this time that he had determined that he would dedicate his life to art.

Like so many others, however, monetary necessity forced him to relinquish his passioned genre of history painting for portraiture.

Although portrait painting may have been less then fulfilling to him, it provided considerable monetary reward, enabling him to earn between $60 and $70 per canvas when he had been in Charleston, South Carolina.

Adopting the profile of the most successful, New York-based painters, he finally planted roots in that metropolis in 1826, forming and becoming head of the short-lived Drawing Association, itself an extension of the American Academy of Fine Arts. Thomas Cole and Asher B. Durand ranked among its members. It was quickly replaced by the National Academy of Design, of which Morse became its president.

Also mimicking fellow painters, such as Cole and Church, he began spending his summers in upstate New York, before embarking on a three-year sketching tour of Europe, producing his second monumental, but not particularly successful, canvas, “The Grand Gallery of the Louvre,” which succeeded the first, “The House of Representatives.”

While crossing the Atlantic on the Sully on the return journey in 1832, however, he also crossed the line between art and science, for the first time discussing electromagnetism with fellow passengers and thus picking up the thread to his second interest. In fact, he would later rely on these passengers and their affidavits that he, and he alone, had been the inventor of the electro-telegraph and the dot-dash system used to transcribe its signals into words. It was known, of course, as “Morse Code.”

The amount of time and attention devoted to his new life purpose increased until he was no longer able to concentrate on either painting or teaching.

Linking Baltimore with Washington by means of the telegraph line for the first time after Congressional funds had been granted, he succeeded in transmitting the world’s first inter-city communication, via wire, from the Capitol Building in 1844. Reflective of his and his father’s deep religious beliefs, it consisted of four words: “What hath God wrought!”

Like the strands radiating from a spider’s web, his telegraph cables ultimately connected the United States, Canada, Europe, and Asia.

Yet, despite the change in life strategy, he still followed in the footsteps of his fellow painters, eventually settling in the Hudson Valley in an estate named “Locust Grove.”

7. Locust Grove:

After years of exclusive focus on his invention, and subsequent marriage to his second wife, Sarah Elisabeth Griswold, Morse purchased a 100-acre farm two miles from the village of Poughkeepsie for $17,500 in 1847, and its location, on a high bluff overlooking the Hudson River, was strongly reminiscent of the Cole and Church estates. In any case, it served to rekindle his painter’s perspective, as indicated by the description of his new surroundings, which offered “every variety of surface, plain, hill, dale, glens, running streams, and fine forest…”

The working farm, tended by a live-in family and retaining its original, “Locust Grove” name, yielded crops and livestock.

Like Frederic Church’s Olana, the original Federal-style house, built in 1830 by John and Isabella Montgomery, was subjected to considerable, European-influenced remodeling and expansion, this time by renowned architect Alexander Jackson Davis, who transferred it into a Tuscan villa with an octagonal plaza formed by its north and south wings; a four-story, westward (and hence, river-facing) tower; a billiard room on the east side; and a porte-cochere.

Also like Olana, Locust Grove featured framed views and beautiful vistas shaped by Morse’s Romantic, 19th-century landscape design.

Waxing rhapsodic about the sanctuary located in the very setting he had often painted, he wrote in an 1848 letter to his brother, “You have no idea how lovely Locust Grove is. Not a day goes by that I do not feel it.”

Morse died on April 2, 1872 in New York City. Having been a painter, photographer, professor, and inventor, he was considered one of the greatest men of the 19th century, having immeasurably improved commerce, politics, journalism, and communication during a period when the New World enjoyed a four-fold increase in land area and a catapult in population from four to 40 million. He had completed 300 canvases during it, but painting, alas, was not considered one of his principle accomplishments.

Purchased from Morse heirs in 1895 by William and Martha Young, a prominent Poughkeepsie couple, Locust Grove was subsequently occupied by them, their two children, and 12 servants, and subjected to expansion with the acquisition of the adjoining Southwood and Edgehill estates. A dining room was added on the north side, along with romantic gardens and carriage roads paralleling the Hudson River.

In 1963, it became the first Hudson Valley estate to be designated a National Historic Landmark, and 12 years later, Annette Innis Young, the last member to have occupied it, created a not-for-profit foundation to preserve it and its 150 acres for “the enjoyment, visitation, and enlightenment of the public.”

The house, featuring all of the Young’s furniture and possessions, remains virtually unchanged and is open to the public.

Its Morse Gallery, located in the Visitor Center, offers a glimpse of his life and a prelude to the house, featuring a collection of portraits, telegraph instruments and cables, an 1835 telegraph patent model (consisting of a transmitter and receiver), rival European telegraphs, wet-cell batteries, and an 1850 telegraph register. You can even try your hand at tapping out the dots and dashes of Morse code.

Internally, the house offers a rich collection of artwork, including 18th century Dutch landscapes, 19th century Hudson River School paintings (more about which see), and 20th century prints and drawings. Furniture styles range from Chippendale to Empire.

8. Hudson River School:

Frederic Church and Samuel Morse were only two of many members who belonged to what a newspaper reporter once called the “Hudson River School” of Painters, and Thomas Cole was considered its founder, father, and leading light, despite the fact that he played no organizational or administrative role in it.

Although they often lived in, were inspired by, and painted its namesaked valley, they were otherwise unrestricted by it. Most, in fact, were based in New York City.

Characterized by the European Romanticism movement’s philosophy that nature is an expression of the Higher Power, which had created it, its landscape painters glorified this fact with an almost religious reverence and thus believed that art was an agent of spiritual transformation.

Considered the foremost American artist, Cole was credited with creating the independent category of “landscape painting.”

Although the Hudson River School of Painters cannot be considered group members bound by prescribed or specified rules or limitations, they enjoyed both stylistic and social cohesion, belonging to the National Academy of Design and, by 1858, working at the first purposefully-built studio for artists, the Studio Building on West Tenth Street in Manhattan.

Aside from Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, and Samuel Morse, other members included Thomas Chambers, Samuel Colman, Thomas Doughty, Martin Johnson Heade, George Innes, Homer Dodge Martin, Jervis McEntee, Charles Herbert Moore, William T. Richards, Thomas P. Rossiter, Francis Augustus Silva, and Robert Walter Weir.

Like many artistic movements, however, the Hudson River School reached its peak of popularity before it descended toward a trough, at which point it was replaced by the Barbizon style, which first took root in the French village after which it was named.

Nevertheless, having spanned the half century from 1825-when Thomas Cole had first settled in New York-to 1875, when Church and Bierstadt had produced the huge, glorifying depictions of the Andes and the Rockies-it had served to define the “American artist.” Synthesizing European Romanticism with American landscape painting, it established the ultimate trinity by connecting man, by means of nature, with God-or created with Creator.

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