by Rebecca Shea
In the early 19th century, America was yearning for its own art form, a style distinctly its own, something not European. They found the answer in the landscape of the Hudson River Valley and Catskill Mountains. Artists ventured into the wilderness to sketch and paint, making closely observed and intensely expressive, pristine paintings. Their style of painting and reverence for nature defined the Hudson River School of painters.
|Albert Bierstadt painted The Rocky Mountains, above.|
Masters of the Hudson River School include Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand, Jasper F. Cropsey, Sanford Gibbons, Frederic Edwin Church, George Innes, Albert Bierstadt, and Martin Heade. This collective of painters formed the first coherent American art movement.
Paintings produced by the 19th-century Hudson River School were dominated by intense and often dramatic light effects that captured a sense of the divine. The artists believed art to be an instrument of moral and spiritual transformation and that a retreat into nature was restorative and necessary for the human soul. The Hudson River Valley and the Catskill area is pictured as a new Garden of Eden and it was artists, poets and writers that held the keys to it.
There is a famous Hudson River School painting by Asher B. Durand, “Kindred Spirits,” that once hung in the New York Public Library at 42nd Street. In 2005, it was sold from the NYPL collection for more than $35 million to Crystal Bridges, an American Art Museum in Bentonville, Arkansas that is endowed by the Walton Family Foundation.
Durand’s “Kindred Spirit” is a dramatic canvas at 46″h x 36″w. It depicts two men on a rocky ledge in contemplation of the scene before them. The gorge and stream deep in the middle of the canvas is veiled in mist. The whole scene is framed by foliage. It is an idealized, romantic view of Kaaterskill Clove and Kaaterskill Falls. In the foreground of the painting is a broken tree stump, one of the school’s most famous pictorial symbols. Cole referred to this as a “memento mori,” a reminder that life is fragile and impermanent. It was believed that only Nature and the divine in the human soul are eternal.
At present, the homes and studios of a few of the Hudson River School painters have been preserved as historic sites with excellent exhibitions and programming throughout the summer.
Thomas Cole’s Cedar Grove in the town of Catskill, where the artist lived and painted from 1836 until his death in 1848, is open May to October. Tours of the house and studio are Wednesday to Sunday.
Frederic Edwin Church’s spectacular Persian-style home and studio in the town of Hudson is open for tours Friday through Sunday. Book tickets online for tours because they do sell out.
The Jasper Cropsey Homestead, also known as Ever Rest in Hastings-on-Hudson has two venues for guided tours, the home and studio, and a new Gallery of Art. Tours are scheduled by appointment and are available weekdays only. To ensure availability, schedule tours at least one week in advance. The home and gallery are closed the month of August.
Exploring the wilds that inspired these artists is the best way to experience their history. The Hudson River School Art Trail is a project of The Thomas Cole National Historic Site. It is a unique trail system that follows the footsteps of Hudson River School artists to many of the significant viewpoints they painted. You will be amazed and relieved to find many of the views that were painted nearly 200 years ago have remained almost unchanged. This is thanks to the “forever wild clause” established in the New York Constitution in the late 19th century. Explore the Thomas Cole website to download maps (www.thomascole.org).
If you want to paint like Cole, Church or Bierstadt, the Hudson River Fellowship, part of the Grand Central Art Academy, provides the structure and discipline necessary. The curriculum requires students to work in the field, researching the landscape in pencil and tonal drawings, and to create plein air paintings. Lectures and discussions cover theories of landscape painting and include environmental science, and the methods and materials of the classical landscape painters.
Careful study of trees, rocks, sky, wind, and grass and shrubs could transform an artist. It could transform anybody. This type of meditation absolutely creates a stronger connection to nature. It was by this direct experience that the Hudson River School of painters realized their highly influential art form—and it continues to inspire today.