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A Little Art History
The Hudson River School
Well recognized as the first native school of American Art, the Hudson River School dates from the 1820's to the 1870's and was a loosely organized group of painters who took as their subject the splendor of nature. The landscape around the New York Hudson River Valley was elevated to a respected and appreciated subject for painters of the time. Momentous change was underway in America, including social, political and economic upheaval that to this day has not been eclipsed. Along with a surge in public awareness of the country came the artists of the Hudson River School and their unique and inspiring works. Their paintings captured the language of great hopefulness and celebration of the American experience. Their work glowed with light, implied promise and a style that is unique to this fifty-year period.
The original and significant movement now called the Hudson River School was responsible for the birth of painting the American landscape. Nature became the backdrop of the works of human beings, and the paintings done by the Hudson River School artists still reflect that emotion. Through the works of artists like Thomas Cole and Frederic Church, an awakening of people's awareness of the importance of nature took place. Cole is given credit for the formation of the loose knit organization of painters. In 1825 Thomas Cole was "discovered" when his early works were purchased by fellow artists like William Dunlap and Asher Durand. His popularity stimulated an overall interest in art, and this led him to establish the Hudson River School. It was the first movement formed independently from Great Britain, and a new, large wealthy class made art promotion possible at this time.
While observing and recording the vast beauty of the area, the Hudson River School emphasized nature's importance with their special luminous style and instilled in the viewing public a fresh appreciation for their surroundings. The wild, untamed beauty of the American landscape differed from the European scenery with its pristine, near primal qualities. It was this wildness and freshness that The Hudson River School captured. Shafts of light pinpointing a segment of the landscape, near surrealistic grandeur and expert style made the paintings quite popular. A typical Hudson River School scene consists of a portion of pristine landscape extending into the far-off distance, and they often had tiny figures in the foreground. Heretofore, European style paintings had been popular, but they lacked the vibrancy and personality of the Hudson River School works
Along with the kindling of interest in nature by the public, the artists themselves were drawn into nature and were compelled to explore much of the wild, untamed western territories to record their images. It is through these paintings that many totally natural places were recorded before they were lost to industrial growth and population. So, while most of the art from the Hudson River School was of the New York river valley, not everything was. Frederic Church, Albert Bierstadt, and Thomas Moran painted the West, in Mexico, South America and the Mediterranean countries. Though they displayed different subjects than usually considered Hudson River School, they are included because the style is similar. The same luminescence and lighting that made this movement popular exists throughout the entire series of works.
How unfortunate that the movement did not last! Around 1880 the public began to favor more contemporary works and Impressionism was on the rise. The late 19th century spelled the end to the Hudson River School, but it did not extinguish the ideals that the School set forth.
What had begun as an informal association was America's first school of painting and the dominant landscape style until the Civil War. The Hudson River School was an extraordinary success. It brought about the awakening of the American public's awareness of its own country; it helped separate American artists and art from European dominance; and, through its attachment and reverence for nature and God, helped record a wild America that was soon lost.
Not before or since has such a wide change and growth in American art taken place. For over five decades the Hudson River School shared the images and ideals with a thirsty public and, by doing so, created a sense of place enjoyed by artists and patrons alike. Over the years, many first- and second-generation artists practiced the discipline that was so popular. Many historic scenes were saved that might have otherwise been lost. So to measure the magnitude of impact of the Hudson River School is difficult.
Visit websites to see some of the most famous images created by Thomas Cole and his fellow painters by searching under "Hudson River School+images." There are lots of sources to see many of the Hudson River School artists.
Copyright ARTtalk Vol. 14 No. 11 -- September 2004