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All That Is Glorious Around Us

Paintings From The Hudson River School

By John Driscoll

Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London, 1997,

pp. 144, more than 75 color illustrations, $30.

Exhibition Schedule

August 10 to October 26, 1997 - Westmoreland Museum of Art, Greensburg, Pa.

January 20 to May 17, 1998 - Palmer Museum of Art, Pennsylvania State University, University     Park, Pa.

March 13 to June 27, 1999 - Worcester (Mass.) Art Museum

July 14 to September 12, 1999 - National Academy, New York

The Distinctive American Vision

An Edenic New World

By Carter B. Horsley

This is a glorious book about a group of mid-19th Century American painters who fell in love with American scenery and depicted it with a brilliant mixture of realism and idealism.

It is the very lavish, but reasonably priced catalogue of a traveling exhibition of more than 70 Hudson River School paintings owned by a remarkably anonymous private collector. The collection is remarkable because of the very high quality of the works and also because they will come as surprises to long-time connoisseurs of the field as most have not been reproduced widely.

While not all the paintings in the collections are major masterpieces, the vast majority of them are real jewels, representative of the best qualities of the artists. The collection therefore must rank with the finest in the country and their existence has been pretty much a secret. The paintings are in superb condition and all are marvelously framed.

In her acknowledgments, Judith Hansen O'Toole, the director of the Westmoreland Museum of American Art, notes that the collection was exhibited previously, in 1978, at the Palmer Museum of Art (then the Museum of Art at the University of Pennsylvania) and that the accompanying catalogue, printed in a small edition and long out-of-print, then was written by John Driscoll. Driscoll, who is now the director of the Babcock Gallery on Fifth Avenue in New York, has rewritten the catalogue, which has been expanded to accommodate new acquisitions as well as new research since the original exhibition.

The result is undoubtedly the finest introduction to the Hudson River School painters as Driscoll's introduction is a brilliant synopsis of the historical and artistic context and his individual essays on the artists and paintings is richly informative and incisive.

Although many art critics like to argue that American art did not come out from under the influence and dominance of Western European art until the emergence of the New York School of Abstract Expressionists, Americans were asserting themselves and forging their own revolutions much earlier.

Such critics casually dismiss most of prior American art history as merely derivative, or, worse, primitive, implying a substantial cultural inferiority that was not overcome until their champions established a new beachhead on the world map of art.

Such a simplistic approach would probably dismiss all of the Italian Renaissance after the first Madonna and Child painting was completed!

Life and art history are not that simple. The early American artists traveled and studied in Europe, but returned to pursue their own visions that not only reflected, but also influenced popular notions of nationality very specifically aligned with the natural wonders and resources of the country.

This book admirably demonstrates that those painters achieved a remarkable and cohesive style that combined realism with idealism. Their art was not ambiguous, but it was aggressive.

Thomas Cole, the "father" of the "Hudson River School" of American landscape painters who emerged in the second quarter of the 19th Century, had more grandiose themes than most of his followers. His classic landscapes of the Catskills with passing storm clouds and dramatic tree-trunks and lush vistas were not pristine interpretations of passive Nature, but of a turbulent, mighty and changing Nature, a Nature that was larger than man. Although he would embark on more allegoric series such as "The Course of Empire," and European scenes and even some religious pictures, it would be his pure landscapes that seized the imagination of his followers. They, in turn, tended to render more pastoral and bucolic scenes that were highly specific. They also happened to be rather ideal as the spread of suburbia had not yet defiled the nation.

In the school's second generation, artists would dabble with luminism and tonalism, very often with great and wondrous effect, but it was their love and reverence for the myriad bounty of Nature and its changing character in different seasons and at different days of the day that anchored their scenes with a rare specificity. You wished you had been there.

Far from feeling a cultural inferiority, many American painters of the early 19th Century were inspired by the "manifest" of their homeland and the spirit of "manifest destiny" became a national obsession.

It would be wrong, however, to think that the artists labored rigorously under some nationalistic banner with religious fervor to produce didactic works of mighty symbolism. While many agonized, successfully, to produce major works, they were prolific and many of the best works are quite small and well-suited for the homes of the country's emerging bourgeoisie. Many of the artists produced a couple of thousand or more paintings and each year over recent decades research yields new discoveries. There were probably a 1,000 or so quite competent and worthy 19th Century American artists, an impressive number especially since only a half-century ago most connoisseurs would have been hard-pressed to name a hundred!

While all those artists were not of comparable quality, many of the lesser-known, minor artists, including a number of women, often produced wonderful paintings, a fact well highlighted by this collection.

One such example is Julie Hart Beers Kempson (1835-1913), known as Julie Beers, a younger sister of William and James Hart, who were well-known and major Hudson River School painters. Of "Farm on the Hudson," a small but very beautiful landscape by Beers, Driscoll notes it "exhibits an amazing sense of tranquillity and a keen attention to detail." "The various rigid linear elements of footpaths and stone fences create a compositional program for the foreground that acts as a foil to the arcing mountains, rounded trees, and languid line of river beyond. In such subtle yet richly articulated images one encounters the artist's senses alive not only to what is seen but also to what is felt," Driscoll continued.

Another female artist is Laura Woodward (active 1872-1889) who, according to Driscoll, apparently did not travel to Europe: "Yet her best paintings reveal a delicate touch, refined palette, and sensitive eye for light, which are often hallmarks of European study for American painters." Of the Woodward picture in the collection, Driscoll remarks on its Kensett-like rocks and Whittredge-like attention to light filtering, adding that "her hand is very much her own - totally assured, and more than strong enough to stand in the midst of her male colleagues."

Another obscure woman painter in the collection is by Mrs. A. T. Oakes (active 1851-1886) and Driscoll says that "Croton, New York" suggests that "landscape with a touch of drama or mystery was her specialty," adding that a solitary figure in the center of the painting stands in a pool of light surrounded by the dim shade of a path with bright "promising" mountains in the distance. "It is the kind of subtle message regarding man and nature that the Hudson River School artists consistently employed," Driscoll wrote.

"Landscape Near Cranbrook, N.Y.," is a beautiful painting with an off-center composition that many of the top artists of the school, such as John William Casilear - who is represented in the collection by very lovely scenes of Niagara Falls and Lake George that are reminiscent of similar paintings by John F. Kensett - would be very proud of. It is by Eliza Greatorex (1820-1897), whom Driscoll describes as "the most cosmopolitan American woman artist of her time…[and] probably the first artist to paint, in 1873, the then young burg of Colorado Springs." She was the first woman elected an associate of the National Academy of Design and for many years was the only woman member of the Artist's Fund Society.

A rare tondo painting of the school, "Artist Sketching," by Dewitt Clinton Boutelle (1820-1884) is exquisite and Driscoll notes that although it was painted in 1862, it and other paintings of the period attest "even the Civil War could not immediately abridge the outward faith and confidence that Hudson River School artists had in the order and benevolence of nature."

"Storm in the Adirondacks," a small painting illustrated on the back cover by C. H. Chapin (1964-1904?), is almost a classic work in the vein of Cole, but very little is known of the artist. "It seems provocative that the painter of Storm in the Adirondacks - with its genuine sense of drama, its freeze-frame moment of impending change, and is marvelous provision with soft grays and blacks enlivened with pink, rose, yellow and green - could be so little remembered. Yet it was only thirty years ago that many of America's best Romantic landscape painters were also all but forgotten. The overall effect of Storm in the Adirondacks is more powerful and more satisfying than the quickly energized and somewhat generic brushstroke. Yet the handling of the palette from pupil-shrinking sun to dark brooding cloud is effective and denotes a well-orchestrated shift in light and color saturation throughout the composition. The electric energy of the gnarled and twisted birch gives a surprisingly electric counterpoint to the scene's prevailing calm. Chapin was clearly a talented figure whose work demonstrates how thoroughly and compellingly the Romantic spirit had permeated the landscape culture and stimulated even painters on the periphery of the main movement to create surprisingly evocative, iconic images," Driscoll wrote.

Although many of the Hudson River School painters ranged beyond the Catskills and the Adirondacks and traveled widely throughout not only New England but also out West, all difficult, long journeys, the Hudson River and its immediate environs were quite spectacular enough.

"Falls of the Kaaterskill" by Ernest Lotichius (1840-1874) depicts one of the great wonders of the Catskills, a subject also painted earlier by Thomas Cole. There is scant information about Lotichius but Driscoll noted that his paintings were large and scattered in collections of the period from Maine to Minnesota. "This indicates an immigrant's experience in democratic America that would certainly have warmed the cockles of Alexis de Tocqueville….The ethereal treatment (the falls seem to emerge from the surrounding haze) lends an intensely Gothic feeling to the composition. Of particular interest are the several tree limbs that dramatically finger the misty atmosphere with their brittle, angular, and almost agitated forms. One wonders if the figure with the sketchbook at the lower right of the picture might be an homage to Cole, or perhaps the artist himself, inquiring of a safe footpath through the mangled and mysterious natural debris littering the base of the falls."

Another view of the falls is a version by Worthington Whittredge (1820-1910) that is a beautiful painting from the same vantage point as taken by Sanford Robinson Gifford in his large painting of the falls at the Metropolitan Museum, one of the icons of the school.

"View of Hastings-on-Hudson" (1856) by John Ludlow Morton (1792-1871) is in Driscoll's correct description "outstanding." Morton, a National Academician but not well-known, has created a masterpiece of the period. "The bell-jar atmospheric clarity, the spectacular clouds, the elegant horizontal band of the Palisades on the west bank of the river, the marvelously painted trees that punctuate the rolling hills, and in the foreground two quaint autumnal scenes of sheep and cattle (some of the most beautifully drawn and painted cows in all of Hudson River School art) - all contribute to make this a superlative bit of topographical landscape painting. This serene panoramic vista is of an earthly paradise, a safe and peaceful asylum in the glorious American landscape," Driscoll waxed enthusiastically.

The collection's examples of the school's famous artists, some of whom went to more grandiose styles, are equally outstanding. "South and North Moat Mountains," by Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) is a marvelous painting whose overhanging tree branches frame a brilliant blue river in the foreground and the mountains in the distance, all in the artist's best style.

"Ruins at Baalbek" is an incandescent work by Frederick Edwin Church (1826-1900) that applied his Hudson River School training - he was a pupil of Thomas Cole - to far away locales, this one in the Mideast

A "Sunset in the Catskills" by Jervis McEntee (1828-1890) is an ravishing Luminist work by this much under-appreciated artist who here rivals the best of Sanford Robinson Gifford (1823-1880), who is seen at his best in "A Lake Twilight," a large 1861 masterpiece. Another McEntee, "Autumn Landscape with Three Figures," is a very fine example, demonstrating his great delicacy and handling of yellowish light.

The cover illustration is a fabulous Jasper Francis Cropsey (1823-1900) painting "On the Hudson Near West Point," that is a great example of his vivid autumnal coloration and great compositional skills.

Major painters of the school such as Samuel Colman Jr. (1832-1920), Homer Dodge Martin (1836-1897), William M. Hart (1823-1894), James McDougal Hart (1828-1901), Regis Francis Gignoux (1816-1882), Alexander H. Wyant (1836-1892) and Asher B. Durand (1796-1886) are all represented by masterpieces. Other important artists included in the collection are Thomas Cole, Robert Scott Duncanson, Samuel Lancaster Gerry, Thomas Doughty, Alvin Fisher, Alfred Thompson Bricher, William Mason Brown, Victor de Grailly, Henry Ary, James Renwick Brevoort, Norton Bush, John Hermann Carmiencke, Benjamin Champney, Martin J. Heade, Charles Codman, Lemuel D. Eldred, William C. A. Frerichs, Gustavus Johann Grunewald, J. Antonio Hekking, George Hetzel, Thomas Hewes Hinckley, James Hope, Richard William Hubbard, Daniel Huntington, David Johnson, Charles W. Knapp, Joseph Morviller, Walter M. Oddie, Arthur Parton, Arthur Quartley, William Trost Richards, Thomas P. Rossiter, James D. Smillie, William Louis Sonntag, Paul Weber, John Williamson and William Sheridan Young.

The only obvious major omissions are George Inness, Thomas Moran and Robert Walter Weir and others who could be included are James A. Suydam, Louis Mignot, William Holbrook Beard, Aaron Shattuck, and Kruseman Van Elten.

Driscoll's main essay is as fine an introduction to this rich subject as exists:

"Glorious aspirations permeated every strata of American society as a new democracy rooted itself in an Edenic new world. The early decades of the nineteenth century witnessed an increasingly sympathetic and admiring response to America's landscape."

He quotes Asher B. Durand: "Why should not the American landscape painter, in accordance with the principle of self-government, boldly originate a high and independent style, based on his native resources?" That style, Driscoll states, became known as the Hudson River School, which was first used to describe the group of artists in 1879 in a review by Edward Strahan (pseudonym for Earl Shinn) of an exhibition at the National Academy in New York.

Driscoll notes that the artists "never forgot their European artistic forebears" and that they were influenced by the writings of William Cullen Bryant and the work of early engravers and artists such as John Hill and William Guy Wall who produced fine picturesque scenes.

Cole, of course, was the great star, but Driscoll observes that while the second generation of Hudson River School artists continued to follow his "suggestion to go to nature, they all did so with an intensity for detail and preference for nature's tranquil, nurturing aspect, which revealed a philosophical variance from Cole's pyrotechnics of style, technique, and ideology." "They abandoned the moralistic and religious episodes with which Cole inoculated his landscapes, and preferred instead to let their painted versions of the land directly evoke thematic sensations form the viewer," he concluded.

While many of the artists did not have formal training, their draftsmanship was impressive: "Another important factor in producing these paintings was technical restraint. The tactile qualities of medium were employed to enhance the emotive character of the scene depicted. Many of the greatest paintings by Kensett, Gifford, Gignoux and Heade are characterized by an economy of means in which it seems the artists literally breathed the pigments onto their canvases. The result is a thin, smooth, diaphanous surface of surpassing beauty….Employing such subtle and refined paint surfaces required extraordinary technical skill and a visionary quality of mind that is the province of genius."

"Paintings in which landscape elements are used to move the eye to a central enclosure or a glimpse of distant sky are more than a simple transcription of the obvious features of the earth's terrain. They are an assertion of the protective intimacy, human scale, and meditative sentiment that guided the Romantic interpretation of nature's moral imperative," Driscoll maintains.

Driscoll's incisive and superb text and the wonderful, large color reproductions make this volume an indispensable addition to the library of any lover of American art, or American landscape. It demonstrates the unerring eye for quality of the anonymous collector. Anonymity in this age? Bless him. Credit too should go to the museums showing this wonderful collection that shows all these artists at their best and their best is pretty much without peer in the history of landscape painting.

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