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
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
"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
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
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'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.