Here's One From the Heart

In their day, the Hudson River School landscape artists were so popular with the public that people would line up and pay a fair amount of money just to view a single painting. Our plein air blogger Jennifer King shares her insights on why the works of these painters were worth waiting in line for back then—and what they can teach artists in the here and now. Enjoy!

Landscape Painting of the Hudson River School

I think it's safe to say that the Hudson River School is the group of artists who put America on the map of the art world. Starting in the 1830s, their exquisitely detailed, richly colored, often very large landscape paintings attracted worldwide attention. People were fascinated by the world-class abilities of the artists and by the beauty of the American landscape, but I think there was more to it than that.


 Lake Tahoe by Albert Bierstadt, 1868.
 Lake Tahoe by Albert Bierstadt, 1868.

The first wave of the Hudson River painters was led by Thomas Cole and later by his good friend Asher B. Durand. They tended to paint in the wilderness of the Northeast, such as the Hudson River Valley, the Catskills, the Adirondacks, and the White Mountains. A second generation of Hudson River artists who shared their passions and interests expanded their range of landscape painting subjects to include scenes of the western United States and beyond. This group included Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Edwin Church, Sanford Robinson Gifford, Thomas Moran, Jasper Francis Cropsey, and John Frederick Kensett.

Given the very precise and detailed way in which they painted, we might assume that Hudson River painters were intent on replicating the landscape around them. But documentation was not at all what their work was about. In fact, many of them often painted idealized versions of their subjects, modifying aspects of their scenes to make them more beautiful. To understand the significance of these artists and their works, we have to look at what was happening in society at large.


Shroon Mountain by Thomas Cole, 1838. Manchester Beach by Sanford Robinson Gifford, 1865.
Shroon Mountain by Thomas Cole, 1838. Manchester Beach by Sanford Robinson Gifford, 1865.

We had great thinkers like Emerson and Thoreau encouraging people to think about nature and our relationship to it. We had American politicians talking about the young country's Manifest Destiny to expand westward and "civilize" the wilderness—and the people—found there. And we had the public at large questioning the existence of God, and wondering if nature was the true religion. These weighty, provocative, evocative themes—not the physical attributes of the land—were the true subjects of the Hudson River paintings. And that is why I think they were so popular in their day and even in ours. These paintings ask important questions and make powerful statements about the most important issues in life.


Autumn by Frederic Edwin Church, 1845.
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
by Thomas Moran, 1872.

by Frederic Edwin Church, 1845.

My friends, I think that if we want to make Art, we have to think like the Hudson River painters. Not paint like them, but think like them. We should be asking ourselves, what is important in our society today? What are the issues, both personal and social, that are significant? And how can we, as artists, encourage people to address these issues through our work? Whoa. Tall order. But let's aim high. Are you with me?


I second Jennifer's call to action 100 percent. And so does Alain Picard, who instructs artists who are thinking through the big questions in their work and who educates and shares tried and true techniques with students of all levels of painting ability. In Alain's Capturing the Light Collection, you'll find pastel painting resources that will move you in this direction as well. Certainly it is a long road to paint like the Hudson River School, but we are certainly thinking like them. If you are committed to the same kind of artistic practice, then we are halfway there. Enjoy!


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Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.   

2 thoughts on “Here's One From the Heart

  1. Just a note. It’s interesting that Frederick Butman is seldom mentioned along with the early painters of the West. He was one of the first. Any thoughts?