This One Is From the Heart

16 Nov 2011

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

In their day, the Hudson River School landscape painters were so popular with the public that people would line up and pay a fair amount of money just to view a single painting. So I think it's safe to say that this is the group of artists who put America on the map of the art world. Starting somewhere in the 1830s, their exquisitely detailed, richly colored, often very large canvases 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.

The first wave of the Hudson River painters was led by Thomas Cole (1801-1848) and later by his good friend Asher B. Durand (1796-1886). This group tended to paint en plein air 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 outdoor painting subjects to include scenes of the western United States and beyond. This group included Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902), Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900), Sanford Robinson Gifford (1823-1880), Thomas Moran (1837-1926), Jasper Francis Cropsey (1823-1900), John Frederick Kensett (1816-1872), and many more.

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.

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.

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

by Frederic Edwin Church, 1845.

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.

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?









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