The Hudson River Artists

“Hudson River School” – was the term universally accepted to describe 19-century American landscape painters such as Thomas Cole, Asher Durand, Frederic Church, Albert Bierdstadt and John Kensett – it was first used in the 1870s by art critics as a term of ridicule.

Niagra Falls by Frederic Edwin Church
Niagra Falls by Frederic Edwin Church

The Hudson River School was America’s first school of painting though there was never a formal school or group of artists who called themselves “Hudson River School.“ Art critics, scholars and curators have determined which artists are labelled “Hudson River School.“

In the 20th century, the term came to define the landscape artist who painted between 1825 -1880. They shared an interest in the pure natural landscape, and believed in a, set of philosophic and religious ideas.

These artists worked in the spirit of Thomas Cole (1801–1848), co-founder with Asher Durand (1796 –1886), of the school. Hudson River School painters employed Coles compositional style, depicting in precise and finished manner locations with topographical accuracy and with attention to light and atmosphere. Their underlying philosophy centred around the idea that art was the interpreter of nature, and nature was the interpreter of God.

The Connecticut River near Northhampton by Thomas Cole
The Connecticut River near Northhampton by Thomas Cole

Before the 19th century, nature was considered an inappropriate subject for serious art, and landscape paintings were considered a lesser art form. The perfect atmosphere for an American School of landscape painting was created when late 18-century industrialisation in England ignited an interest in landscape painting and landscape tourism both in England and in the increasingly prosperous United States, where an aristocratic elite still looked to England for the cultural ideal.

Coles ideas, philosophies and methods became the foundation upon which the Hudson River school was built. The masterpieces of Coles early career celebrations of the more exciting aspects of nature – mountain passes, broken tree stumps, storms – which were termed “Sublime.“

A View of the Two Lakes and Mountain House, Catskill Mountains by Thomas Cole
A View of the Two Lakes and Mountain House, Catskill Mountains by Thomas Cole

Later, Cole strove to attain what he termed a “higher style of landscape.“ To this end, Cole painted allegories and historical scenes, which were intended to teach lessons enforcing moral or religious truth.

At the height of his career, Cole painted “The Course of the Empire“ (1836). This five-campus allegorical series commissioned by New York merchant Lumen Reed shows the theme of civilisations evolution and ultimate destruction. Cole was always to remain disappointed, however, because his most famous works were American landscapes free from historical or religious messages.

Durand differed from Cole and his commitment to present a more naturalistic representation of the landscape, and idea promoted by the writings of the English critic John Ruskin, who educated “truth to nature.“ Durand went beyond Coles pencil studies to make outdoor oils sketches, his interest in detailed nature studies evident in his numerous scenes of forest interiors.

The Catskills by Asher Brown Durand
The Catskills by Asher Brown Durand

Probably Durands most famous work, “Kindred Spirits,“ was painted in 1849 as a memorial to Cole. The painting shows Cole standing with his friend, the renowned poet of American nature, William Cullen Bryant, in a setting that is a combination of the Clove of the Catskills and Katerskill Falls, both in Greene county. “Kindred Spirits” is a perfect example of the Hudson River Schools preference for combining depictions of real places into a mixture that represents an idealised location.

During his lifetime, Frederic Edwin Church (1826 – 1900) was one of the most famous and successful artists of the Hudson River School. Church was able to combine the higher degree of naturalism advocated by Durand with Coles intense drama and moral message.

The writings of German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt had a significant influence on Churches work. Humboldt encouraged landscape painters to study nature, to compose a painting that captured the spirit of the place instead of being an exact rendering and to specialise in depicting exotic locations for the enlightenment of the public.

Church, combining Humboldts theories with Coles preference for composed landscapes, show the connection between scientific truth and divine creation. Church went on to use similar methods in the vast panoramic vistas of natural phenomena for which he is famous.

In his early masterpieces, Church often used a contemporary landscape to convey a historical event in the spirit of Cole. For example “The Charter Oak, Hartford“ (1845) depicts the tree where according to legend, American colonist Captain Daniel Wadsworth his the Connecticut charter from the British governor-general Sir Edmond Andros.

Churches technical skills, his meticulous brushwork and his ambition are revealed in “Niagara,“ (1875), depicting Niagara Falls, which made Church the most famous painter in America and “Heart of the Andes“ (1859), his most ambitious and complex work.

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