Learning From the Hudson School Painters

Saturday, January 7, 2012

SOMETIMES it takes an art exhibit to remind us that, as fast and formidably as America has developed, the most monumental thing about this country is its vast and varied landscape which offers awe-inspiring views of Nature.

The nineteenth-century Hudson River School Painters certainly understood this and strove mightily to convey it—which makes for a fascinating tour of the 45 paintings now on display (through April 1) at the Columbia Museum of Art.

It’s one thing to paint a person or flower arrangement in a studio. It’s quite another to tackle Nature on her fickle terms. Yes, you can take a photograph and work from it in the studio, but then you lose the spatial grandeur, the immediacy of the elements, the tactile quality of natural light, and the assorted play of colors. There’s also the issue of how to eloquently corral Nature on a canvas and what to focus on. Try to encompass everything and you dull the view. Dwell too much on details and you underplay Nature’s uncanny unity.

Below are just a few impressions of how these artists responded to these (and other) demands of being an American landscape artist in the nineteenth century.

William Hart (1823 -1894)
On the Esopus, Meadow Groves, ca. 1857-58, Oil on canvas
New York Historical Society, Robert L. Stuart Collection

In the picture below (a detail of which appears above), the artist emphasized the foreground by means of the cattle and the reflection of the bank and tree. These elements lead your eye back and forth, left to right. The bank especially keeps your eye from venturing beyond it to the background, which is diminished in terms of light, color, and details—to the point of being just vaguely suggested. Even though the bare trunk above the cattle leads you up and into the sky, the sweep of cloud brings you back to the tree on right and down again into the reflection in the pond. It seems evident that Mr. Hart wanted to paint a local, tranquil scene and wanted to keep us there by means of a strong horizontal foreground.

William Hart (1823 -1894) On the Esopus, Meadow Groves

Could it be, too, that he borrowed a page from the Dutch painters Aelbert Cuyp (1620-1691) and Gerard Bilders (1838-1865)? Those two were known for putting cattle in serene landscapes, almost as an anchor amidst Nature’s ever-changing sea of elements. The cluster of cattle and kids in Hart’s painting (which is almost the most interesting part to look at) certainly serves this purpose. Just imagine this composition without it.

Asher Brown Durand (1786 - 1886) Shandaken Range, Kingston, New York

Asher Brown Durand (1786 – 1886)
Shandaken Range, Kingston, New York, ca. 1854, Oil on canvas
New-York Historical Society, Museum purchase, The Louis Durr Fund

Asher Durand, who has several (and varied) works in this exhibit, possessed a poetical view of Nature and a photographer’s eye for composition.

Here he employs a variety of techniques (branches, diagonals, color, and light) to converge our view on a point in the center of the composition, thereby heightening the sense of depth into the distance and back into the foreground—giving you the sense that you are standing way back, as if in a tunnel, looking out through the trees. I was left feeling comforted and secure—almost cozy—in my own private view of the distant countryside which itself has almost no detail and no distinct interest.

Although Durand’s other paintings are larger, more open scenes, they show a similar predilection for emphasizing the foreground and highlighting the animate vitality of trees and bark. In this respect, you cannot help but think that he was strongly influenced by the preeminent Dutch landscape painter, Jacob van Ruisdael (1628/9-1682) who, more than anyone else, knew how to render intimate scenes of Nature on a magnanimous scale, typically with trees as the prominent element.

George Henry Boughton (1833 – 1905)
Winter Twilight near Albany, New York, 1858, Oil on canvas
New-York Historical Society, Robert L. Stuart Collection

In this jewel of a painting—which one writer described as “a perfect piece of winter”—the artist uses an exquisite gray-blue-brown palette that perfectly captures the shadowy light and bitter cold of a winter dusk. This combined effect conveys the loneliness of a sole figure in the middle foreground who is slowly making his way along a frozen stream that reflects the color of the background sky—a deft touch that ties the composition together from top to bottom and side to side.

George Henry Boughton (1833 - 1905) Winter Twilight near Albany, New York

The three trees serve as ballast to guide us into the canvas from the left. The slight bend of the third tree leads us into the painting to follow the horizontal movement of the figure pulling his sled. Meanwhile, the small cottage at right, with its red glow of a warm fire in one tiny window holds our interest for a moment. Our eye then drops to the broken trunk in the bottom-right corner only to be led back into the composition to further dwell on the figure and his cold, lonely task.

The ice, snow, trees, clouds, house, and figure are individually (and beautifully) textured, offering us clear, sharp contrasts—all within a seemingly effortless management of composition. And as beautiful as this painting is as a landscape scene, it is even more a depiction of atmosphere and mood—an expression of the psychology of a season. As a result, you do more than look at this painting: you get drawn into it, enveloped by it, and made to feel cold, almost depressed, by it. Extraordinary. Especially considering that this is one of the smallest, most inconspicuous canvases in the exhibit. Had there been one painting I could have taken home and lived with, this was it.

Louisa Davis Minot (1788 – 1858)
Niagara Falls, 1818, Oil on linen
New-York Historical Society, Gift of Mrs. Waldron Phoenix Belknap, Sr.

The harmonious brown, blue, green, and white palette of this scene of Niagara Falls is extremely pleasing, which tempted me at first to think that this was a really good painting. But something kept nagging me. Looking more closely, I noticed that it lacked the monumental impact of Niagara’s steep height and dramatic, fast-flowing (almost threatening) surge of water, spray, and sound.

Louisa Davis Minot (1788 - 1858) Niagara Falls

Also lacking is a sharp contrast of textures. Notice, for example, how the water, rocks, foliage, and white clouds are all painted in a similar “curly” treatment—perhaps in an attempt to bring unity to the composition, but with the result that the whole lacks interest and conviction. At the same time, the strong horizontal composition is almost too contained, thus cramping the gargantuan falls and making them look quaint rather than large and looming.

Louis Rémy Mignot (1831 – 1870)
The Harvest Moon, 1860, Oil on canvas
New-York Historical Society, Robert L. Stuart Collection

A painting cannot be fully appealing without a balanced composition. Traditionally, this means building a design that flows from top-left to bottom-right, or which revolves clockwise (the two movements that at least our western eye is most familiar and comfortable with).

Louis Rémy Mignot (1831 - 1870) The Harvest Moon

Interestingly, Mignot has reversed this by having his main diagonal move gradually from right to left, which—even though the angle is not severe—creates a strong sense of “drop” for the sun. The sun itself is appropriately placed at the bottom of the diagonal, just at a point where the composition begins to rise again slightly. The graceful curve of a tree keeps our eye from drifting off the canvas and leads us back to the sun. The tree’s curve even echoes the curve of the sun and its halo, as does the green tree at right—and all three of these “rotate” clockwise, counterbalancing the leftward-flowing diagonal.

It would be interesting to see this place (if  it actually exits) to know how much is real and how much was contrived by the artist according to his compositional intent. In fact, the more you study this piece, the more subtle diagonals you find, all of which appear natural, yet which, on closer examination, reveal the hand of man artfully manipulating Nature’s designs. The result is a delightful, relaxing painting that you don’t tire of looking at. This Charleston, S.C.-born painter, who sadly died when he was 39 (and who painted this when he was only 29), obviously had a full range of talent when it came to composition, color, tone, perspective, and atmosphere.

Frederic Edwin Church (1826 – 1900)
Cayambe, 1858, Oil on canvas
New-York Historical Society, Robert L. Stuart Collection

Frederic Church was a painter-explorer in the sense of being an adventurous traveler—in this case to the Andes Mountains—but also in the sense of testing the boundaries of composition. In this painting, he manages to create equal interest in the foreground, middle ground, and background with three distinct worlds of Nature (exotic foliage, mysterious valley, and a cosmic, above-the-clouds volcano).

Frederic Edwin Church (1826 - 1900) Cayambe

To make things easy, he leads our eye from the middle of the foreground, through the lake of the middle ground, directly to the base of the volcano, and up to the striking snow peak and sky. It is simultaneously a very human and spiritually evocative painting that appeals to different sides of our nature. Church had a masterful stroke, but he was also more than just a good painter. His landscapes silently “speak.”

Thomas Cole (1801 – 1848)
The Course of Empire: The Consummation of Empire, 1836, Oil on canvas
New-York Historical Society, Gift of the New-York Gallery of the Fine Arts

In one room of the exhibit, devoted to a series of five large paintings, Thomas Cole metaphorically “warns” young America about the inevitable cycle of growth, splendor, and eventual destruction that previous empires have gone through. It as a thought-provoking presentation where Cole takes essentially the same scene and shows it changing over time: from pure landscape, to the summit of civilization, to ultimate ruin and desolation.

Thomas Cole (1801 - 1848) The Course of Empire: The Consummation of Empire

His painting is superb in such a large undertaking, and the series does prompt you to consider where we are as a country and a world, and where we may be headed. Nevertheless, from a purely artistic point of view, I felt that the inherent beauty of landscape painting and the pure skill of this artist are both overridden by his attempt at philosophical narrative, and by his use of romantic stylization to convey the message—with this particular painting being the most extreme example.

James Fennimore Cooper, on the other hand, had this to say about the series: “Not only do I consider The Course of Empire the work of the highest genius this country has ever produced, but I esteem it one of the noblest works of art that has ever been wrought.”

So what do you think? In the end, isn’t that the question we want to answer for ourselves as honestly as possible—in the arts and in life?

Sometimes it takes an art exhibit to remind us of this, too.

“Nature and the Grand American Vision: Masterpieces of the Hudson River School Painters” is part of a traveling exhibit of works from the New-York Historical Society.

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It is with life as it is with art: the deeper one penetrates, the broader the view.                   
~ Johann Goethe