You’ve probably seen some of these paintings before. They’re detailed, realistic and idealized portrayals of the American wilderness that are not only an excellent look into 1850s America but a useful tool for interpreting contemporary culture.
The Hudson River school is an art movement that emerged in the mid 19th century. It is named for its origin in the Hudson River Valley area of New York but it quickly built a presence across all of New England. The location of the movement is central to an understanding of it due to its focus on the beauty and sanctity of nature. Prominent painters of the Hudson River school style saw North America as a manifestation of God and their art was just as much a religious expression as it was an appreciation of nature. Hudson River school paintings are characterized by little to no evidence of human civilization and when they do feature humanity, all traces of it are peaceful and small, emphasizing the respect the painters had for the land they portrayed.
Arguably the first painting of the Hudson River school movement was The Oxbow, completed by Thomas Cole in 1836. It depicts the Connecticut River Valley just after a thunderstorm and true to the movement it began, features just one human being – a tiny self portrait of Cole himself in the foreground. The gentle farmland and receding storm are stronger political statements than one might think – they present the ideals of the artist. Many people think that The Oxbow in particular is a commentary on how civilization confronts wilderness and in turn, what Thomas Cole believed to be the best method for it to do so – pastoral life and coexistence with nature.
In 1836, the industrial revolution was well under way. Artists such as Cole saw urbanization as a bad thing and used their paintings as a way to discuss their view that nature was graceful, holy and to be respected.
The movement continued to grow despite Thomas Cole’s unexpected death from pneumonia in 1848. Painters including Frederic Edwin Church and Albert Bierstadt carried the torch and within 10 years, the Hudson River school achieved mainstream popularity. Artists continued using the Hudson River style to emphasize the importance of the American wilderness. It was also at this time that the American National Park Service was created, giving the paintings even more cultural relevancy. The contemporary philosophical movement Transcendentalism complemented and helped grow the Hudson River school as well. The thoughts of authors Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Margaret Fuller reflected the values presented in the Hudson River painting style.
The paintings of the Hudson River school do a great job at representing the sentiments of a community suspicious of technological advancement. They believed that the urbanization of the land they held so dear was a bad thing and wanted to preserve the beauty of the American wilderness. They expressed this political position by painting idealized landscapes. Visions of how they believed the world should look like – the state of things they thought was best. Society and art have changed a lot since the mid 19th century but art that subverts the times by presenting how the artist thinks things should be are nothing new and exists to this day. Today many people create in a way that that reflects the Hudson River school. Artists who desire social progress create art that portrays a world where people of all religions and ethnicities exist peacefully. Artists who value environmentalism paint peaceful landscapes, so on and so forth.
The Hudson River school continued to develop as the years wore on and soon, painters developed the practice of synthesizing multiple locations to create more extraordinary scenes. This, combined with a tendency to travel to extreme environments and make outlines to save for painting later made the works of the second generation of the movement impressive.
Unfortunately the Hudson River school was all but forgotten by 1900 for a number of reasons. After the Civil War, American art took on more characteristics from continental European art such as French impressionism. Landscape painting receded in popularity, was replaced by figure painting and the Hudson River school lie all but forgotten until a revival of appreciation in the late 20th century. Today the movement remains obscure to the general public but there is a presence of Hudson River school Art in many prominent museums across America.
The era of the Hudson River school will be remembered as an underappreciated yet beautiful period in art history. It will forever remain in its time as a picture of a humble group of men finding their place in the wilderness of their country.
Featured image: Yosemite valley by Albert Bierstadt