The Hudson River School was a mid-19th century American art
movement embodied by a group of landscape painters whose aesthetic vision was
influenced by romanticism. The paintings for which the movement is named depict the
Hudson River Valley and the surrounding area, including the Catskill, Adirondack,
and the White Mountains; eventually works by the second generation of artists
associated with the school expanded to include other locales in New England, the
Maritimes, the American West, and South America.
Neither the originator of the term Hudson River School nor its first published
use has been fixed with certainty. The term is thought to have originated with the
New York Tribune art critic Clarence Cook or the landscape painter Homer Dodge
Martin. As originally used, the term was meant disparagingly, as the work so
labeled had gone out of favor after the plein-air Barbizon School had come into
vogue among American patrons and collectors.
Hudson River School paintings reflect three themes of America in the 19th
century: discovery, exploration, and settlement. The paintings also depict the
American landscape as a pastoral setting, where human beings and nature coexist
peacefully. Hudson River School landscapes are characterized by their realistic,
detailed, and sometimes idealized portrayal of nature, often juxtaposing peaceful
agriculture and the remaining wilderness, which was fast disappearing from the
Hudson Valley just as it was coming to be appreciated for its qualities of
ruggedness and sublimity. In general, Hudson River School artists believed that
nature in the form of the American landscape was an ineffable manifestation of God,
though the artists varied in the depth of their religious conviction. They took as
their inspiration such European masters as Claude Lorrain, John Constable and J. M.
W. Turner. Their reverence for America's natural beauty was shared with
contemporary American writers such as Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Several painters, such as Albert Bierstadt, were members of the Düsseldorf school
While the elements of the paintings were rendered realistically, many of the
scenes were composed as a synthesis of multiple scenes or natural images observed
by the artists. In gathering the visual data for their paintings, the artists would
travel to extraordinary and extreme environments, which generally had conditions
that would not permit extended painting at the site. During these expeditions, the
artists recorded sketches and memories, returning to their studios to paint the
finished works later.
The artist Thomas Cole is generally acknowledged as the founder of the Hudson
River School. Cole took a steamship up the Hudson in the autumn of 1825, the same
year the Erie Canal opened, stopping first at West Point, then at Catskill landing.
He hiked west high up into the eastern Catskill Mountains of New York State to
paint the first landscapes of the area. The first review of his work appeared in
the New York Evening Post on November 22, 1825. At that time, only the English
native Cole, born in a landscape where autumnal tints were of browns and yellows,
found the brilliant autumn hues of the area to be inspirational. Cole's close
friend, Asher Durand, became a prominent figure in the school as well, particularly
when the banknote-engraving business evaporated in the Panic of 1837.
The second generation of Hudson River school artists emerged to
prominence after Cole's premature death in 1848; its members included Cole's prize
pupil Frederic Edwin Church, John Frederick Kensett, and
Sanford Robinson Gifford. Works by artists of this second generation are
often described as examples of Luminism. In addition to pursuing their art, many of
the artists, including Kensett, Gifford and Church, were among the founders of the
Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
Most of the finest works of the Hudson River school were painted between 1855
and 1875. During that time, artists such as Frederic Edwin Church and Albert
Bierstadt were celebrities. They were both influenced by the Düsseldorf school of
painting, and Bierstadt had studied in the city for several years. When Church
exhibited paintings such as Niagara or Icebergs of the North,
thousands of people lined up around the block and paid fifty cents a head to view
the solitary works. The epic size of the landscapes in these paintings, unexampled
in earlier American painting, reminded Americans of the vast, untamed, but
magnificent wilderness areas in their country. Such works were being painted during
the period of settlement of the American West, preservation of national parks, and
establishment of green city parks.