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A River Runs Through It

The painters of the Hudson River School helped define who we are as Americans, as a comprehensive exhibition makes luminously clear.

Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire: The Consummation of Empire

Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire: The Consummation of Empire, 1836, oil on canvas.

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There’s something satisfying about the fact that a West Coast venue—the Los Angeles County Museum of Art—is hosting an exhibition that originated at an East Coast venue—the New-York Historical Society—and includes depictions of the West by artists from the East Coast or from even further east, Europe. “Nature and the American Vision: The Hudson River School,” drawn entirely from the permanent collection of the NYHS, showcases 45 classic landscape paintings by 23 of the heaviest-hitting artists of the movement, including Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Cole, Asher Brown Durand, and Frederic Edwin Church.

This survey show, which was launched in New York in 2007 and will be on view at LACMA through June 7, reminds viewers that America’s conception of itself is intimately linked to the American landscape, and that when it comes to Americans’ imaginative visualization of that landscape, a river definitely runs through it—the Hudson. How did a waterway that is far from the mightiest or the longest, that only touches New York and New Jersey, come to have such an influence on artists’ depictions of the whole of the North American continent and even beyond?

The answer is that the Hudson River Valley in upstate New York is the place where painters in this country happened to have their first encounter with the sublime at just the right moment when the culture was ready to appreciate it and assimilate it. Earlier generations of American painters were more concerned with portraiture and historical scenes—the human world rather than the natural—and when they painted nature it was usually to record the marks that human beings had made on it, marks of settlement, of domestication.

The late critic Robert Hughes’ contrarian take on the Hudson River School was that around 1825 American artists were running out of material for history paintings and heroic portraits and therefore sought out a new field of endeavor. A fairer assessment would be that by 1825, American painters were getting bored with the old material and fired up by the spirit of Romanticism that was animating their Northern European counterparts, such as Caspar David Friedrich and J.M.W. Turner. In the Romantic world-picture, Nature (capital N definitely required) is a revelation of the divine creative power, and Nature at its wildest—in storm, at sunset and sunrise, on the peaks of mountains—reveals that power most fully. The sensation the artist receives amid such scenes, and the sensation that, ideally, viewers receive while standing in front of paintings of such scenes, is the sublime.

Contemplation of the sublime could be expected to induce something resembling cosmic universalism, but for patriotic American painters, the beauty and majesty of their land were clear indications that America was the place where God expressed his power most fully. Even immigrants like Bierstadt, born in Germany, got the point. At Kaaterskill Clove, Thomas Cole’s favorite gorge, or at the overwhelmingly impressive Niagara Falls (painted in 1818 by Louisa Minot), Nature spoke in her own voice. Cole’s The Catskills at Lake George (1845) and Durand’s Beacon Hills on the Hudson River, Opposite Newburgh—Painted on the Spot (circa 1852) are pure Nature, no human figures, no sign of settlement, only land and water, sunlight and sky.

Ironically, just as the Hudson River School was coming into being, with Cole as its leader, the Hudson River itself was becoming a link in the chain of burgeoning trade and industrialization. In 1825 the Erie Canal connected the Hudson with the Great Lakes, allowing goods and services to travel from the northern Midwest all the way down through Albany and New York City. Maybe if they could have foreseen what all of that would lead to, the artists would have been against it, but in fact the Hudson River School tended to celebrate the “westward course of empire,” to quote a poem by the 18th-century philosopher George Berkeley. The opening of the waterways and the invention of the steamship and the railroad increased artists’ access to remote rural sites, and as the country expanded westward, so did the artists’ purview. Bierstadt, Church, and others became explorers and even documentarians, painting the Western plains, the Rockies (for example, Bierstadt’s Donner Lake from the Summit, from 1873), California (Thomas Hill’s View of the Yosemite Valley, 1865) and even the wilds of South America (Church’s Cayambe, 1858). Imperialism, expansionism, and art went hand in hand. It was a marriage of convenience, yes, but also to some extent a marriage of true minds.

Berkeley’s memorable phrase was used as the title of more than one painting. Emanuel Leutze, of Washington Crossing the Delaware fame, titled his 1861 mural sequence in the U.S. Capitol Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, and a quarter of a century earlier Cole himself executed a really astonishing five-part series of his own, titled simply The Course of Empire. It was not a hopeful work, nor, indeed, was it typical of the Hudson River School’s focus on pure Nature. In these over-the-top canvases, all of which are on view at LACMA, Cole lays out the rise and fall of an overreaching, arrogant civilization, mythic but seemingly Classical in its general aesthetics.

In The Course of Empire: The Savage State (1833–36), we are shown a storm-lashed seaside scene, with sun breaking in at the left of the canvas, in which tiny human figures trot through the greenery half naked, holding bows and spears while at the far right, an equally tiny village of rude huts resembling tipis sends up smoke. From such humble beginnings we get The Course of Empire: The Arcadian or Pastoral State (1833–36), a Poussinesque rendition of harmony between man and Nature, complete with shepherds and a wise-looking old man. The ascending smoke this time is from a Grecian temple set in a glade. In The Course of Empire: The Consummation of Empire (1836), matters have progressed in a somewhat alarming way: a real-estate boom in Greco-Roman architecture has expanded into a landscape-devouring wedding cake, golden boats with pink sails cruise down the river, and the festivities taking place on shore seem like they would be very welcome at the court of Caligula.

In part four, The Course of Empire: Destruction (1836), comeuppance has come: The city is burning, and the bridge shown in the previous scene has collapsed, dumping people into the water. Everywhere one looks there are dead bodies, and those still alive are either fighting each other, fleeing, or trying to commit suicide. A colossal statue makes a heroic gesture, its outstretched arm holding a shield, but its head has been lopped off and all is in vain. Finally, we get The Course of Empire: Desolation (1836), but although the civilization has fallen, this is no post-apocalyptic nightmare. On the contrary, Desolation is a perfect Romantic ruin, just the way the early 19th century liked it, with “picturesque” crumbling columns in a rocky Mediterranean landscape bathed in moonlight that is reflected in the ocean’s still waters. If this is the future of the industrialized West, 30th-century painters will have plenty to look forward to.

Cole’s paintings are magnificently rendered and full of bold imagination, but subtle they are not. Church, too, gave in to wild imaginings in some of his South American pictures. But some Hudson River painters took another tack, especially in the period from 1850–75. Paintings in the exhibition such as Sanford Robinson Gifford’s 1858 Lake Maggiore, Italy (the Hudson River artists did occasionally turn their sights on the Old World) and John Frederick Kensett’s Shrewsbury River, New Jersey (1859) convey a much less dramatic impression. They are all shimmering water and hazy skies, lit by a diffuse light that is sometimes pinkish, sometimes bluish but always glowing. Today, paintings like these are usually called Luminist, although that was never the name of any school, and in fact the term didn’t even exist until an art historian, John Baur, coined it in 1954. Nonetheless, it is a useful moniker, because it accurately identifies a special concern with light for its own sake, and a calmer, more peaceful and contemplative mood than that in the classic first-generation Hudson River School paintings.

In Luminist works, man is sufficiently at peace with Nature that he can be reintegrated into the landscape without danger of starting a Course of Empire. Often they are marine paintings, with little seaside towns visible and boats or ships floating at anchor. The well-defined horizon line gives the viewer a sense of stability. Like the Impressionists, the artists who painted in a Luminist style were obsessed with light, but they captured it in a completely different way—no visible brushstrokes, a perfectly even tone, so that the light seems to be coming from everywhere and nowhere. The effect can be almost mystical; after rambles through history and explorations of the wilderness, we are back to the divine presence, but in a manifestation more subtle than sublime.

Author: John Dorfman | Publish Date: February 2015

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