The Hudson River School

Thomas Cole
Portrait of Thomas Cole, American Painter, 1845, unidentified photographer

The Hudson River School was an American school of landscape painting that achieved its peak period of popularity in the years from 1830-1870.  The name of the movement refers to the artists’ preferred subject: the Hudson River Valley in New York State and the surrounding area, including the Catskill, Adirondack and White Mountains.  The second generation associated with the school (to which Regis Gignoux belonged) travelled further afield, north and south along the eastern seaboard and eventually west.  The acknowledged leading light of the Hudson River School was Thomas Cole (1801-1848),whose “Essay on American Scenery” (1836) became an inspiration for the movement.

In Praise of American Scenery

Cole was writing at a time when American artists were struggling to find an identity distinct from European painting, which drew on history, particularly of the classical period, for inspiration. Europeans saw the American landscape as “rude” and “monotonous,” possessing “little that is interesting or truly beautiful” and “destitute of those vestiges of antiquity, whose associations so strongly affect the mind.”  He turned these perceived flaws into virtues by emphasizing the distinctiveness and variety of American Scenery and, in particular, its uncultivated “wildness.” He argued passionately in favour of the American landscape as the most suitable subject for American artists.

Whether intentional or not, Cole’s identification of the New World landscape as a focus for a national school of art turned out to be an astute political move as it allowed immigrants with diverse religious, cultural, educational and economic backgrounds to rally around the one thing they all shared in their new home: the land itself.  Unwittingly perhaps, Cole also offered the European settlers, who were effectively colonisers with scant regard for the indigenous population, a visual means by which to promote their aims and aspirations.

“Short lived, short sighted”

Cole also worried that young American society was too concerned with the “low pursuits of avarice” and recommended the power of nature to provide relief from the toils of daily life and of the contemplation of scenery to inspire delight, well-being and moral improvement in the viewer.  While not opposed to the cultivation of the land for the purposes of creating homes and social environments, he lamented the “meagre utilitarianism” he saw around him, the growing tendency to see nature only as a resource to be exploited for profit.  He expressed sadness at the loss of so much natural beauty in the course of development:

I cannot but express my sorrow that the beauty of such landscapes is quickly passing away – the ravages of the axe are daily increasing – the most noble scenes are made destitute, and oftentimes with barbarism scarcely credible in a civilized nation.  This is a regret rather than a complaint; such is the road society has to travel.

Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire:  The Arcadian or Pastoral State, oil on canvas, 39 1/2 x 63 1/2 inches, 1835
Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire: The Arcadian or Pastoral State, oil on canvas, 39 1/2 x 63 1/2 inches, 1835

Cole’s best known cycle of paintings, The Course of Empire (1833-36), traces the rise and fall of civilisation from wilderness through the ideal pastoral state to the creation and ultimate corruption and destruction of Empire.  For Cole, the destruction of Empire is brought about by a loss of the ideal, harmonious state between humankind and nature, caused by moral depravity and greed.

Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire: The Consummation of Empire, oil on canvas, 51 x 76 inches, 1836

Cole’s ambitions to create an art in celebration of the American landscape became part of a wider nation-building project, which was ultimately at odds with the artist’s personal views about nature and progress.  At the heart of his essay is, above all, a love of the natural scenery of his adopted country, which he believed should be appreciated, first and foremost, for itself:

(American scenery) is a subject that to every American ought to be of surpassing interest; for… it is his own land; its beauty, its magnificence, its sublimity – all are his; and how undeserving of such a birthright, if he can turn towards it an unobserving eye, an unaffected heart!

Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire, oil on canvas, 39 1/2 x 63 1/2 inches, Destruction, 1836

It must be acknowledged that when he speaks of the birthright of his fellow Americans he was most likely thinking only of immigrants like himself – the rights of the indigenous people were overlooked by the majority of the European settlers.

The ideas in Cole’s essay inspired a generation of artists to create what they saw as a distinctly American school of painting that would record and celebrate the unique, but fast-disappearing, wilderness landscape of the New World; however, there would always be a potential conflict between the natural beauty they depicted and the nation they aspired to build.

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