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The Hudson River School (1845-1865)

The Hudson River School consisted of a group of American landscape painters of the mid-19th century who took a romantic approach to depicting the Hudson River Valley, the Catskills, Berkshires, Adirondacks, and the White Mountains, as well as lands further west. Thomas Cole, Albert Bierstadt, and Frederic Edwin Church were part of the Hudson River School.

By the 1820s, there was increasing interest in America’s landscape, particularly around New England and along the Hudson River. The land had been cleared, boundaries expanded, and the population had increased. A major thrust westward was taking place. Because Americans traveled abroad more freely, and Europeans came to America in greater numbers, artists’ skills and philosophical beliefs became more sophisticated. Many of the artists were friends of the leading literary figures of the time (John Ruskin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper.) These relationships were reflected in the artists’ work, which included literary and historical references. Painters and writers celebrated the newly discovered beauty and grandeur in realistic and romantic terms while retaining their democratic American ideals. The artists felt a national pride in the unspoiled terrain, and wanted to instill a sense that everyone, including man and beast, all existed in harmony with nature. They shared this transcendental philosophy and found tremendous meaning in its message – that art could be the agent of moral and spiritual transformation, that wilderness scenes gave evidence of the hand of God at work in America.

Another dimension beyond man in harmony with nature also existed at this time. This was the Romantic notion that the immensity and boundlessness of nature evoked a response of ‘delightful horror’ in people so that they responded to the great magnitude and perhaps danger of the wilderness. American nature was reflective of America’s size, strength, cultural, economic and materialistic potential, evoking our most powerful emotions and inspiring awe, terror and delight in the seemingly boundless country that lay beyond the safety of settlement.

Jasper Cropsey studied architecture and watercolor painting before turning to oils. Cropsey settled in London in 1856 and participated actively in the British art world, earning distinction for his unusual fall landscapes. By the mid-19th century, landscape painting was like a national religious symbol. The artist who began this process was Thomas Cole (1801-1848), a transplanted Englishman who is often called the father of the Hudson River School. Best known for his allegorical paintings, he painted many White Mountain scenes, as well as scenes of the Catskills, Adirondacks and the Coast of Maine. He painted landscapes and pastoral images at the request of his wealthy clients and patrons. In all of his paintings he follows the romantic tradition of depicting nature in its untamed, natural state. Cropsey greatly admired Cole’s dramatic use of the American landscape, but preferred a more precise recording of nature.

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Frederic Edwin Church, South American Landscape, 1856
Frederic Edwin Church, South American Landscape, 1856
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