Distant Vistas and Closer Looks: “The Poetry of Nature: Hudson River School Landscapes from the New-York Historical Society” at Taft Museum of Art, October 5, 2019-January 12, 2020

October 26th, 2019  |  Published in *, October 2019  |  1 Comment

I grew up in New York, and so the Hudson River was the river of my childhood. As a child, I thought of it starting in New York City rather than ending there, and then it went, straight and broad, some 300 miles north into the mysterious territory those from the city called “upstate.” It was a beautiful river, bordered by roads that allowed you to admire it, and hemmed in by beautiful highlands. It set my standard for rivers: it was never brown, never in a rush, and never, apparently passed a city. When I moved to Ohio, I discovered a different river. The Ohio was less spectacular in every way. It was hardly ever anything but brown; it passed cities large and small which drew their water from it and gave their wastewater back. But it was three times as long as the Hudson and, above all, it went somewhere, from the western edge of the east to the heart of the Midwest, where it met up with an even more remarkable river, which was some seven times the length of the Hudson. And the Mississippi really went somewhere.

 

But the Hudson was the first river that Americans were drawn to paint, when there was still plenty of wilderness east of the Alleghenies, and the artwork that accrued around it was the easterners’ first draft of what America looked like from the perspective of Nature. The exhibit at the Taft from the New-York Historical Society focuses on some of the guiding ideas that could be thought of as loosely holding together a group of artists with considerably diverse types of talents, and offers us a glimpse of some of the socio-economic developments that gave their works their shape.

It is probably fair to say that Hudson River landscape painting kept pace with the growing prosperity of New York City. In the first decades of the 19th century, artists began to explore the countryside north of New York City and produce works designed to encourage more people to do the same. The exhibit tells an interesting story about how illustrated books provided the content, design, and above all the vision of some of the earliest paintings, connected to the bringing of civilization to the Hudson Valley wilderness—farming, settlements, boat traffic, and railroads. It is hard to separate these works from their motivations in encouraging city denizens to explore, appreciate, and invest. John V. Cornell’s “View of the Hudson Highlands from Ruggles House, Newburgh” (1838) is a close copy of an earlier print showing the river as seen from the porch of an early railroad promoter. “Moving America”—by river, road, or canal—is a subtext of some of the earliest artwork in the show. The wilderness stands in contrast to the steadily growing city that loomed at river’s end, where such work could be seen, shown, and sold.

It is interesting to see what paintings of the Hudson River terrain looked like before the extraordinary influence of Thomas Cole and Asher B. Durand shaped for generations the conventions of the east coast landscape tradition. William Guy Wall, who provided the paintings that became the Hudson River Portfolio (which was published from 1821to 1825), has a painting called “American Mountain Scenery” (1836), which seems to be as much in debt to European painting models as it is to actual American topography. As the exhibit proceeds, it becomes clear that Hudson River School paintings tend to be divided between those that are broadly suggestive of a locale, frequently idealizing it, and those that are meticulously faithful in their representation of specific places. In the background of Wall’s “Scenery,” relatively steep slopes have been cleared for farming. In the foreground, by a stream under the shadow of some trees, two men are looking for the perfect place to fish. In the distance, then, is the world of work; in the foreground, men can escape to a world of leisure. We see some of the same dynamic in a far better painting, Frederic Church’s “Home by the Lake” (1852). In the background, some kind of agricultural work is centered around a house that could use a fresh coat of paint; in the foreground, a man is rowing a boat while a woman leans over side to admire and probably gather up water lilies. Some will work in Nature, and some will get pleasure from it. The balance between these two impulses would become an axis around which American landscape painting would turn for the rest of the century (and beyond). Between the appeal of agriculture and the appeal of the sightseer, the early years of Hudson River art have about it something in common with a promotional brochure.

Thomas Cole, “Mountain Scenery”, about 1827, oil on canvas, 22 x 17 in. New-York Historical Society, The Robert L. Stuart Collection, the gift of his widow Mrs. Mary Stuart, S-230

All that changes with Thomas Cole, who helped American painting find a new direction in the first third of the 19th century. Unabashedly a romanticist, he saw both an aesthetic and a spiritual value to the American landscape, writing—as a wall tag tells us—that only the Swiss Alps and the White Mountains enabled the artist to experience “the sublime melting into the beautiful, the savage tempered by the magnificent.” Using the central terms of 18th century aesthetics, he took the commercial out of the equation. His “Mountain Landscape” (c. 1827) is far from his greatest work (though visitors to the Taft five years ago had the chance to see some of his most significant paintings in the loan exhibit from the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute, which included his major series “The Voyage of Life”). “Mountain Landscape” is an odd piece, looking in fact nothing at all like an Adirondack landscape—indeed, barely looking Swiss. There is an unlikely waterfall in the background and a large plateau which is dramatically lit like a stage awaiting a play, suggesting the theatricality of the human connection to nature. The tops of mountains extend high above the clouds; in fact, the clouds and the mountaintops are hard to distinguish from each other, which suggests the ways that materiality and the immaterial seem to blend. This is an essential part of the spirit of Nature that Cole brought to bear on American landscape art.

Insofar as the exhibit can be said to shed light on its title, “The Poetry of America,” the poet that these painters had in mind was William Cullen Bryant–rather than, say, the Emerson of “Nature” or the revolutionary work of Whitman, whose Song of Myself was first published almost exactly mid-century. The Hudson River School artists might be called “Bryant’s Boys.” Paintings such as Durand’s “Primeval Forest” were exhibited alongside Bryant’s words, and they took to heart his imprecation: “list/To Nature’s teachings.” It is less clear just what Nature was supposed to have taught. It seemed to be, in part, a rejection of human ego and the accompanying self-satisfied conviction that humans were the measure of all things. As the wall tags make clear, artist after artist walked away from portrait painting once they had experienced what Sanford Gifford tellingly called “the absolute freedom of the landscape artist’s life.” Landscape enabled the artists to turn the hierarchy of genres—which would normally have favored the portrait over the landscape—upside down. “Absolute freedom” is such a strong term, though. It seemed to suggest taking in Nature in an unmediated way; like many forms of American Protestantism, there was no need for an intercessor. As Durand argued, the “direct imitation” of Nature itself was the young artist’s best teacher. Sketch directly from Nature, Durand advised; only then is it safe and appropriate to copy from the masters, turning the traditional curriculum for artists’ education on its head. It will remain to be seen, however, if the “absolute freedom of the landscape artist’s life” might also have something to do with escape from the city and with it, possibly, domesticity; in conquering the rugged landscape with canvases and painting supplies, there is already some sort of gender exclusivity implied.

The access to the spiritual in Nature may be connected to the subset of Hudson River paintings called (these days) “luminism.” The paintings of the luminists are rich in atmosphere and veils of color (which has led to the argument that they are a distinctively American component in the development of mid-20th century abstraction); to the luminists, it’s always fall and always sunset. There is clearly a tangible world out there, but we see it through a glowing curtain of light, reducing the weight of its materiality. Jasper Francis Cropsey’s “Greenwood Lake” (1871) is perhaps the exhibit’s best luminist work, where tiny figures wait in the foreground for a rowboat (of a friend? a ferry service?) so they can cross over the placid water to a distant house. Sunset is turning everything pale orange, and there are signs—if distant ones—of civilization everywhere, including a tiny steamboat plying the waters. But tone is everything, the lens through which we see the diminished tangibility of human industry.

The Taft show makes the argument that the interests and even the accomplishments of the Hudson River School of painting can be linked to its other founding father (besides Thomas Cole), Asher B. Durand. It is a thoughtful and subtle argument, one that can be explored in depth and leisure as about a quarter of the exhibit’s 40-odd paintings are by Durand. It’s a striking and even daring amount of work to display by one painter, especially considering that, unlike pictures by Cole, there is very little drama in Durand’s work, very little that is flashy or splashy, little sense that he has been hunting out the most extravagant and picturesque scenes to paint, and no sense that he is driven by an interest in representing them in vivid colors. So what is the case to be made for the centrality of Durand?

In part, Durand was a teacher, sometimes implicitly and sometimes explicitly. (He even had one documented female student, Mary Josephine Walters, whose work is represented in the show.) There are accounts of Durand traveling through the woods with as many as nine other painters. This is an interesting level of invisible sociability in the portrayals of the unpeopled wilderness; though they leave no signs of themselves behind, it’s hard to forget that some twenty eyes are focused on each isolated scene that got painted. Durand was an artist who insisted a crucial portion of the act of painting took place outdoors. There is a curious and important interplay between Durand’s outdoor work and his studio work. He sketched with his paints in the forest, and strongly encouraged anyone who wanted to follow him to do the same. We know that he exhibited and sold these sketches, so they were not merely part of his personal process. Then, back in his studio, he would assemble more complex scenes out of his sketches, and executed larger works, put together from studies both related and unrelated to each other, which he also exhibited and sold.

He told his students to “aim at direct imitation, as far as possible, in your studies of foreground objects…such as rocks and tree trunks, and after these, earth banks and the coarser kinds of grass,” seeking to achieve in the plants, for example, “botanical truthfulness.” This places him towards an extreme end of a certain type of realism. No detail in nature was too small to be overlooked, and no effort at specificity was a waste of time, with an interesting caveat: this applied to the “foreground objects.” The exact  capturing of the background, the distance, the overall setting, was less crucial. As a result, in Durand’s larger and more ostensibly finished works, sublimity could be added in at will, and the larger topography was more likely to be generalized. Consequently, his sketches are brilliant studies of actual details whose particular place could never be recovered, while his finished works were likely to be more governed by a predetermined sense of what landscapes might look like, or ought to look like. They are pictures of, as their titles tell us, a “Woodland Brook,” or the “Primeval Forest.”

Asher B. Durand, “Study from Nature: Trees, Newburgh” (1849)

To me, these outdoor sketches were the treasures of the show, despite their small size and sometimes unfinished nature. “Study from Nature: Trees, Newburgh” (1849) shows a small assemblage of trees on a small notch on the horizon. The central tree has a slight, elegant, serpentine curve to it. The one next to it is both richly green and yet also dying back. We can see traces of a pencil sketch beneath the paint, but as he told his students, it was crucial to Durand’s understanding of painting in Nature to commit yourself in oils to line, shape, and color while you were in the presence of the things being painted. Durand captures both the cooler green of the trees on the left and the warmer greens of the trees on the right; his studio composites tend to be more planned out and “harmonious,” which in practice tends to mean that they are less varied.

“Study from Nature: Rocks and Trees” (1856) could be a textbook example of what Durand meant when he told his students to be relentlessly specific about “foreground objects,” despite their unassuming nature. Not even the weeds are generalized. In these oil sketches, Durand is anti-topographical—the pictures could never be taken for souvenirs of famous sites—and even anti-picturesque, which usually arranges landscape compositions into strikingly distinct zones of foreground, middle ground, and the grand vistas of the background. The picturesque can be seen as a set of compositional strategies to manage and contextualize distance; these sketches have no distance to manage. In place of the formal organization of the picturesque, Durand organizes his pictures according to contrasts–visual, natural, and psychological. There are the silvery wet rocks and the fluttering yellow leaves, the beds of ferns versus broadleaf overgrowth, tracks into the woods that are inviting and those that are blocked off and forbidding.

Asher B. Durand, “Primeval Forest” (1854)

Compositionally, he was drawn to arches. Durand’s imposing monotone cartoon for a lost painting called “Primeval Forest” (1854) sees Nature allied to what Bryant called “God’s first temples.” Like most of the earliest temples, this temple is in ruins, with fallen limbs and broken trunks and rows of columns fading into the distance; Nature itself had to satisfy the early American painters’ appetites for ruins until they could visit Italy. Durand’s vision of Nature was non-regimented; no two trees are ever at the same angle. (By contrast, “Lake George and the Village of Caldwell” [c. 1843-60] by self-taught painter Thomas Chambers is wildly delightful but exactly the opposite of Durand’s work: trees and clouds are in delicious, repetitious, sensual rows.) Durand’s epic cartoon may well be the star of this show, but it is also a sign of the distinctions between his wilderness sketches and his studio pictures. When we hold his outdoor work up against a completed studio piece like “Woodland Brook” (1859), for example, we can see how much more tame the latter is. Durand’s late-career “Adirondack Mountains” (c. 1870) is lovely, but is very much in line with the conventional picturesque. With the exception of a foreground tree to anchor us, it is almost entirely about the masses and masses of trees in the shimmering, hazy distance. Where did the attention to the individualized, highly differentiated elements of Nature go?

William Trost Richards, “June Woods (Germantown)”, 1864, oil on linen, 36 x 29 in. New-York Historical Society, The Robert L. Stuart Collection, the gift of his widow Mrs. Mary Stuart, S-127

The exhibit suggests—and it does so in a touching way—that the Durand moment was a fleeting thing. Perhaps so much attention to detail is itself unsustainable. William Trost Richards’s beautiful “June Woods (Germantown)” (1864) was painted, a wall tag tells us, during the brief period when the artist dedicated himself to a Ruskin-inspired obsession with accuracy in the representation of everything. From the foreground all the way down a winding path into the distance, the bark on every tree is distinctive, and virtually each leaf is as individualized as were the foregrounds in Durand’s plein-air sketches. The result is unsettling; it is as if the painting both had visual perspective (from its overall design) and ignored it at the same time due to its refusal to acknowledge how space changes our perceptions. Writ large enough, Durand’s sort of realism starts to seem distorted and hallucinogenically unreal.

Jervis McEntee, “Over the Hills and Far Away” (1878)

Tastes were changing, too. Jervis McEntee, who is extremely well-represented in the Taft show by a single terrific painting unpromisingly titled “Over the Hills and Far Away” (1878), shows how a more modern attention to painterliness will change forever the Hudson River painter’s relationship to his material, his audience, and his traditions. Where the classic Hudson River picture was linear to a fault, with a brush stroke to every thing and a thing from every brush stroke, McEntee looks more like George Inness (an odd absence in a show like this, as was Winslow Homer who in part made his reputation from Adirondack paintings) in the ways that daubs of paint create the illusion of objects in space. Though the wall tags tell us that McEntee felt that he too was in conversation with Bryant’s ideas about Nature, he was clearly seeing a different Nature in Bryant than Durand did, though they are only a generation or so apart. Unlike Durand, McEntee virtually dispenses with the foreground altogether, aside from fallen leaves in the process of getting swallowed up by marshland. If everything in Durand is about acquiring and preserving form, in the McEntee piece, everything is on the verge of losing form. His work is more closely related to the luminists, though the veils of light are mostly grey; he does not fetishize the spectacle of sunset.

Martin Johnson Heade, “Storm Cloud over the Marsh” (1871-75)

Martin Johnson Heade has perpetually been either privileged or condemned to be a category by himself. It’s possible to see his remarkable “Storm Cloud over the Marsh” (1871-75) as a continuation of the concerns of the Hudson River painters or their logical end. Humans are at work in his landscape, though they work as a team, tiny figures that are both compositionally in the center of the canvas but in the deep background of the picture. There is nothing heroic about what they are doing; Nature here has been committed to being farmed for some time. There is no sign of wilderness, though the wildness of Nature makes its entrance by the perverseness and complexity of the weather. It is both a sunny afternoon and yet also a stormy one; there are lines of puffy white clouds and a band of deeply ominous dark grey ones. The world is bright and also eerily dark. Heade, who might be art history’s second most interesting painter of haystacks, uses their shapes to break up the flatness of the marsh. He places them following a rigid, if obscure, math; on a close look, you can see where one stack has been painted out. As the wall tags note, Durand made his fame in part by the verticality of his landscapes; Heade, on the other hand, took the horizontality of the standard landscape format and exaggerated it. Like so many paintings that benefit from a careful and unhurried look, you can see the narrow green and brown bands of paint out of which Heade created his flat marshland. But the harder we look at the illusion-creating world of paint rather than the startling realism of natural objects, the more we can appreciate the distance we’ve come from Durand.

We can tell in part that the Hudson River moment was dissipating almost as quickly as it was bring created. It is interesting that Jasper Francis Cropsey called the estate he built for himself “Aladdin,” and Frederic Church’s magnificent castle was called “Olana,” a Persian word: both suggest that they are feeling themselves exotic, rather than local and native. The economics of the Catskills and Adirondacks are changing as well: by the 1870s, it can no longer the same sort of trek into the wilderness to sketch and paint if there are more than 200 hotels for the traveler and artist to choose among. There is an insatiable appetite for progress, and it is fed and fueled by the cities. The Hudson River painters gave short shrift to Albany, though around 1850, it was the tenth largest city in the nation. But they can’t wholly overlook New York. By 1851, the Hudson River Line railroad goes from Albany all the way down to the city, ending in what was called the High Line, a section of elevated track that is now Manhattan’s newest and most linear public park. The wall tag for Durand’s “View of the Shandaken Mountains” (1853) notes that the world we are seeing in this painting was soon to be flooded to create a reservoir to feed the needs and thirsts of New Yorkers.

If the show has a flaw, it is that it doesn’t give one much of a sense of what a remarkable place the New-York Historical Society was and is, founded in 1804 as the first museum in the entire city. Its functions, audiences, and collections have been through many transformations over its more than two centuries of life. And we see practically nothing of New York in this particular show, though a show of art about New York City would be easily put together from the Museum’s collections. But in Francis Silva’s “New York Harbor” (1880), the city makes something of a cameo appearance, though it is lurking and mostly unseen. There are no skylines or buildings to make out through the sunset, smoke, and haze. This is New York as it could have been seen—or rendered invisible– from its busy harbor at the end of a long day. We see the crowds of masts, sails, or hulls of some two dozen ships, and a steam-driven tug is coming straight at us. There is a hint of luminism, with the veils of color we associate with that movement put to use here in keeping the enormous economic powerhouse of the city obscured. The water is scenic but not necessarily all that clean. It is awaiting a very few short decades before it will become the muse for a new generation of artists, the artists of the Ash Can School or figures like George Bellows, who will paint a different river for different times. And that different river will not be predominantly a natural wonder, but a backdrop to a vivid, crowded social scene—a new, more diverse theatricality worth comparing to Thomas Cole’s much earlier one.

–Jonathan Kamholtz

Responses

  1. marlene steele says:

    November 4th, 2019at 1:21 pm(#)

    This essay illuminates with a digestable context the beautiful paintings in this exhibit of American landscape school. I enjoyed Jonathan’s thoughtful observations as he compared technical and philosophical elements differentiating the various featured artists. Well done!

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