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Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Hudson River School

We are accustomed today of thinking of the "wild West" as buffalo, Indians, or perhaps, Buffalo Bill and the Indians. However there was a time when the wild west meant the Hudson River Valley and upstate New York.  The time was the early 1800s and the art that depicted this "wild West," or perhaps we should more accurately dub it, "wild East", has come to be known as the Hudson River School. And for those who know anything at all about early American landscape painting, the artist, Thomas Cole, is synonymous with this region.  To that name we could add his successor, Asher B. Durand or Jasper Francis Crospey as the century progress and the "wildness" began to wear a little thin in the valley.   
Mount Adams and the Peabody
River in Pinkham Notch, 1817,
Alvan Fisher

Although we know the Hudson River was discovered by a guy named Henry who thought it would be nice to have a river named after himself; in terms of art, the Hudson River was discovered by a man named Alvan Fisher who refrained from trying to change the name of the beautiful, broad waterway. Born in 1792, Fisher was a mere 24 years old when he began painting very naturalistic landscapes of the river and it's tributaries shortly after the end of the war of 1812. It was a lonely pursuit and it could hardly be said that he founded the Hudson River School, but his work did inspire others, principally the Philadelphia artist, Thomas Doughty who did make something of an impact upon American landscape genre of the time.   

The Last of the Mohicans, 1826, Thomas Cole
After some early success however, Doughty turned more and more to fantasy landscapes, creating dreamy, romantic visions of the scenic vistas, often marked by towering European castles poised on high cliffs.  Alas, his work was a bit too poetic for the Yankee art mentality of the time. It seems that nature lost its reality when it vaulted to such lofty heights. And by then of course, Thomas Cole was dogging his tracks with the kind of wilderness landscape manifestations the country yearned for. His 1826 painting, The Last of the Mohicans, inspired by James Fenimore Cooper's novel, was both a soaring landscape and a dramatic visual recounting of the story of the white woman, Cora, brought before the ancient Chief Tamenund and forced to choose between the wigwam or the knife.  Strangely enough, Cole, educated in the Grand Manner of English art, always considered landscape painting a "low art" and history painting to be the highest art to which a painter could aspire.  However, unlike Doughty, he had the good sense not to try and combine the two. Instead, in 1829, he abandoned the Hudson River and spent the next three years studying in Europe where is The Course of Empire series evolved.          

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