American Landscape Painting: Hudson River School

I think that landscape paintings are really underrated. People don’t as much enough credit to landscape paintings and landscape painters as they deserve. I personally love landscape paintings. I think that good ones do a great job portraying the grandeur of nature and really show the love and respect that the artist has for that particular landscape. I have already written a blog post on Dutch landscape painting in the seventeenth century. So this post is about American landscape painting, namely the Hudson River School in the nineteenth century.

The Hudson River School was so named because most of the artists drew inspiration from and painted the uncultivated Hudson River Valley of the state of the New York. However, these artists also painted landscapes from all around the United States. Like previous landscape artists from different countries, the Hudson River School painters depicted the vastness and romanticism in the American landscapes. They also explored the personal relationship between an individual and nature and the qualities that set the American landscape apart from the rest.

Another subject that was frequently addressed was the moral question of America’s direction as a civilization. This subject surfaced in Thomas Cole’s (1801-1848) The Oxbow (View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm).

Thomas Cole, The Oxbow (View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm), 1836

In this painting, Cole depicts America’s vast wilderness. The scene is split into two. On the left, there is a gloomy thunderstorm passing while the right side is more civil and tranquil. The artist depicted himself in the bottom center, wearing a top hat. He faces the viewer as if to personally ask the viewer about America’s future direction.

Here’s a zoomed-in view of the artist in the painting…

Other Hudson River School painters used their works to address other topics, such as Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) in his painting, Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California.

Albert Bierstadt, Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California, 1868

In 1858, Bierstadt traveled west in the United States and painted scenes of very dramatic landscapes, such as Among the Sierra Nevada, California. This painting itself is huge (it is over ten feet wide!) and is a breathtaking panoramic view of the mountains. There are deer and waterfowl by the calm and peaceful lake. To add to that magical and spiritual feeling, the sun rises among the clouds and mountains and glows warmly. I think that the scenery that Bierstadt painted embodies the vastness and beauty of nature.

It’s not a coincidence that Bierstadt chose to paint a scene of the American West. By doing so, he is supporting the idea of the Manifest Destiny, which justifies American expansion to the West. These paintings of the West’s splendor were meant to calm worries about the realities of the West, such as the displacement of Native Americans and the exploitation and destruction of the environment. Unsurprisingly, those who were most eager to purchase Bierstadt’s works were people like railroad builders, who were very involved in encouraging westward expansion.

Another very famous artist who is usually associated with the Hudson River School is Frederic Church (1826-1900). Although he also painted landscape paintings, what sets him apart from the other Hudson River School artists is that he would often travel abroad to paint landscapes outside of the United States as well. For instance, he traveled to and painted places such as Europe, Mexico, the Middle East, and Newfoundland and Labrador in Canada. One of his paintings of the American landscape is Twilight in the Wilderness.

Frederic Church, Twilight in the Wilderness, 1860s

Like the other landscape painters, Church paints a panoramic view depicting nature’s beauty and majesty. I particularly love his blend of colors, so beautiful and so dramatic. In this sense, in Church’s depiction of the sublime, his painting and style is done very much in the Romantic style.

I think that it’s also important to note what these Hudson River School painters did not depict in their works. These artists produced many works during the 1860s (such as Bierstadt’s Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California and Church’s Twilight in the Wilderness), when the United States was right in the midst of the Civil War. Yet, none of them displayed turbulence or disaccord in their paintings. They all chose to focus on the beauty, serenity, and awesomeness of nature. And by painting such idealistic and comforting landscapes of nature, these artists played a huge role in constructing such a picture in the minds of many Americans.

In spite of the ulterior motives and messages of these painters, I still really love the landscape paintings of the Hudson River School. I think that it’s easy for anyone to understand or relate to painting that depict human figures but someone who is able to appreciate and embrace landscape paintings really has a true understanding of art and art history.

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