Four hundred years ago, when Henry Hudson first saw the river that was named after him, I imagine he felt inspired by its beauty. The river not only captivated Hudson’s attention motivating him to take a look-see far up into its reaches, it has also inspired artists to capture its essence, literally and figuratively.
There are places along the Hudson River’s shores where you can imagine painters who developed The Hudson River School sitting with their canvas creating their masterpieces. Unlike how it sounds, The Hudson River School is not a place at all, but an art movement that occurred during the 19th century, and the first to be deemed American.
With the festivities happening in the towns and cities along the Hudson this year to celebrate it’s discovery, it seems fitting to give a nod to these artists who were inspired by the Hudson’s beauty and used its images as a metaphor to express ideas about what the United States represents. What are the themes? Discovery, exploration and settlement. Head west, and you’ll see these themes over and over again. These guys were onto something.
The scenes you see in the paintings, however, are not exactly as is. The artists took parts of scenery that they had sketched in their travels and put them together in such a way to make their point that nature, and people’s communion with it, are testaments to God’s glory. Communing with nature, therefore, is a way to experience God’s power.
The painting Kindred Spirits by Asher B. Durand is such an example. The two men in the painting are of the artist and Thomas Cole. You can read what the painting represented to Cole in this overview of The Hudson River School by Thomas Hampson.
As Hampson explains, such themes are also expressed in the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau who helped found Transcendentalism. To them, and to these artists, what better place to be a witness to the power of God and the human ability to feel and become empowered by it, than in the natural world found in the the American landscape?
Not only the Hudson River is depicted by Hudson River School artists, most notably Thomas Cole and Asher B. Durand, but so are the White Mountains in New Hampshire and other areas of the Catskills.
For a close look at one of the later Hudson River School painters who helped develop the art movement called Luminism that developed from the Hudson River School, visit Olana, Frederic Edwin Church’s home along the Hudson River not far from Hudson, New York.
Here, Church and his wife raised their family and created a home that is a visual masterpiece. When I visited Olana, I was intrigued by Church’s treatment of the landscape. He had certain trees cut down along the river banks near his home to create a certain look to the scenery and better highlight the Hudson River’s beauty.
Olana is merely one place to see Hudson River School artwork. Several museums have pieces in their collections.
- Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut
- Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
- New York Historical Society, New York City
- Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York
- National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
- Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, Michigan
- Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, Oklahoma
- Newark Museum, Newark, New Jersey
- Westervelt Warner Museum Tuscaloosa, Alabama
- Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio