In August of 1609, when Henry Hudson cleared the bar at Sandy Hook (all locations are assigned their present-day names), entered New York Harbor and made his way to the head of navigation at the falls above Albany, he was in search of the Northwest Passage, a portal to Asia. Simultaneously, Frenchman Samuel Champlain was pressing up the St. Lawrence River, past Quebec and Montreal, on a similar quest. The Northwest Passage was the holy grail of seventeenth-century navigation, analogous to the space race of the 1960s. The search was driven by the demand for beaver pelts after the supplies in Russia and Asia had been depleted by Europe’s insatiable demand for the widebrimmed hats prominent in the work of contemporary Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer.1 When Hudson discovered the broad estuary that came to bear his name, he did not demonstrate much interest in gathering samples of local flora and fauna, nor did he include an artist in their party to record the look of the terrain. He did, however, have his Boswell aboard the Half Moon, Robert Juet, whose journal title page summarizes their travels:
The Third Voyage of Master Henri Hudson toward Nova Zembla, and at his returne, his passing from Farre Ilands to New-found Land, and along to fortie foure degrees and ten minutes, and thence to Cape Cod, and so to thirtie three degrees; and along the Coast to the Northward, to fortie two degrees and a half, and up the River neere to fortie three degrees.2
His journal—first published in 1625—insured that “the River neere to fortie three degrees” would bear the name of his captain. It would take another two centuries for the mighty Hudson and its surrounds to make a serious appearance in the visual arts. A vignette engraved by Asher B. Durand in 1821 of the Half Moon sailing by the Palisades served as the logo for the New-York Historical Society’s first membership certificate, and soon after Durand and his friend Thomas Cole were painting the changing river panorama from Albany to New York City. The marriage between artists and the Hudson River was thus consummated, and it has been bearing fruit ever since.
The year 2009 is a momentous one: the 400th anniversary of the historic expeditions of both Hudson and Champlain, and the 200th anniversary of “the first application of steam to navigation upon that River by Robert Fulton in 1807.”3 Among the organizations celebrating the Hudson-Fulton-Champlain Quadricentennial, or NY400,4 the New-York Historical Society marked the occasion by expanding its efforts to share its great collection of landscape pictures of the region. This includes the recent volume entitled The Hudson River School: Nature and the American Vision,5 in which Linda S. Ferber provides an overview of the N-YHS’s landscape holdings, aimed at general readers and specialists alike. It is thematically based on the organization of the installation at the N-YHS in Spring 2005, entitled “Nature and the American Vision,” but expanded to encompass about 125 paintings rather than the sixty or so hung in Dexter Hall. Another book, The Hudson River to Niagara Falls: 19th-Century American Landscape Paintings from the New-York Historical Society 6 is the result of a collaboration between the N-YHS and SUNY-New Paltz’s Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art. First proposed by Neil Trager, founding director (recently retired) of SDMA, the exhibition was conceived by Ferber to celebrate simultaneously the scenery of New York State appropriate to NY400 and the breadth of the N-YHS holdings. There is some overlap between the two books, which nicely complement one another.
Both volumes present masterful discussions of individual pictures of the Hudson River and Niagara Falls, and explore relevant themes of travel and tourism. The Hudson River School: Nature and the American Vision goes further afield, with segments devoted to the N-YHS’s canvases of the American West, Italy and South America. In the spirit of Henry Hudson, however, it seems the time has come to move beyond these geographically specific categories that almost universally structure our studies of American art, from the Hudson River and the Catskills to the Arctic and the Andes. Hudson ascended our broad estuary with the expectation, as certain as Marco Polo’s, that he would arrive in Asia and open new trade routes. He and his Dutch sponsors possessed a sense of expansiveness and propriety over the entire globe that the painters who lived on the river 200 years later entirely shared. When Frederic Church gazed down on the Hudson from his Moorish-style villa, Olana, he conceived its waters as part of a continuum with those he had traveled on the Magdalena River in South America, in the Arctic seas and beyond. Similarly, Albert Bierstadt painted his grand panoramas of the American West in his spectacular studio in Irvington, New York, overlooking the Hudson. Mindful of the fact that the Hudson River-Lake Champlain corridor was and is a global center of transportation and commerce, I examine a handful of the N-YHS’s American landscapes to reveal other doors they open onto the fast-expanding world.
The beginnings of the Hudson River School are usually traced to the moment in the fall of 1825 when Durand, John Trumbull and William Dunlap encountered a landscape by Thomas Cole in a New York shop. A good seven years earlier, Louisa Davis Minot (1788–1858) painted an impressive pair of canvases of Niagara Falls.7 The Society’s two paintings (dated 1818) are the only works known to be ascribed to her hand, only recently identified by Joni Kinsey. Daughter of Daniel Davis, solicitor-general of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Louisa Davis married lawyer William Minot in 1810 and had five children.8 Where and how she acquired artistic training is yet uncertain, but these double canvases are so accomplished, it is impossible to believe they are her first and only works. She took on a subject, furthermore, that even in 1818 already had a long history of visual and verbal representation and produced original solutions, conveying the terror of being suspended in the gorge in close proximity to the roaring waters. There is clearly much work to be done scouting out the work of Minot and other female landscapists.
From the evidence before us, however, we can decisively link Minot to the global forces then reshaping the Western world. In July 1815, she wrote an essay entitled “Sketches of Scenery on the Niagara River,” based on her travels in the area, where she made studies for the canvases she painted three years later. Her verbal responses to the cataracts read like something out of the writings of Saint Teresa of Ávila, full of trembling and almost orgiastic excitement in the face of the sublimity of nature. “The roar deepened,” she wrote, “the rock shook over my head, the earth trembled…. It was some time before I could command my pencil.” 9 She must have been a woman of an original cast of mind, who wrote poetry, painted landscapes and was clearly familiar with the aesthetic theory of the sublime espoused by British theorist Edmund Burke. What distinguishes her response from those of most of her contemporaries is that she visited the region in the immediate aftermath of the War of 1812, and told of the devastation it wrought on the Niagara region. She surveyed the area not as a mere tourist, interested in being thrilled by a site of natural wonder. Rather she was mindful of it as an historic battlefield and comments knowledgeably on the struggle over the terrain by the British, French, Indians and Americans. Tapping into a tradition that adopted stormy seas, volcanic eruptions and crashing waterfalls as metaphors for war and destruction, she depicted the Canadian and American Falls as object of and symbol for international warfare, and conveyed her comprehension of the American continent linked to the global arena.
Frederic Church (1826–1900), too, depicted Niagara Falls and trafficked in the landscape icons of the sublime. Similarly, he came from an established New England family and subscribed to the practice of recording his responses to new places in text as well as image. But unlike Minot, who was lost in obscurity, Church rose to international prominence as a blockbuster artist. For about ten years from 1855 to 1865, he had his finger on the popular pulse of the nation, and created a series of canvases that articulated a newly formed national identity. Cole’s sole pupil, Church adopted his teacher’s philosophy and methods to more far-flung subjects, the Arctic, the Near East and, especially, Andean South America.
In the years 1844–46, the fledgling landscapist Church was sketching in the Catskills with Cole, who nurtured his appreciation of unspoiled nature and the distinctive scenery of America. This schooling in turn fostered receptivity to the German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt’s tropical landscape aesthetics. Reading Humboldt’s words in the English translation of Volume 2 of Cosmos (1850), still in his library at Olana, Church must have felt he was writing directly to him: “Are we not justified in hoping that landscape painting will flourish with a new and hitherto unknown brilliancy when artists of merit shall more frequently pass the narrow limits of the Mediterranean, and when they are enabled, far in the interior of continents, in the humid mountain valleys of the tropical world, to seize with the genuine freshness of a pure and youthful spirit, on the true image of the varied forms of nature?”10 In 1853 and again in 1857, Church made trips to present-day Colombia and Ecuador, where he followed directly in the naturalist’s footsteps.
The two-by-three-foot canvas Cayambe (1858) epitomizes Church’s grasp of Humboldt’s worldview. This mountain peak straddles the equatorial line, a natural marker in its own right. At its base the artist painted a small ruin that symbolizes the pre-Columbian civilizations, which inhabited the Andes long before Europeans ever set foot there, and unites the multiple strands of the picture’s global agenda. First, it references Humboldt, who in his illustrated atlas Vues des Cordilleras interspersed landscape views with ancient artifacts, thereby visually associating environments with the civilizations they foster. Second, it connects to the picture’s owner, Robert L. Stuart, who was first President of the American Museum of Natural History, a major collector of American art and owner of sugar refineries with trade interests in Latin America. Third, it points to the artist himself, who stood on this very spot to sketch the scene, and later collected Aztec reliefs which he bequeathed to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the hope of promoting awareness of American antiquities. Cayambe embodies a trans-American identity, “painted to order” for a patron of hemispheric business interests.11
Stuart also owned Jasper F. Cropsey’s (1823–1900) Greenwood Lake, New Jersey (1871), depicting a site near Warwick, New York, where at the height of his career in the 1860s he built Aladdin, a large house and studio. It conveys a tranquil scene, meant to provide the tired businessman with a moment’s restful meditation on nature after a hectic day in the urban marketplace. This city/country dichotomy was significant for painter as well as patron, for Cropsey first visited there when he was still an architect working in New York. There he fell in love not only with the scenery but also with Maria Cooley, whose family home was at the southwest corner of the lake. To reach there, he went by steamboat from New York to Piermont, Erie Railroad to Sloatsburg, and then wagon to Greenwood Lake,12 a journey that suggests movement back in time, from the current travel technologies to the traditional. His experiences point to another dimension of globalism central to the growth of landscape painting: the growth of transportation and tourism. As Cole was securing the foundations of the Hudson River School in the 1840s, the entire nation was on the move; Francis Parkman’s Oregon Trail (serialized 1847–49) is a paradigm of that development. The railroad promoted travel and tourism in the open space of the West at the same time that it was developing the suburbs around eastern cities. Like his fellow artists, Cropsey’s career was facilitated not only by local trains and ferry service up and down the Hudson, but also by improved steamship lines that made possible his bi-national career. He lived in London 1856–63 and made a name for himself as the “American painter of autumn” by dazzling the British public, including Queen Victoria herself, with his dramatic chromatic handling of foliage. The giant leaps in transportation technology facilitated global exchange, in which artists were active participants.
Asher B. Durand (1796–1886) might at first appear the exception to these associations between the native school of landscape and globalism. Of all his contemporaries (even the handicapped Fitz Hugh Lane), Durand probably stayed closest to home. Following his European Grand Tour of 1840–41, he never crossed the Atlantic again; with his base of operations established in the New York-New Jersey area, the Adirondacks marked the furthest point of his treks. Perhaps this disinclination to physical travel was partly generational, for he was an elder statesman of American art with one foot in the eighteenth century. As the principal repository for Durand’s work, the N-YHS offers a full spectrum of his life’s work against which we can analyze this issue.
Before Durand ever picked up a paintbrush, he was a successful engraver whose fortunes were tied to the rise of the Empire City with the construction of the Erie Canal. Durand himself engraved the city’s elegant invitation to the opening of the canal on November 4, 1825.13 By the mid-1830s, he had begun to concentrate on landscape painting, and after his European travels intensified those efforts. With Cole’s death in 1848, Durand assumed the mantle of Dean of the Hudson River School. Following in the footsteps of his mentor, the following year he purchased real estate along the river in Newburgh. Beacon Hills on the Hudson River, opposite Newburgh, Painted on the Spot (c. 1852) may be a view from his property looking over to Fishkill Landing, complete with a happy family frolicking in the foreground. The following year, he painted the programmatic Progress (The Advance of Civilization), which shows the vestiges of untouched nature on the left contrasted with the signs of industrialization— railroad lines, telegraph poles and steamboats—prominent at right. This large (approximately 48-by-72-inch) picture speaks to the artist’s knowledge of the affairs of the world, of the movement of goods and people from the United States and around the globe, all in the name of national advancement. Thereafter, he chose rarely to admit these elements into his work.
Throughout the 1850s, the woodlands became his laboratory, where he executed an array of closely observed studies of trees and rocks that constitute his most original contribution to American art. Constable’s sketches, which he had seen in London a decade earlier, have their echoes here, in their sense of scenery happened upon, but executed with the most sophisticated knowledge of paint.14 In pictures of the 1860s and 1870s, Durand combines these closely observed foreground motifs with atmospheric vistas and distant mountains, reminiscences of Claudian compositions absorbed in Rome when, as his son declared, he had “Claude on the brain.” For Durand, then, global exchange occurred on canvas, a synthesis of American empiricism and European aesthetics.
Through the many changes Durand witnessed over his long life (he lived to be 90), his love of nature never wavered. Gazing at Adirondack Mountains, N.Y. (c. 1870), a work of his mature career, we cannot help but wonder if this were his answer to the changes wrought by international commerce and technology. This stretch of pristine Adirondack scenery expresses the now-familiar admonition to visitors to the region to keep it “forever wild” and anticipates the conservation movement.
1. For an insightful discussion of the painter in the context of world trade, see Timothy Brook, Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World (New York and London: Bloomsbury Press, 2007).
2. Robert Juet, The Voyage of the Half Moon from 4 April to 7 November 1609 (original publication 1625; rpt. Newark, N.J.: The New Jersey Historical Society, 1959), p. 1. Nova Zembla is made up of two islands in the Arctic Ocean belonging to Russia.
3. Quoted from The Fourth Annual Report on the Hudson-Fulton Celebration Commission to the Legislature of the State of New York, May 22, 1910. Because the Hudson-Fulton Celebration took place in 1909, it is sometimes assumed that he sailed in 1809, which is not the case, nor was his ship originally called the Clermont.
4. http://exploreny400.com/Home.aspx is the official website of these events.
5. Linda S. Ferber, The Hudson River School: Nature and the American Vision (New York: Skira Rizzoli, 2009).
6. The Hudson River to Niagara Falls: 19th-Century American Landscape Paintings from the New-York Historical Society, Essays by Linda S. Ferber and Kerry Dean Carso (New Paltz, New York: Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art, 2009).
7. Ferber, p. 123.
8. Papers of William Minot, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, Massachusetts.
9. [Minot, Louisa Davis], “Sketches of Scenery on Niagara River,” North American Review 2 (March 1816); pp. 320–29; quote, pp. 324–25.
10. Alexander von Humboldt, Cosmos, trans. E.C. Otté (New York: Harper & Bros., 1850), Vol. 2, p. 93. Copy Olana.
11. Katherine Manthorne, Tropical Renaissance: North American Artists Exploring Latin America, 1839–1879 (Washington, D.C. and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989), pp. 101–03.
12. My thanks to Kenneth Maddox for sharing his extensive knowledge of Cropsey.
13. Ferber, p. 28.
14. For his Studies from Nature, see Ferber, pp. 86, 87, 88, 89, 91, 92.