The Hudson River School and the History of a Museum

by James F. Cooper

George Inness, Hackensack Meadows, Sunset, 1859, The New-York Historical Society, New York CityAfter a two-year tour, forty-five iconic nineteenth-century landscape paintings of the Hudson River School have returned home to the New-York Historical Society. The art has been showcased in a magnificent exhibition, "Nature and the American Vision: Masterpieces of the Hudson River School" (September 21, 2012–February 21, 2013), curated by Linda Ferber, Vice President and Senior Art Historian of the Society. Formerly chair of the Department of American Art at the Brooklyn Museum, Ferber has curated other important exhibitions, such as "Albert Bierstadt: Art & Enterprise" and "The World of Asher B. Durand: The Artist in Antebellum New York."

The New-York Historical Society was founded in 1804, and its early years coincided with the rise of the Hudson River School, the first significant indigenous American art movement. A recent $70 million renovation has transformed the museum’s interior: galleries have been refurbished, and a handsome new restaurant opens directly onto the street, facing Central Park. The museum’s vast holdings comprise more than a million and a half works. Ferber met a considerable challenge in organizing this relatively small gem of an exhibition.

Most of the works have been traveling around the country for the last two years—to the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas; the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts; the Columbia Museum of Art in Columbia, South Carolina; and the new Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. A few works were added to the core group for this exhibition, including newly conserved Studies from Nature: Rocks and Trees (1856) and other landscapes by Durand; Pool in the Catskills (c. 1870), by Mary Josephine Walters, a student of Durand’s; and Morning in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Virginia (c. 1858), a major work by William Sonntag. The exhibition has been divided into four thematic sections. The first covers scenes from the Catskill, Adirondack and White Mountain regions, emphasizing the artists’ travels as they explored for stunning views. Durand dominates this section with his studies of trees, rocks, waterfalls and streams.

The individual works are striking, but the installation, in a single large gallery on the second floor, is revelatory. It captures the soul of the culture the Hudson River School embodied, with powerful ideas about nature, culture and history, including the belief that a special providence was manifest in the continent’s sublime landscape. The dark crimson felt that covers the gallery walls provides a rich backdrop, historically appropriate to the nineteenth century, as well as aesthetically satisfying to the modern eye. The paintings smolder in the warm darkness, and colors burst into gold and orange flames. The aerial luminosity of the sky is palpable in George Inness’s Hackensack Meadows, Sunset (1859), depicting a serene American arcadia. While there are a host of works of this caliber, this is not a presentation of isolated masterpieces, but a unified ensemble.

Ferber’s artful selection honors the Hudson River School’s original mission. Ferber writes: "These vivid paintings, small in scale but striking in their conviction…were painted to convey the sensation of direct experience. The carefully observed details also embodied the artist’s belief that unmediated contemplation of unspoiled nature offered opportunities for spiritual reflection and renewal—what Durand called ‘lessons of high and holy meaning.’ "1 Durand articulated his methodology in his "Letters on Landscape Painting": "Nature in its purity was fraught with high and holy meaning, only surpassed by the light of Revelation."2

The exhibition offers a striking contrast to the staid, rather disappointing installation at the newly refurbished American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The New-York Historical Society galleries once had the appearance of a venerable warehouse, but the collection now looks alive. It conveys the passionate vision of nature sought by the original artists, reconfirmed in their journals and letters.

The story of the New-York Historical Society is intertwined with that of American art. It was founded by prominent citizens motivated to preserve the nation’s history through documents, books, artifacts and art. Among its founding members were the artist John Trumbull, who had served with Washington during the Revolutionary War, Durand and Samuel B. Morse. Luman Reed, a wealthy dry goods merchant, was one of its first great American patrons. Without his perception and support, one wonders whether the Hudson River School might have achieved its aesthetic and historical importance. Reed recognized early the talent and ambition of Thomas Cole and Durand. "This is a new era in the fine arts in this Country. … I must have the best pictures in this country," he wrote to artist William Sidney Mount in 1835. 3 Reed was no aesthete; he did not seek beauty alone. The formal aesthetics of Durand’s and Cole’s art are remarkable, but Reed was also searching for ideas and imagery that would match the vision of the Founders, the Constitution and the Great Awakening.

Albert Bierstadt, Donner Lake From the Summit, 1873, The New-York Historical Society, New York CityIn 1833, a young Cole described to Reed his plan for a series of paintings that would depict the rise and fall of a great civilization. Nothing like this had ever been attempted by an American. The work would concern not only nature and art, but the very essence of man and his place in the universe. Reed commissioned Cole to create The Course of Empire (1834–36). It was instantly recognized by his contemporaries for its uniqueness and intellectual rigor and even now, almost two hundred years later, is relevant and almost prophetic for our time. The Course of Empire is the centerpiece of this exhibition.

The precocious Cole was viewed as a brilliant landscape artist. He set a high bar for those influenced by him. Cole’s Sunset, View on the Catskill (1833) and Summer Twilight, a Recollection of a Scene in New England (1834) exemplify the delicacy and refinement of his early scenes of mountains and woods. They would be difficult to match, even by the most talented of the group of artists who joined him on his expeditions into the "wilderness" of the New York highlands above the Hudson River. One of the first to acknowledge Cole’s intellectual leadership was Durand, even though he was several years older and already known as a fine engraver. Durand sought out nature’s intimate qualities, rather than the large expansive scenes that attracted Frederic Church, John Frederick Kensett, Jasper Cropsey and Bierstadt. In Bierstadt’s Donner Lake from the Summit (1873), shadowed foreground rocks frame the vertigo-inducing heights, and sunlight transfigures the water below.

Sanford Robinson Gifford, Lake Maggiore, Italy, 1858, The New-York Historical Society, New York City

Durand’s vision is gentler. The Solitary Oak (1844), wrote one contemporary critic, "has a glow of sunlight, which is difficult to express. A veteran tree, standing alone upon a gentle eminence, stretching forth its great arms, that have withstood the storm of centuries. …"4 Durand’s plein-air studies have an intimacy drawn from the experience of close observation of nature. In his "Letters on Landscape Painting," he wrote: "You will be most successful in the more simple and solid materials, such as rocks and tree trunks…and coarser kinds of grass, with mingling roots and plants… ."5

Durand would immerse himself in the dense foliage of the forest with a sketch pad, pencil, Conté crayon or paint and organize a composition from the details he observed. In contrast to Church’s almost photo-realist details of large scenes (which are not included in this exhibition), Durand cautioned artists against trying to include highly detailed imitations of nature in large works. In his Shandaken Range, Kingston (1854), one can almost smell the fecundity of earth and foliage.

Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire The Consumation of Empire, 1836, The New-York Historical Society, New York CityUnlike English and Italian landscapes, New World scenery contained no architectural ruins to lend a sense of historical perspective. Ruins suffuse European paintings with melancholy and mystery. Later, when the Americans began to travel to Europe, they made many studies of architectural antiquities. Sanford Robinson Gifford’s Lake Maggiore, Italy (1858) shows a picturesque town on the far shore, bathed in golden light. Cropsey made several copies of his painting Temple of Neptune, Paestum. Durand made a beautiful graphite drawing of the same temple in 1841. Cropsey painted Landscape with Ruins (1854), a view of the crenellated towers of a ruined castle, during his honeymoon in Italy. Exceptionally attuned to the "language" of architecture, he was the only artist of the group who had begun as an architect. Heavily influenced by Cole, Cropsey eventually incorporated architectural ruins into his paintings. Embedded in an American landscape, the capriccio served as an iconic or decorative device, as in Cropsey’s Days of Elizabeth (1853) and The Spirit of Peace (1851).

Four of the five paintings in the European-born Cole’s The Course of Empire feature medieval or ancient ruins. Cole depicted the rise and fall of Western civilization by contrasting architectural periods, integrated into the American wilderness. The cycle functioned as a warning for the new republic not to be seduced by an ambition for empire building, lest it decline into decadence, like ancient Greece and Rome. American artists saw the New World as a second Garden of Eden.

Thomas Jefferson used architecture to express philosophical ideas. The Virginia State Capitol, the University of Virginia and other buildings designed by Jefferson were inspired by Roman buildings, such as the Pantheon and a temple to Isis constructed in Nîmes, France, during the golden age of Augustus. The Founders often compared themselves to the ancient Romans, but the idea of Eden also played a role in the national iconography. Almost every home was decorated with a reproduction of a Hudson River School landscape or scenes from the Bible. The Great Awakening had the effect of creating a sense of stability and purpose after the passing of all the Founders. A religious revival swept the nation, particularly in New York state and New England. One writer described New York as "burnt out" from the waves of fiery evangelicalism that lasted the first forty years of the nineteenth century.

Religion drew the nation together, and the American vision the exhibition at the New-York Historical Society highlights is an intensely spiritual one. Ironically, the Founders appear more secular and enlightened than the generation that followed. Although many of the landscape paintings of that period feature a religious cross, it is the natural scene and intensity of the sun’s rays that imbue the work with spirituality. In Durand’s Early Morning at Cold Spring (1850), a figure stands under an archway formed by tree limbs. In the far distance, the spire of a small church rises above the trees. Durand wrote: "The contemplation of unspoiled nature offered opportunities for spiritual reflection and renewal."6 In "The Revelation of Art," William Stillman wrote that art is not "an adjunct to religion. …" Rather, he concluded, it assists religion by pursuing beauty.7

Even on the eve of the Civil War, works such as Cropsey’s magnificent Autumn—On the Hudson River (1860) and Church’s Twilight in the Wilderness (1860) depicted sunbeams breaking through the encroaching darkness. With his Old World background, Cole was more inclined to view the tension between wilderness and progress as a cautionary tale.

Cole developed the theme of his greatest series during his time in Europe. He was overwhelmed during his travels through Italy, especially by the Renaissance masterpieces in Florence. William Cullen Bryant had composed a poem for Cole on his departure from New York, warning him to always temper the lure of the Old World by "keeping that earlier, wilder image bright."8 When he returned to the United States, his thoughts were filled with ideas for a series of narrative paintings based on the rise and fall of a great empire.

The national reception to the traveling exhibition demonstrates how powerful these works still are. Kevin M. Murphy, curator at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, said in a recent interview that he had never witnessed such interest in an art show. The strongest reaction was for The Course of Empire. When Cole approached Reed for support, the idea was clear in his mind. The series would imagine the rise of a great civilization from an unspoiled wilderness and the ultimate decay of that civilization into wreckage scattered across the same topography. The third painting in the series, The Consummation of Empire (1836), depicts a great city on a bay, with opulent classical architecture embellished with gold and treasure, and pleasure gondolas plying the tributary canals. The sky and waters are placid; the streets and bridges are filled with splendid processions. The fourth painting in the series, Destruction (1836), shows the same urban scene rent with conflagration. The temples on the mountains overlooking the city are in flames. The sky is dark with smoke; the waters are brackish, filled with corpses. Is this the price of empire? Only a few years before, Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire had been published in New York. Lincoln would lose his seat in Congress over his opposition to the American annexation of half of Mexico. Cole’s series seems even more relevant today, as Americans question the policies of our leaders and wonder what is happening to the stability of the nation.

Ferber’s handsome catalogue, The Hudson River School: Nature and the American Vision, reproduces some 150 images, including many fine landscapes from the museum’s collection by artists not featured in the exhibition. The astute selection testifies to the curator’s discerning eye, the "enlightened eye" that Cole and John Ruskin considered transformative. Such shows prove the perennial vitality of our heritage. Beauty and craftsmanship are integral to the expression of great ideas. I hope the New-York Historical Society continues to display its collection with this kind of grace and intelligence.

The New-York Historical Society has played an important role in American art history. Its new look and design give it a renewed relevance to the entire nation. 170 Central Park West, New York, New York 10024. Telephone (212) 873-9216. 


 1. Linda Ferber, The Hudson River School: Nature and the American Vision (New York: Skira Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 2009), p. 90.

 2. James Thomas Flexner, Random Harvest (New York: Fordham University Press, 1998), p. 89.

 3. Linda Ferber, The Hudson River School: Nature and the American Vision (New York: Skira Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 2009), p. 90.

 4. New-York Historical Society, exhibition wall text.

 5. Ibid.

 6. Durand, "Letters on Landscape Painting," reprinted in Kindred Spirits: Asher B. Durand and the American Landscape, ed., Linda Ferber (Brooklyn Museum with D. Giles Limited, London, 2007).

 7. William Stillman, "The Revelation of Art," The Crayon (November 21, 1855), p. 335.

 8. Bryant’s farewell verses are published in John W. McCoubrey, ed., American Art, 1700–1960 (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1965), pp. 91–96.

American Arts Quarterly,Winter 2013, Volume 30, Number 1