The Hudson River Portfolio

Boscobel, an elegant Federal-period house museum in Garrison, New York, has spectacular views of the Hudson River and the Highlands. An exhibition on view August 3–November 30, 2014, offers a rare chance to view the Hudson River Portfolio (1821–25) in its entirety. On loan from the Museum of the City of New York, the Portfolio consists of twenty aquatints by the Englishman John Hill (1770–1850), based on the watercolors of the Irishman William Guy Wall (1792–1864), who came to the United States to document life along the Hudson River. Wall was considered one of the premier colorists of his day and well-grounded in British landscape painting. His attention to atmospheric details recalls the works of Richard Wilson and William Marlow, but more specifically John Constable. His Thames River paintings parallel his journey up New York’s Hudson River in 1820. Wall is considered the forefather of the Hudson River School. In fact, the preeminent Hudson River School artist, Thomas Cole, planned to emulate the Hudson River Portfolio. It was to be engraved and published in London with letterpress by Washington Irving, but the project never came into fruition and, by 1825, oil painting had become the dominant medium for landscape imagery. 

John Hill, “Little Falls at Luzerne” (aquatint number 1), Hudson River Portfolio, 1821–25  Courtesy of Boscobel House and Gardens, Garrison, New York

John Hill, a successful printmaker in his native England, immigrated to America and continued his profession in Philadelphia. Approached by New York publisher Henry Megarey, Hill became part of a popular movement using printmaking to reproduce art inexpensively. The market for the folio, however, was aimed at elite consumers. In the years after the War of 1812, tourists began to journey north from New York City throughout the Hudson River Valley, the country’s first tourist region. The Portfolio images of the Hudson River served a function akin to the Grand Tour engravings for English eighteenth-century tourists—as incentives to explore new regions or mnemonic triggers for past travels. There could be another theory behind the Portfolio, that it fostered immigration from England to America. (See “Tourists and The City: New York’s First Tourist Era, 1820–40,” by Richard H. Gassan, and also the Hudson River Museum’s 2013 catalogue, The Panoramic View: The Hudson River and the Thames.) 

The Portfolio prints provide the viewer with a plethora of engaging settings. Bucolic representations of a nature tamed by agriculture portray landscapes in neat composite forms. Awe-inspiring images of rapids winding around the gigantic rock formations of the Palisades, creating gushers of white foam, as in “ Hadley Falls” (aquatint number 5), epitomize the Sublime. The onlookers in several of the aquatints are very small, a difference in scale that enhances the majesty and grandiosity of nature. In some prints, a lonely figure, viewed from the back, looks out at the vista of the river’s forceful waters, just as one of Caspar David Friedrich’s solitary figures stands arrested by majestic mountains. “Little Falls at Luzerne” (aquatint number 1) is a good example. 

The descriptive text alongside the aquatint underlines the publisher’s aim—to showcase the Hudson River Valley as comparable to any European vista. Many American artists during this period were traveling to Rome to seek the classical landscape of the Roman campagna. Yet in this aquatint, the author of the text, John Agg, suggests that North America, although still a young country, has comparable charms: “the buildings on the edge of the fall are two sawmills, which bear about them the marks of considerable antiquity.” Here, a lone figure appears to be fishing at the foot of the falls, perhaps the proprietor of the large elegant home in the background. A bit further uphill, two more buildings, perhaps farmhouses, are fenced in by a row of tall trees. To the right, framing the river, is a mountainous surface that clearly show signs of deforestation. In the middle ground, well-tended fields appear. 

The catalogue accompanying the exhibit includes images of all twenty aquatints, as well as Agg’s text. Agg’s text goes even further with the underscoring of the European quality of this scene, noting that the artist’s: “clear warm, and azure skies are indispensable to a correct and satisfactory delineation of Italian scenery.” Certain words Agg uses are steeped in eighteenth-century philosophical language. Edmund Burke’s definition of the Sublime bears associations of fear, gloom and majesty, qualities that culminate in Agg’s description of a landscape: “…a character of darkness and dreariness, amidst which the most morbid imagination might roam and revel with unqualified delight.” Agg’s descriptive texts and Hill’s aquatints prompted Americans to view their New World landscapes as heir to European Romanticism. 

The steamboat with its passengers in “Palisades” (aquatint number 19) indicates what tourists would have been seeing during their journey. They would have been struck by the grandeur of the Palisades, but in “Hudson” (aquatint number 13), the passenger would be made aware of the Hudson’s importance as a vast commercial artery that transported timber, iron, stone and crops to various East Coast cities. Boscobel House and Gardens, 1601 Route 9D, Garrison, New York 10524. Telephone (845) 265-3638. boscobel.org 

                                                                                                            — Cristina La Porta 

American Arts Quarterly, Fall 2014, Volume 31, Number 4