Hudson River School

Sanford Robinson Gifford, A Lake Twilight, 1861 Private collection, courtesy Westmoreland Museum of Art“Different Views in Hudson River School Painting,” an exhibition at the Babcock Galleries in New York City, organized by the Westmoreland Museum of American Art, has an interesting premise. Curator Judith Hansen O’Toole, director of the Westmoreland Museum, focuses on pairs, series and groupings of paintings as a way of exploring shared iconography and the intimacy between painters and specific locales. The emphasis in these works, from a private collection, is on scenery, but the lesson of Hudson River School founder Thomas Cole’s great narrative series The Course of Empire and The Voyage of Life looms in the background. Cole was both a history painter and a landscapist, but it was the American landscape that would inspire the first great movement of distinctly American art. The people of the United States were very conscious of lacking the long history Europeans had; there were no cities built on medieval foundations, no classical ruins. But the wilderness also offered a clean slate, described in pervasively religious language as a new Eden. Europe remains, however, part of the dialogue in the exhibition’s first paring. Cole’s Sunset on the Arno (1837), a reminiscence from his study abroad, is an affectionate portrait of a quaint but lively city. Three decades later, Cole’s student Frederic Church painted Ruins at Baalbek (1868), with a few Corinthian columns in clear reference to his master’s Desolation, from The Course of Empire. Significantly, both scenes are bathed in the light of sunset.

The times of day, along with the seasons of the year, were part of a long-standing allegorical tradition. The parallels for the stages of an individual life or a civilization’s span are obvious, embedded in our language in phrases such as “the dawn of time” and “the twilight of the gods.” When American artists painted contrasting views in Spring and Fall or at dawn and dusk, they were tapping into this tradition. But overwhelmingly their subjects were American. O’Toole quotes Asher B. Durand: “Go not abroad then in search of material for the exercise of your pencil, while the virgin charms of our native land have claims on your deepest affections.” Certainly, the Hudson River School painters revered the nature they painted, but they were not unaware of threats. One grouping in the exhibition features deer as accent notes. Deer were recognized emblems of peaceful wilderness, as seen in Frederick Rondel’s Adirondack Landscape (c. 1876) and Laura Woodward’s By the Stream (1876). The presence of a hunter in Worthington Whittredge’s Deer by a Waterfall (1850) signals a less idyllic view of the relationship between man and nature. The most important picture in the grouping, Sanford Gifford’s A Lake Twilight (1861), is not only the most aesthetically pleasing but also thematically richest. Painted in the first year of the Civil War, it is a study in dark and light, with an ominous reddish glow suggestive of Church’s masterpiece Twilight in the Wilderness. Gifford shows the deer as a carcass in a hunter’s boat, and the shoreline is marred by blasted trees, yet the sky is still radiant.

Different views of well-known spots, such as Niagara Falls and Mount Washington, offer further opportunities for comparisons. Jasper Cropsey’s Lake George (1877), a small, vertical-format canvas depicting the artist and his wife in a boat, seems almost autobiographical, with characteristic autumn foliage reflected as a smear of colors in the water. John Casilear’s more expansive Lake George (c. 1865)—with an anonymous boater so tiny he might be a texture dot—is a panoramic field of light, transfiguring shore, trees, mountain and water in a Luminist veil. Another interesting pairing is two samplers, groupings of small images designed to demonstrate a painter’s expertise to potential clients. Because of their promotional function, many of these multi-panel displays were lost or discarded. Thirteen pictures are arranged in William Trost Richards’s Sampler (c. 1860), with round, oval and lunette-shaped, as well as more conventional landscape-format images. The scenery is American, woods and seacoast; the effect is that of a pantheistic altarpiece. Regis Francis Gignoux was a Frenchman, trained in Lyons and Paris, who arrived in New York in 1840 and returned to Europe after the Civil War. The seven images in his American Scenery Sampler (c. 1861) include tourist spots such as Niagara Falls and Natural Bridge; the arrangement suggests a photo album. One of the advantages of drawing on a private collection, lovingly assembled from Hudson River School work outside the superstar ranks of the big museums, is discovering some worthy, lesser-known artists. Especially interesting here are Arthur Parton (1842–1914), Homer Dodge Martin (1839–97) and William McDougal Hart (1823–94). The exhibition catalogue, with O’Toole’s thoughtful commentaries and color reproductions of 120 works, many of which will be new even to Hudson River School admirers, makes a solid contribution to the field (Columbia University Press in association with the Westmoreland Museum of American Art, 2005, hardback $35).  The exhibition continues through February 1, 2007, at Babcock Galleries, 724 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10019. Telephone (212) 767–1852. On the Web at www.babcockgalleries.com. The Westmoreland Museum of Art is located at 221 N. Main Street, Greensburg, Pennsylvania 15601. Telephone (724) 837–1500. On the Web at www.wmuseumaa.org

American Arts Quarterly, Winter 2007, Volume 24, Number 1