Hudson River School

Frederic Church, Rapids of the Susquehanna, c. 1846 Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, ConnecticutThe Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, is one of the best places in the world to study the Hudson River School. Re-installed after a two-and-a-half-year national tour, the collection includes major works by Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, Albert Bierstadt, Sanford Gifford, John Kensett and others. Also on display, in addition to the group of sixty paintings, is a newly acquired sketchbook (c. 1810–20) by Daniel Wadsworth (1771–1848), founder of the Atheneum. Watercolors, prints, travel guides and Staffordshire plates decorated with images of American scenery round out the exhibition. Wadsworth played an important role in the history of the movement. He introduced Church, a seventeen-year-old Hartford native, to Cole, the British-born founder of the Hudson River School. Cole made Church his sole apprentice. When Church was twenty, Wadsworth purchased his Hooker and Company Journeying through the Wilderness from Plymouth to Hartford in 1636 (1846), for $130, acquiring it for the recently established Atheneum. The relationship between Church and Wadsworth is an intriguing one. Church’s Rapids of the Susquehanna (c. 1846), painted while he was apprenticed to Cole, is probably based on an undated drawing by Wadsworth, a decent topographical artist. Church gives the scene Romantic drama, with a flock of birds darting over the turbulent water and some glorious storm clouds. Wadsworth was also principal advisor to Elizabeth Hart Jarvis Colt (1826–1905), the widow of the gun manufacturer, who built up an impressive collection, commissioning works from Bierstadt, Kensett and Gifford, among others. A number of striking paintings entered the collection through her bequest. Among these: Bierstadt’s In the Yosemite Valley (1866), based on the artist’s first-hand observation of what he called “the most magnificent place I was ever in”; Church’s stunning Vale of St. Thomas, Jamaica (1867), with a incandescent sun veiled in rain-cloud and rich vegetation flanking a serene river valley; and Coast of Labrador (1868), by the lesser-known William C. Bradford, a depiction of hardscrabble fishing village backed by otherworldly icebergs.

Holt also commissioned Gifford’s A Passing Storm in the Adirondacks (1866), a sweeping panorama set, the artist reported to his patron, on a summer afternoon, with “a thin, illuminated veil of rain, which gradually thickens…into a dense shower.” Even more striking is Gifford’s Sunset on the Hudson (1876, acquired by the Atheneum in 1958). The picture perfectly illustrates the shift from the Hudson River School aesthetic of the American Eden to the more modern style of the Luminists. The ostensible subject—the Palisades and a string of sailboats stretched out across the water—provides minimal structure and light-attracting accents for a molten, reflective field of pink-gold sky and cloud-green water. Other astute museum purchases include two works by Martin Johnson Heade, Winding River, Sunset (c. 1868, acquired 1952) with the artist’s characteristic pink clouds over marshland, and the proto-conceptualist Gremlin in the Studio II (c. 1865–75, acquired 1997), with a similar image shown mounted, trompe l’oeil fashion, on a crude stand; a cartoon gremlin dances in glee having violated the painting-within-a-painting’s fictive space to release a trickle of water from the stream. Wadsworth’s own bequest features significant works by Cole, including Kaaterskill Falls (1826), a subject based on Cole’s first sketching trip up the Hudson; the more fanciful Landscape Composition, St. John in the Wilderness (1827), set not in a biblical desert but among vertiginous peaks; and two idyllic New Hampshire scenes, View in the White Mountains (1827) and View on Lake Winnipiseogee (1828).

One interesting way to explore the collection is by comparing various approaches to iconic vistas, such as Niagara Falls. Pre-Hudson River School painter John Trumbull is represented by a pair of views in the sedately topographical style, Niagara Falls from an Upper Bank on the British Side (1807) and Niagara Falls from below the Great Cascade on the British Side (1808). Thomas Chambers’s naïve paintings were often based on popular prints, enlivened by a playful sense of design; his appealing if unnaturalistic palette gives Niagara Falls (c. 1835) a folkloric charm. The more realistic but less engaging Niagara Falls (1823) by Alvan Fisher looks like a tourist painting. The revolution forged by the Hudson River School blazes forth in Kensett’s Niagara Falls (1855). Instead of using a panoramic format, Kensett chooses a vertical composition for his study of Luna Fall, a narrow cascade plunging into a chasm of ragged rocks. Tiny figures give a sense of monumental scale, but the strongest element is the light, dappled in the sky, dissolving in mist at the far edge and illuminating the rough, rose-tinged rocks. Church’s Niagara Falls (1856) here is a smaller prelude to the epic work now in the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. Depicting Horseshoe Falls from the American side, the Atheneum picture shows a deft hand in contrasting rough rocks and diaphanous water, with a vestigal rainbow. As the catalogue authors note, Church had been re-reading Ruskin’s Modern Painters, with its description of water as “the best emblem of unwearied, unconquerable power.” The 170-page catalogue, Hudson River School: Masterworks from the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, is by Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser and Amy Ellis, with Maureen Miesmer, and is published in association with Yale University Press. The homecoming exhibition, entitled “American Splendor: Hudson River School Masterworks from the Wadsworth Atheneum Collection,” is on view through December 31, 2006.

In conjunction, the Atheneum is also presenting, through August 27, 2006, “Eloquent Vistas: The Art of Nineteenth-Century American Landscape Photography from the George Eastman House Collection.” With seventy-eight images dating from the 1850s to the end of the nineteenth century, the exhibition explores this important area in the evolution of America’s visual culture. Photographers documented the land for government-sponsored geological and geographical surveys, as well as for the tourist trade and the railroad companies. Some sites were in the east, such as the perennial favorite Niagara Falls and the poignant Civil War battlefields. Others—Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon and the Pacific Coast—helped shape national identity and create the myth of the American West. Today, the work of photographers such as Timothy H. O’Sullivan, Eadweard Muybridge, William Henry Jackson and Carlton E. Watkins is recognized for its formal beauty and skill, beyond the natural grandeur depicted or its original utilitarian purposes. The exhibition also includes technical information on the albumen print process, stereography and the introduction of the Kodak camera in 1888. Wadsworth Atheneum, 600 Main Street, Hartford, Connecticut 06103. Telephone (860) 527-0803. On the Web at www.wadsworthatheneum.org

American Arts Quarterly, Summer 2006, Volume 23, Number 3