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American Eden: Landscape Paintings of the Hudson River School from the Collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art

June 6 - August 29, 2004


The North Carolina Museum of Art will display some of the nation's finest examples of American landscape paintings when it presents American Eden: Landscape Paintings of the Hudson River School from the Collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art. The exhibition opens June 6 and runs through August 29, 2004. (right: Bierstadt, Albert, In the Mountains, 1867, oil on canvas, 36 3/16 x 50 1/4 inches, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Conn.; Gift of John Junius Morgan, in memory of his mother, Juliet Pierpont Morgan, 1923.253)

American Eden includes more than 50 works by 25 artists. They are sublime, powerful visions of the American landscape and hold within them ideas and beliefs that shaped the future of the nation. The Hudson River school, a group of painters active in the 19th century in New York, was the first truly American school of painting. Artists such as Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, Asher B. Durand and Albert Bierstadt, among others, created philosophically and aesthetically robust landscape scenes of young America and beyond. American Eden presents some of the finest examples of these landscape paintings. "The exhibition sheds light on a time in American history when the country was grappling with issues of national identity," said Dr. Lawrence J. Wheeler, director of the North Carolina Museum of Art. "The paintings (more) show a country distinguishing itself from Europe and celebrating what was uniquely American -- the landscape."

Certainly landscape painting helped create a national identity for the young America. The beauty of its natural scenery was emblematic both of America's history and future potential. The scale and awesome power of untouched nature inspired a spiritual reverence as well. The painters of the Hudson River school were influenced by writers of the period, including Henry David Thoreau and James Fennimore Cooper. among others. Their paintings celebrated the novelties of nature unique to the nation-untouched forests, soaring mountain peaks, misty beaches and mighty waterfalls. (left: Bierstadt, Albert, Toward the Setting Sun, 1862, oil on paper mounted on canvas, 7 3/4 x 14 inches, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Conn.; Gift of Mr. J. Harold Williams, in memory of Edith Russell Wooley, 1977.74)

The works in the show are large in scale, some more than 10 feet wide. The expansive canvases impart the grandeur of the scenes they depict. Frederic Church's 1846 painting of Hooker and Company Journeying through the Wilderness from Plymouth to Hartford measures just over five feet in width. It is significant in scale and subject. and depicts early settlers traveling from Massachusetts to Connecticut. The historical event was important to Church, who was a Connecticut native, but nature is fundamental to his painting. The travelers are dwarfed by a monumental rocky cliff. gigantic trees and a river winding far off into a vast. mountainous horizon. Asher B. Durand's View toward the Hudson Valley of 1851 is equally momentous in scope. The two figures in the painting look out into a cultivated valley while one gestures expansively to the stretch of land below. The painting shows the domination of man over the natural landscape and imparts a feeling of confidence and optimism about progress. (right: Church, Frederic E., Vale of St Thomas, Jamaica, 1867, oil on canvas, 48 5/16 x 84 5/8 inches, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Conn.; Bequest of Elizabeth Hart Jarvis Colt, 1905.21)

American Eden includes these sublime vistas of the American landscape as well as many others. It also offers a glimpse into another phenomenon that gained popularity in the 19th century-travel. As travel and tourism increased, the Hudson River school added paintings of foreign locales to their repertoire of American images, including panoramic scenes of South America, the Caribbean and Europe. Still, in all the paintings, the awesome power of nature is manifest.

Coast Scene, Mount Desert, a triumphant seascape by America's greatest landscape painter, Frederic E. Church, will also be featured in American Eden.

"Coast Scene, Mount Desert is one of the great triumphs of American seascape painting," said John Coffey, the Museum's chief curator. "The foremost of America's landscape painters, Church sought a raw, spiritual encounter with nature, and this painting puts viewers in direct confrontation with the sea and its overwhelming power." (left: Durand, Asher B., View Toward the Hudson River Valley, 1851, oil on canvas, 33 1/8 x 48 1/8 inches, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Conn.; The Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Catlin Sumner Collection Fund, 1948.119)

Now in the collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut, Coast Scene, Mount Desert was first exhibited in 1863 at the National Academy of Design's annual exhibition in New York. A reviewer at the time commented: "Here is magnificent force in the sea ... we feel ourselves in an audacious actual presence, whose passion moves us almost like a living fact of surf."

Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900) was one of the leading figures in the Hudson River school, a loose association of New York based painters united in their belief in the power of landscape to engage the mind and stir the soul. Achieving the first moment of greatness in the history of American art, the Hudson River school spanned roughly 50 years (from about 1825 until 1875).

A pupil of Thomas Cole, the founder of this national school of landscape, Church mastered a heroic, carefully observed style of landscape painting at an early age. Cole claimed that his student had "the finest eye for drawing in the world." (right: Kensett, John F., Coast Scene with Figures (Beverly Shore), 1869, oil on canvas, 36 x 60 3/8 inches, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Conn.; The Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Catlin Sumner Collection Fund, 1942.345)

In 1848, Church became the youngest painter elected to the National Academy of Design and was widely regarded as the preeminent landscape painter of his generation. He was also the first American artist to paint on location in South America, and his studies into natural history and other sciences led him to develop a style that combined scientific accuracy with a poetic approach and a spiritual intensity.

The Wadsworth Atheneum's collection of Hudson River school paintings is arguably the finest in the world.


Editor's note: RLM readers may also enjoy these earlier articles:


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