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The Hudson River School at the New-York Historical Society: Nature and the American Vision

May 17, 2005 - February 5, 2006


(above: Thomas Cole (1801-1848), The Course of Empire: The Savage State, 1833-36, oil on canvas. Gift of the New-York Gallery of the Fine Arts, 1858.1)


New York City's first museum, the New-York Historical Society, is showcasing together for the very first time more than 100 famous paintings by artists of the Hudson River School -- including Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand, John F. Kensett, Jasper F. Cropsey, and Albert Bierstadt -- in a series of exhibitions all drawn from the Society's extraordinary American art collection. The Hudson River School at the New-York Historical Society: Nature and the American Vision opened on May 17, 2005 and runs through February 5, 2006, at the New-York Historical Society.

The history of the Historical Society's rich holdings of American art dates back to the second half of the 19th-century when the museum acquired, through generous donation, the extensive painting collections formed by pioneering New York art patrons, Luman Reed (1858) and Thomas Jefferson Bryan (1867). By 1944, the Society was also home to the extraordinary collection of Hudson River School art and American genre painting amassed by Robert Leighton Stuart, another of New York's prominent 19th -century art patrons. (right: Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902), Donner Lake from the Summit, 1873, oil on canvas. Gift of Archer Milton Huntington, 1909.16)

The New-York Historical Society exhibition will also feature rarely-displayed watercolors, prints, and delightful ephemera as well as a selection of ceramic tableware decorated with American landscape views, all associated with the Hudson River School and drawn from the Society's extensive holdings of American art and material culture. The exceptional watercolors on view, which can only be exhibited for 120 days at a time before they are returned to archival storage for preservation, will rotate every four months.

The Hudson River School emerged during the second quarter of the 19th-century in New York City, the booming port and commercial metropolis at the mouth of the Hudson River. There, a loosely knit group of artists, together with like-minded poets and writers, forged the first self-consciously "American" landscape vision and literary voice. That American vision -- still widely embraced today -- was grounded in the exploration of the natural world as a source of spiritual renewal and as an expression of national identity; this vision was first expressed through the magnificent historic scenery of the Hudson River Valley region, including the Catskills, accessible to all via the great river that gave the school its name. Collectively, the works of Hudson River School artists constituted the nation's first homegrown art to not only take root in this country, but also to garner world-wide recognition and fame. (left: George Henry Boughton (1833­1905), Hudson River Valley from Fort Putnam, West Point, New York, 1855, oil on canvas. Gift of John V. and William F. Irwin, 1927.1)

The exhibition will tell this compelling story through a series of 10 themes, each contributing to the unifying narrative of "Nature and the American Vision." City on a River: New York, the introductory theme, will feature paintings that celebrate the city's spectacular physical setting and its watery surroundings, while On the River: Touring & Travel will include lively paintings of the great steamboats that plied the scenic river route from New York to Albany. This introduction is further illustrated with ceramic tableware bearing related landscape imagery. Billboard-scale enlargements of two famous 19th-century touring maps of the river will offer visitors an opportunity to trace the historic travel routes that we still follow today. Viewers of the intricately detailed 1847 panorama, depicting elevations of both sides of the Hudson, will be able to locate individual estates and historic sites, many of which still exist today.

Several of the landscape paintings will be organized around the theme The American Grand Tour featuring a medley of paintings of the Catskill, Adirondack, and White Mountain regions, as well as Lake George, Niagara Falls, New England, and the Hudson River itself. These paintings illuminate the scenic destinations that drew both artists and travelers beginning with the famous Hudson River Portfolio, the set of aquatint views, published between 1821 and 1825, of 20 significant sites along the river's course that was the foundation for the Hudson River School. The New-York Historical Society also holds all eight known surviving original watercolors by William Guy Wall, preparatory for this pioneering (and rarely displayed) set of hand-colored prints. The Portfolio, together with Wall's watercolors and other nature studies by the artist will be displayed together for the first time in the Historical Society. After four months, the walls will be replaced by a new selection of rarely exhibited images associated with the Hudson River School from the Society's voluminous works on paper collection, the "Atmospheric Landscapes" of George Harvey. (left: Asher Brown Durand (1796-1886), Black Mountain from the Harbor Islands, Lake George, New York, 1875, oil on canvas. Gift of Mrs. Lucy Maria Durand Woodward, 1907.17)

The American Grand Tour will also include oil paintings that memorialize the Hudson River as the gateway to other regions celebrated for their scenic beauty and historic sites. These include the Catskill and Adirondack mountain ranges as well as Lake George, all touring destinations and primary sketching grounds for American landscape painters. The Erie Canal provided an extended route to Niagara Falls, while the chain of lakes bordering the Adirondacks offered a waterway north to the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

After 1850 Hudson River School artists sought inspiration even further from home. In Artists Afield & Abroad the paintings of Frederic Edwin Church, Albert Bierstadt, Martin Johnson Heade, and William Bradford elucidate how these globe-trotting painters both embraced the role of artist-explorer and simultaneously thrilled audiences with dramatic images of the landscape wonders of such far-flung places as the American Frontier, the Yosemite Valley, the Arctic, and South America.

Four additional themes will investigate landscape imagery as a powerful narrative device that embodied American ideas about nature and culture. Thomas Cole's interpretation of the theme of landscape as a metaphor for national destiny in his famous series of five imaginary landscape paintings, The Course of Empire, serves as the centerpiece of Grand Landscape Narratives and the exhibition as a whole. The Old World will feature paintings by Cole, Cropsey, Sanford R. Gifford, and others celebrating Italy as the principal destination for Americans on the European Grand Tour. Viewed as the storehouse of Western culture, Italy was a living laboratory of the past, with its cities, galleries, and countryside offering a visible survey of artistic heritage from antiquity to the present. Night & Day: Cycles & Seasons explores the suggestive power of seasonal imagery that signals the passage of time and creates an emotional response in evocative paintings. Life in the Landscape explores the iconography of the settled landscape founded in the notion that what defined an "American" was his/her relationship with the land. American painters like Durand, William Sidney Mount, George Henry Durrie, and others painted idealized and sometimes humorous images of farm and village life populated by what would become clearly identifiable American character types. (right: Asher Brown Durand (1786-1886), Shandaken Range, Kingston, New York, ca. 1854, oil on canvas. The Louis Durr Fund, 1887.5)

Two final themes will be explored in the Society's Luman Reed Galleries. The rise of genre painting in the 19th-century as another of America's preeminent art forms is examined further in A Passion for Genre Painting. On display will be seminal works by Mount, Eastman Johnson, and other painters from the collections of Reed and Robert Leighton Stuart, both of whom also fostered the careers of many Hudson River School artists. Artists and Patrons will focus on the history of Reed, Stuart and Bryan as collectors, and how the deposit of their collections at N-YHS helped to establish the Society as one of New York's premier museums of American art.

Dr. Louise Mirrer, N-YHS President, said "Long established as one the city's premier museums of American art, the New-York Historical Society houses one of the oldest and most comprehensive collections of landscape painting by artists of the Hudson River School"

The curatorial team for the exhibition includes: guest co-curator of the exhibition, Linda S. Ferber, Chair of the American Art Department at the Brooklyn Museum of Art and Andrew W. Mellon Curator of American Art (and newly appointed Vice President and Director of the New-York Historical Society Museum); and from the New-York Historical Society: co-curator, Lee A. Vedder, Henry Luce Curatorial Fellow in American Art; curator of the works on paper gallery, Roberta J.M. Olson, Associate Curator of Drawings; and curator of the ceramics display, Margaret K. Hofer, Curator of Decorative Arts. The New-York Historical Society exhibition team was led by guest-designer Charles B. Froom.



(above: Sanford Robinson Gifford (1823-1880), Lake Maggiore, Italy, 1858, oil on canvas. The Robert L. Stuart Collection, Stuart 193)

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Editor's note: RL readers may also enjoy these earlier articles and essays:

an image of Lake Maggiore from the TFAO photo library,

and this video:

Hudson River and its Painters, The is a 57 minute 1988 video from the Metropolitan Museum of Art Series released by Home Vision Entertainment. The mid-nineteenth century saw the growth of America's first native school of landscape painters, artists inspired by the compelling beauty of the Hudson River Valley, who portrayed this and other romantic wilderness areas with an almost mystical reverence. This 57 minute video explores the life and work of the major artists of what came to be known as the Hudson River School -- Thomas Cole, Asher Durand, Frederic Church, Albert Bierstadt, John Kensett, Jasper Cropsey, Worthington Whittredge, Sanford Gifford, and George Inness. Although its members traveled widely, the growth and development of the school were centered around New York City, and its success reflected the ambitions of the youthful American nation. It presents more than 200 paintings, prints and photographs of the period and juxtaposes them with dramatic location photography of the Hudson River area. The Hudson Company in association with The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

"The film highlights W. M. Chase's years at Shinnecock, on Long Island, NY, where in 1891 the artist established the first important outdoor summer school of art in America. Images of Chase's paintings and archival photographs--many of the artist's studios--are combined with footage of the hills and beaches at Shinnecock and of Chase's house and studio as they are today." (text courtesy Georgia Museum of Art)


Also see Hudson River School from TFAO's American Representational Art.

rev. 7/15/05, 5/25/13

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