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

May 30, 2006 - February 25, 2007


New York City's first museum, the New-York Historical Society (N-YHS), continues its three-year series of rotating exhibitions showcasing more than 100 famous oil paintings by artists of the Hudson River School-including Thomas Cole, Asher Brown Durand, Frederic Edwin Church, John Frederick Kensett, Jasper Francis Cropsey, and Albert Bierstadt-all drawn from the Society's extraordinary American art collection. The second installment of The Hudson River School at the New-York Historical Society: Nature and the American Vision opened on May 30, and runs through February 25, 2007, at the New-York Historical Society.

"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," Dr. Ferber said.

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 (in 1858) and Thomas Jefferson Bryan (in 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.

This N-YHS exhibition series also features 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, prints, and emphemera on view, which can only be exhibited for 120 days at a time before they are returned to archival storage for preservation, will continue to 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 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.

The exhibition tells 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, features paintings that celebrate the city's spectacular physical setting and its watery surroundings, while On the River: Touring & Travel includes 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 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, can locate individual estates and historic sites, many of which still exist today.

One section of major landscape paintings is 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. They are accompanied in the first Luman Reed Gallery by a group of rarely exhibited images associated with the Hudson River School from the Society's voluminous works on paper collection. This selection features 14 of the 37 works by the English-born artist George Harvey (1799 - 1880) in the Society's collection, including examples from his series "Atmospheric Landscapes of North America." In these exquisite watercolor views from the 1830s and early 1840s, intended as models for engravers, Harvey sought to portray the "Epochs of the Day," drawing inspiration from his observations of the sky, climate, and light. Harvey's landscapes also celebrated the nation's progress of civilization through images of settlement, cultivation, and land development. These remarkable watercolors were intended to serve as the basis for a series of print portfolios that documented North American sites observed at precise times of day and under specific weather conditions. Only one issue was ever published. Displayed in a case will be the Society's exceptionally rare copy of Harvey's Scenes of the Primitive Forest of America, at the Four Periods of the Year (1841), whose quartet of seasons are illustrated by the artist's jewel-like aquatints of American scenes.

The American Grand Tour also includes 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 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 (1833-1836), serves as the centerpiece of Grand Landscape Narratives and the exhibition as a whole. The Old World features 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.

Two final themes are 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 are 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 focuses 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.

The N-YHS curatorial team for the exhibition series includes: co-curator Linda S. Ferber, Vice President and Director of the N-YHS Museum; co-curator, Lee A. Vedder, Henry Luce Curatorial Fellow in American Art; , Roberta J.M. Olson, Curator of Drawings; Margaret K. Hofer, Curator of Decorative Arts. Also contributing were Barbara Dayer Gallati, Curator Emerita of American Art, The Brooklyn Museum; and project coordinator, Marybeth De Filippis, N-YHS Curatorial Assistant. The N-YHS exhibition team was led by guest-designer Charles B. Froom.

The New-York Historical Society, one of the country's preeminent educational and research institutions, is dedicated to presenting public programs and fostering research that reveal the dynamism of history and its influence on the world of today. Founded in 1804 as the first museum in New York City, its mission is to explore the richly layered history of New York City and the country, and serve as a national forum for the debate and examination of issues surrounding the making and meaning of history.

N-YHS holds one of the world's greatest collections of historical artifacts, American art, and other materials documenting the history of the United States and New York, and is home to both one of the nation's most distinguished independent research libraries and New York City's oldest museum. The Society's collections include more than 4.5 million American history-related documents, paintings, artifacts, and ephemera. Highlights of these holdings include: an exceptional collection of materials relating to slavery, the Civil War, and reconstruction; all of the original watercolors from John J. Audubon's Birds of America; an outstanding collection of 18th century newspapers; an extensive collection of Tiffany glasswork; and far-ranging materials relating to the founding and early history of the nation. The strength and depth of these collections provides a vital foundation for the Society's research and educational initiatives.

The Hudson River School exhibition series has been generously supported by the Henry Luce Foundation, Sotheby's, Barbara and Richard Debs, Sue Ann and John L. Weinberg, Robert G. Goelet and Sharon and Henry Martin.

For a full list of public programs, or to make a reservation call (212) 817-8215 or visit: www.nyhistory.org.

Go to:


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


this online streaming video:

The WGBH/Boston Forum Network is an audio and video streaming web site dedicated to curating and serving live and on-demand lectures, including a number of videos on Art and Architecture. Partners include a number of Boston-area museums, colleges, universities and other cultural organizations.

Boston Athenaeum partnered with the Forum Network for a series of lectures on American art by David Dearinger, who is Susan Morse Hilles Curator of Paintings and Sculpture at the Boston Athenaeum. An art historian and curator, he received his Ph.D. from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, with a specialty in nineteenth-century American art. Titles include:


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)


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