Worcester Art Museum

Worcester, MA



"All that is Glorious Around Us": Paintings from the Hudson River School


Exhibition theme image: William Louis Sonntag, Autumn Landscape, 1864, oil on canvas, 35 x 51 inches

Bask in the tranquility of works from America's first national school of landscape painting with "All that is Glorious Around Us": Paintings from the Hudson River School, on view at the Worcester Art Museum from March 13 - June 27, 1999.

The exhibition showcases approximately 75 paintings by leading Hudson River School painters such as Thomas Cole, Frederic Edwin Church, and John Frederick Kensett, as well as accomplished examples by lesser-known artists like Regis Francois Gignoux and John Hermann Carmiencke. The majority of the works are from a single private collector, eight works are from the Worcester Art Museum's permanent collection, and a small group of tourist prints are from the American Antiquarian Society. Left: Thomas Cole, View on the Arno, 1837, oil on canvas, 84.5 x 135.3 cm, Worcester Art Museum, gift of Martha Esty Michie

"My goal is to encourage people to recognize that the Hudson River School consisted of many more than the handful of famous painters usually featured in an exhibition of their work, including professional women and African-American artists," says David R. Brigham, curator of American art at the Worcester Art Museum. "I would also like visitors to understand the important cultural themes that are addressed in the works of art, such as notions of change in the land, poetic and religious reflections on nature, and attitudes towards new uses of the land that included tourism and industry."

Hudson River School painters were more than talented artists. As if on a mission, they helped create romantic reflections on America's virgin landscape before and during the country's transformation in the 19th century. Land was part of the national consciousness at the time and was considered an inherent part of democracy, wealth, and God's provisions. Hudson River School painters captured this sentiment by painting dramatic landscape scenes that revealed both the tranquility and turmoil settlers could experience as they braved territory in the new world.

As the country became more industrialized, Americans yearned for idyllic illustrations of landscape scenery. They wanted images of the land itself, the Native Americans who dwelt on it, and the adventurous people who settled it. Wealthy merchants, bankers, and factory owners sought landscape paintings as representations of more peaceful, serene times, and as an antidote to the harsh business world. "Armchair travelers," whose personal experiences did not take them to the unsettled western frontiers of the growing nation, desired paintings of a countryside they might never see. And resort owners and their guests wanted paintings of the scenes that represented places of rest and leisure. Hudson River School artists accommodated all of these needs by painting panoramic, sweeping vistas with glorious sunsets, many-hued cloud formations, gracefully bowed trees, and majestic mountains.

The Hudson River School movement spanned more than 80 years and included three generations of painters. The first generation began in 1820 with Thomas Doughty of Philadelphia, Alvan Fisher of Boston, and Thomas Cole of New York. Cole, who is generally thought to have founded this movement, was joined by his contemporaries in using landscape imagery as a backdrop for moralistic and religious scenes. Americans appreciated the pristine, Edenlike wilderness in Cole's early paintings that provided a natural sanctuary in which to find God. The second generation of Hudson River School painters began when Cole died in 1848, and his colleague, Asher Durand, assumed leadership of the movement. Painters of this generation tended to be much younger than Durand, and included the likes of Frederic Church, Sanford Robinson Gifford, John Kensett, Jervis McEntee, and Thomas Worthington Whittredge. While following Cole's style of glorifying nature, they abandoned the moralistic treatments and chose, instead, to let their depictions of nature inspire the viewer. The third and last generation of this movement transformed America's first school of painting to one that was inspired by the European style then in vogue, which was concerned as much with the painterly effects of art as with the depiction of nature.

About the theme image:

William Louis Sonntag (1822-1899), a native of East Liberty, Pennsylvania, it seems, never did anything but paint. Curiously he was one of the Hudson River School painters who apparently never painted the Hudson River. He derived his subject matter primarily from the mountains of West Virginia and New Hampshire. A highly regarded associate of Whittredge, Durand, and Church, he was also a member of the National Academy of Design and the Artist's Fund Society. He exhibited at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in I876.

His career began in Cincinnati, Ohio, in an enchanting, almost fairy-tale-like way. As a young man there, he placed some paintings on view in a storefront gallery. One day a director of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad passed by. Upon seeing the paintings, he decided to commission Sonntag to paint views of the scenery along the railroad's routes. Even more propitious was the fact that Sonntag's paintings were seen by one Mary Ann Cowdell of Delaware, Ohio. She was captivated by the paintings, and then enamored of the man.

Three weeks after the two met they were married; their honeymoon was a summer idyll riding the trains of the Baltimore & Ohio through the mountains. With lunch and palette, they would be left each morning at some picturesque spot in the mountains; in the afternoon another train would come by to pick them up.

Autumn Landscape is a prime example of the highly keyed color, crystalline atmosphere, and vigorous brushstroke that characterize Sonntag:s early work. The lush natural wilderness is portrayed with the full array of autumn colors. As in works by Boutelle, Brevoort, Bricher, Carmiencke, Gifford, and Gignoux in this exhibition, Autumn Landscape dates from the Civil War years. Again, in view of the battles of the wilderness, Cold Harbor, Petersburg, and General Sherman's march from Atlanta to Savannah, the tranquility of Autumn Landscape seems at odds with the national trauma of current events.

Over the years Sonntag's palette became more muted. He loved, in particular, the bluish haze of smoke from settlements and bonfires that would hang above the valleys in the late afternoon. If these later paintings seem melancholy, it is perhaps not without reason. Sonntag's final years could not have been happy. His grandson died in 1897. His son, also an artist, was not blessed with good health and died in 1898 at age twenty-nine. The following year, his own health much diminished, Sonntag died at age seventy-seven.

While Hudson River School artists helped professionalize American art, many of them did not receive formal training either in America or Europe. Many of the artists were self-taught, and their vision of the New World's panorama continues to evoke emotional reactions among viewers. Some of the artists did receive formal training, however, both in the states and abroad. Several of the best Hudson River School painters were also experienced engravers, including Durand and Kensett. Engraving required a precise proficiency of the eye and extreme manual dexterity, which helped the painters understand how to delineate nature's forms.

Hudson River School artists made it a point to feature light, from sunrises to sunsets. Their method of using the broad, sweeping perspective was persistent, as was their propensity to paint trees, mountains, hills, riverbanks, and rocks in exquisite detail. While European paintings favored classical and religious figures, many of the Hudson River School paintings included pioneers and/or Native Americans at work.

Manifest destiny, or the theory that God gave white Americans the sole responsibility and authority to make use of the land, was a national concept that Hudson River School painters and literary figures at the time sought to portray. It inspired them to paint and write about the glorious landscape as God's nurturing gift to the pioneers of the day. These artists and writers were also keenly aware of manifest destiny's cost to the land and to Native Americans who lived on it, and lamented this loss in such paintings as Whittredge's Kaaterskill Falls and stories like "Leatherstocking Tales" by James Fenimore Cooper. The reverence these artists bestowed on the land also foreshadowed today's environmental consciousness and concern with the effects that industrial and personal activities have on polluting our land, water and air.

Organized by the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, this exhibition will also travel to the National Academy in New York from July 14 through September 12, 1999. Accompanying the exhibition is a hardcover catalogue with an essay and full-color plates of the paintings, available from the Worcester Art Museum. Related events at the Worcester Art Museum will include a Family Day on April 11, 1999, poetry readings, and a lecture series. Major exhibition and program support is provided by Fallon Healthcare System. Additional generous support is provided by Flagship Bank and Trust Company, Members' Council, Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities -- a state program of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Michie Family Curatorial Fund, Britta Jeppson Curatorial Fund, Paul C. and Gladys W. Richards Foundation, and the Robert and Amelia Hutchinson Haley Lectures Fund.

Read more about the Worcester Art Museum in Resource Library Magazine.

For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

rev. 9/20/10

Search Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.

Copyright 2010 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.