For centuries, the institutions responsible for deep-seated tradition and strict hierarchies in the Western art world did not favor the work of landscape artists. Yet the 19th-century American painter Thomas Cole doggedly pursued what he called a “higher style of landscape”, and, in the process, created a new and enduring American art movement known as the Hudson River School. In 1825, Thomas Cole ventured along the Hudson River in a steamboat and painted what are considered to be the first landscape paintings of the Catskill Mountains of New York. It was the technicolor swaths of autumn leaves that set him on his path as the founder of the Hudson River School.
The Hudson River School: America’s First Art Movement
The Hudson River School was an informal grouping of like-minded landscape artists in mid-19th-century New England. Founder Thomas Cole and his fellow painters rejected the old-fashioned traditions of old landscape masters like Claude Lorrain, who painted gently rolling landscapes with technical precision in 17th-century France. The Hudson River School artists were drawn to Romanticism, a movement in art, literature, and music that focused on emotions, individualism, and the supremacy of nature over humanity. The Romantics reacted against the preceding Enlightenment era, which prized intellectualism, order, and scientific progress and asserted humanity’s rightful dominance over nature.
Cole and his contemporaries were especially obsessed with the Romantic notion of “the sublime.” To them, the word sublime referred to the most extreme realms of human emotion, like feelings of awe, ecstasy, or even terror, and the most extreme realms of nature, like the unpredictable cataclysmic storms and the destruction they leave in their wake. No longer did artists look outward and seek to mimic the timeless, atmospheric landscapes of Claude Lorrain or the detached Neoclassical aesthetic of Jacques-Louis David. Instead, they ventured into the rugged landscapes of the Hudson River Valley and turned inward, chasing the sublime by relying on their individual experiences and emotions in addition to sensory observation.
Thomas Cole: The Original American Landscape Painter
As a man of faith, the English-born Thomas Cole wrote in an essay that “the wilderness is yet a fitting place to speak of God.” Nature was more than just an inspiring place to convene with God or otherwise seek spiritual experiences. For Cole, the act of landscape painting facilitated the exploration of moral, religious, and environmentalist ideologies, and the finished artwork could communicate those messages without obvious narrative elements.
At first glance, Thomas Cole’s paintings of the Hudson River Valley reveal the beauty and grandeur of the sprawling American landscape in various seasons and weather patterns. But Cole believed that the role of art was not to realistically render a scene, but rather to teach the viewer a moral or spiritual lesson. Cole did not personally view the seemingly unrelated realms of landscape painting and religion as separate at all. He believed the genre of landscape painting, despite intrinsically lacking linear story elements, could accomplish this higher goal.
For example, a broken branch placed dramatically in the foreground of a landscape painting suggests a storm had just passed and challenges aesthetic conventions, but it also serves as a foreboding reminder that God and nature will wield the ultimate victory over humanity. Despite the explosion of technology during the Industrial Revolution and the rapid colonization of the American continent, humanity is never as invincible as it seems. By creatively emphasizing certain details and even imagining others, Cole successfully captured the sublime experience of a landscape rather than a photorealistic rendering of its recognizable features, and he imbued his paintings with personal messages and ideas that offer timeless takeaways about the nature of spirituality, environmentalism, and humanity.
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Albert Bierstadt: The German-American Painter of Western Landscapes
Thomas Cole and the first generation of Hudson River School artists stayed closer to home during their careers, mainly painting the Hudson River Valley and its surrounding natural areas. But the second generation of artists who identified with the movement, including Albert Bierstadt and Frederic Edwin Church, ventured further westward. Born in Germany and raised in the United States, Albert Bierstadt was a significant painter of the second generation of Hudson River School artists known for his especially dramatic mountainscapes. As a young adult, Bierstadt returned to Germany to study art in Düsseldorf, where key elements of the Düsseldorf School of Painting stuck with him. This movement, which began within the realm of German Romanticism, prized en plein air painting and highly detailed, symbolic landscapes.
As a German immigrant who embarked on several journeys in the American West, Bierstadt’s paintings tend to be a reflection of his unique upbringing and artistic training across continents. In Rocky Mountain Landscape, the famous mountain range of the American West takes on distinctly Alpine characteristics at the hands of Bierstadt, rendering the resulting landscape imaginary – but arguably more successful at capturing the sublime experience of being surrounded by the dramatically sunlit Rockies.
Frederic Edwin Church: A 19th-Century American Celebrity
Frederic Edwin Church was one of Thomas Cole’s favorite and most successful students. He was also a founder of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Alongside Albert Bierstadt, Church became a celebrity during his lifetime for his grandiose landscape paintings. Thousands of people would wait in long lines and pay an entry fee of twenty-five cents to view his monumental paintings in person, such as Niagara, which became famous in the United States and abroad during Church’s lifetime.
The sheer size of Church’s canvases was novel to American audiences in the 19th century and appropriately echoed the vastness of the sprawling landscape itself. Church’s approach also helped elevate the status of landscape paintings within the hierarchy of art by asserting that so-called lesser genres deserved to literally take up the same space as monumental history paintings.
Where the Hudson River School’s Idyllic Vision Fell Short
The Course of Empire, a stunning series of five paintings by Thomas Cole, depicts the inevitable cyclical progression of humanity from a “savage state” to an advanced civilization like the Roman Empire – one that is doomed to eventually collapse at the catastrophic hands of God or nature. The notion that, in the mid-19th-century, American civilization was then springing forth amidst untouched swathes of God’s creation was, of course, misled. But it is what informed the Hudson River School’s approach to landscape art, and Romantic thinkers’ challenging of the Enlightenment idea that humanity’s dominance over nature was natural and could be sustained.
Seeing, representing, and moralizing nature through this lens also served to legitimize a nationalistic interest in Manifest Destiny and the American West. While white American artists, writers, and explorers viewed the “Wild West” as an untamed wilderness ripe for the picking, they ignored the reality that this landscape was not a true wilderness at all – in fact, it had been carefully cultivated by indigenous peoples for centuries until American colonization violently displaced tribes from their homelands. While Thomas Cole and the artists of the Hudson River School romanticized a so-called alternate reality where humans lived in harmony with and in reverence of nature, they failed to realize that the Native American tribes whose land they were painting had, in many ways, already achieved and sustained such an existence.
How Did the Hudson River School Change American Art?
The Hudson River School was the first American school of painting recognized in the Western art history canon. Its success, which carried on through generations of painters, helped establish the United States as a veritable art center independent from Europe. Even today, landscape paintings by Thomas Cole, Albert Bierstadt, and Frederic Edwin Church are adored in museums across America and around the world for their engaging and emotional interpretation of beautiful landscapes.
Viewers who look closely at a Hudson River School painting may discover hidden messages or emotional cues within the picturesque, meticulously detailed brushstrokes. These takeaways are open to interpretation and remain timeless centuries later. You don’t have to have experienced the creative excitement of the Romantic era or have walked the wooded trails of the Catskill Mountains after a thunderstorm to take away something special from one of these American landscape paintings.