The North American continent landmass has inspired from its first explorers onward a special spiritual awareness. The explorers and early settlers, predominantly from lands crowded with civilization and restricted by their birth position found a overwhelming sense of a higher reality in the huge, untamed, and essentially uninhabited and unbounded country. Even as the eastern seaboard began to gain a civility more associated with its older European ancestral home, a group of artists determined to evoke in their landscapes the enormity and beauty of the American wilderness before the contracting effects of a civilizing humanity. They are known collectively as the Hudson River School artists, and have maintained an almost 200 year grip on the American public’s artistic appreciation of the land in which we live.
The recognized founder of the group was Thomas Cole, who through his paintings of the lower Hudson River valley, began the separation of man’s influences from God’s in the scope and intimate details assigned to the landscape, rather than man’s action within that landscape. His pupil Frederic Edwin Church, influenced greatly by Cole and of superior talent, made the style prominent and valued, and he and his contemporaries John Kensett and Sanford Gifford created a subvein of landscape known as Luminism, where nature’s intense light took on sacred power and spiritual overtones, increasing the landscape’s monumental status and drama. The zenith of the movement was 1855 to 1875, when Church and the great interpreter of the American West, Albert Bierstadt put on shows that brought something not seen before in American art culture, ticket sales, public buzz, and celebrity status.
esbit The American populus has lived the double life of manifest destiny and regret for the loss of the unsullied nature of the land they conquered. It is the eternal argument of progress, that which is lost in the effort to bring progress and order, that was captured perfectly by the Hudson River artists. It is at the heart of America’s notion of the the land’s romantic lure and its inseparable link to the sense of exceptionalism. The measurable wonder that led to a unique American invention, the National Park, was a direct result of these artists, and influences the great American landscape interpreters, like Jacob Collins and Peter Nisbet, to this day.
The Hudson River School artists were not Nature’s illustrators, but rather God’s photographers, and they remain some of the best reasons to visit the premier American Museums. They continue to illuminate the special pact of a land and its people, and keep this American experiment from getting too lost in what brings us comfort, and more appropriately focused on what brings us such wonder and thanks.