The Great American Landscape Painters

History of The American Landscape Painters

The American wilderness has long held a special place in the global imagination. Though by no means the empty and theftable landscape imagined by the earliest settlers from Spain, France, Portugal, and England, the natural bounty and diversity of North America was a stark antithesis to the crowded, messy order of premodern Europe.

The thrill of exploring an unknown world, and the unfamiliar and awe-inspiring geology of North America, with its wide rivers, foreboding peaks, arid desert tablelands, and vast plains of shimmering grass made a deep imprint on the national psyche. In the nineteenth century, during the greatest period of transcontinental migration, the encounters between settlers and nature created a profound impact on the malleable American cultural milieu. The result was the Hudson River School and the golden age of landscape painting.

For art lovers, the works of the Hudson River School are simply the most astonishing and vivid representations ever produced by humans of the world around them. Every year, people flock from across the globe to American museums with as much fervor and enthusiasm as those who go to see the natural sites and sights themselves.

Influence On Landscape Photography

Many landscape photographers today, including myself, have found beauty and inspiration in the works of these masters. The composition, light and overall mood created in many of these paintings hold the same allure to landscape photographers of today. Please read on to learn more about the Hudson River School, the movement itself and more about three of the painters who helped cement these works into history.

Origins of the Hudson River School

The emergence of the Hudson River School was the result of a unique confluence of artistic styles, philosophical ideas, and demographic shifts occurring in the early and middle nineteenth century.

In Germany, Romanticism had taken the art world by “sturm,” and painters were tapping into their own emotions and internal worlds of feeling to create new and unique works. Paintings were no longer just an exercise in craftsmanship, but a tool of emotional expression, akin in a way to the religious paintings of the Medieval Period centuries earlier. In Düsseldorf, at the art academy there, aspiring artists and pupils began to experiment with applying romantic ideals to the land itself.

Meanwhile in America, after spending two years living by a small pond outside Concord, Massachusetts, the thinker Henry David Thoreau wrote Walden, a celebration of the natural world and a declaration of its vitality to the human spirit. This body of thought, along with the raw experience of many Americans at that same time crossing the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains to reach the mythic West paved the way for an original and revolutionary art movement on American soil.

In around 1825, the painter Thomas Cole began what would come to be called the Hudson River School by painting the hills and valleys around the Hudson River in upstate New York. Like the process of American Expansionism, the scope and focus of the school gradually widened and moved West over the next five decades, through the Adirondacks and Catskills, across the wide prairies of the Midwest, through the snowy peaks of the Rockies and Sierra Nevada, and finally to the Pacific.

Dozens of painters, many of whom had studied at or were in some way tied to the academy at Düsseldorf, made the same difficult journeys as the westward settlers and produced images of such vivacity and grandeur that people from as far as Europe were drawn to come and risk their lives to experience them.

American Landscape Painters Style

The Hudson River School did not promote any new and revolutionary painterly technique, but was rather a proponent of a new style of representation. Painters adhered generally to realism, but enhanced their subjects to convey a sense of mystery and majesty and provide commentary on the relation between humanity and nature.

In these images, humans are shown as small—practically insignificant before the infinite grandeur of the wild. When they do appear, they are clearly at the mercy of their surrounding environment—tenants in a world they may inhabit but will never conquer. When farms or houses are shown, they are similarly diminutive in stature, and their existence constitutes a harmony rather than an expansion or victory. In this way, painters advocated a respectful and pacifist relation between the order of society and the ungoverned splendor of nature. And not only is this the right way of being, it is the only way. As Thomas Cole’s The Course of Empire attests, even the most powerful civilizations will eventually succumb under their own might, leaving only eternal nature behind to reclaim the earth.

But the true focus of these works is not the hubris of humanity, but nature itself. These paintings are meant to celebrate what has not yet been touched by development and progress. The mountains are always haloed in diaphanous shrouds of silver cloud; the prairies and forests bear the most vivid emerald greens of summer. The rivers are wide and mirror-like, the lakes are placid and blue, the meadows are filled with deer and elk, and the skies are clear and bright. Though the Hudson River School and American landscape painting in general in the 19th century fed the flames of rapid and ecologically damaging expansion and settlement, the aim of these painters was not to encourage any sort of crusade or triumph over the Earth, but merely to publicize and celebrate the beauty that existed and could be found in the far corners of the continent.

Major Exponents of the Movement

The Hudson River School contained dozens of individuals, many of whom had direct connections with its romantic antecedents and the academy in Düsseldorf. Many women were also part of the movement, marking it as one of the major steps in the democritization of the art world in general.

Above all however, the works of three artists remain especially memorable and representative of the style and its unique impact on history and the imagination.

Thomas Cole

Thomas Cole was born in Lancashire, England in 1801 and emigrated with his family to the U.S. in 1818. By the time he was an adult, he had settled in Catskill, New York, and had become a minorly successful self-taught painter.

After selling a number of paintings to a good friend, Cole was financed in a summer trip to the Hudson Valley where he created the paintings which would become the foundation for the Hudson River School. The immense popularity of these works, including views of Kaaterskill Falls, Cold Spring, and surrounding environs catapulted him into international fame.

Cole’s work revolved mostly around the various mountains and valleys of the Appalachians and nearby regions. His scenes depict pastoral woods and quiet meadows, with any traces of humanity far on the horizon or nearly hidden among the dense foliage. Cole’s work is perhaps less imaginative than subsequent painters in the school, but he captures the peaceful serenity that people like Thoreau were directly encountering as they ventured out into nature. Still, he could not resist transforming some of the lazy rolling summits of the Appalachians into foreboding crags in the background of some of his works.

Frederic Edwin Church

Church was a pupil of Cole born in 1826 and a member of the second generation of Hudson River School painters. Church came from a wealthy family, which enabled him to train as an artist from a very young age. Under Cole’s tutelage, he captured more tranquil and private scenes from the mountainous regions of upstate New York, working primarily in the style of his teacher.

Upon the death of Cole, Church’s scope began to widen. He traveled to Colombia, Panama, and Ecuador, exploring little known regions of the lower Americas and presenting them on canvas to the rest of the art world.

As he roamed, Church’s paintings began to take on a more fantastical character, namely through the use of light. Huge rainbows and fiery sunsets adorn his works, adding an awesome and otherworldly aspect to his scenes which would pave the way for perhaps the greatest of all American landscape painters.

Albert Bierstadt

Like Cole, Bierstadt was an immigrant, arriving from Germany to the U.S. at the age of 1 in 1831. Bierstadt had an early aptitude for art, and when he returned to the German states in 1853, he won acclaim among the circle of painters at the academy in Düsseldorf. Five years later, he was back in the U.S. and rubbing shoulders with the now-established Hudson River School.

From there, in 1859, he went west with a land surveying party for the U.S. government and encountered the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada. From then on, and through many other trips across the continent, Bierstadt came into his own, perfecting his unique and instantly recognizable style.

Bierstadt’s paintings are massive, majestic, and above all luminous. His work with light built upon that of Church, but reached an entirely new level. His canvases often seem to give off a numinous light of their own, transforming the harsh and forbidding peaks of the mountain west into elysian palaces of silver and glass. His work on the Yosemite is his most recognizable, where deep glacial valleys seem to breathe forth their own heavenly glow. Few names from the Hudson River School have become household, despite the movement’s impact, but Bierstadt is a notable exception. His huge canvases serve as the centerpieces of many American museums and his work still elicits the same awe and wonder in an age where many of these places are only a plane ride away.

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The works of Cole, Bierstadt, Church, and others of the Hudson River School publicized the far-off wonders of the frontier and would help construct a sense of national identity and a body of political philosophy that still echo today. Now, as the issue of environmental preservation looms ever larger, the artworks themselves remain relevant as potent reminders of the parts of our world we have already lost, and all that we stand to gain from immediate and concerted action.