The Hudson River School of Art History: The Artists

If New Yorkers seem especially—even obsessively—enamored with Hudson River views, it’s not just for the fun of watching the birds flock or the sailboats zip along. There is something special, even luminous, about the quality of light along this storied waterway and the open vistas it provides. Filmmakers and photographers know it, and before those technologies were even invented, a group of famous landscape painters knew it too.

In the autumn of 1825, the same year in which the Erie Canal first linked New York City to the Great Lakes by waterway, British artist Thomas Cole boarded a northbound Hudson River steamship at a port in lower Manhattan. After a stop at West Point, he disembarked at Catskill Landing. There he would pack up some painting supplies and hike westward, high into the mountain range that was ablaze with autumn foliage.

The landscapes Cole produced on that trip in no way resembled the dull fall color schemes of his native England. In fact, many argue that they were so infused with color and depth that they gave birth to an artistic movement known as the Hudson River School.

Cole recognized the spectacular endowment of the landscape of the region, including the singularly soft light spectrum that pulses daily over the Hudson River, and was duly inspired. His initial Catskill paintings, which were quickly reviewed that winter of 1825 in the New York Evening Post, caused an immediate sensation in the art market, and the Hudson River School movement was born.

The National Academy of Design, the prominent arts institution of the moment, served as the Hudson River School’s main social catalyst. Many of the school’s artists even worked from the same studio building on West Tenth Street that the academy originally occupied. Several painters associated with the movement kept company in New York City and went on to build their homes at various points along the Hudson. While the style of their work was strongly rooted in realism, they also strove to present an idealized representation of nature, much in concert with popular writers of the time such as Thoreau and Emerson.

One of Cole’s students, Frederic Edwin Church, also achieved great success as a landscape painter. Upon Cole’s death in 1848, one of his close friends, Asher Brown Durand, became the leader of the Hudson River School, a position Cole had never formally acknowledged he’d ever held, though he was recognized during his own lifetime as the founder of the movement. Eventually Durand would go on to serve as president of The National Academy of Design.

Over time the school’s practitioners would branch out as they further experimented with emerging landscape styles such as Luminism, now recognized as an offshoot of the Hudson River School style of painting. The qualities of Luminism – tranquil perspectives; soft, hazy skies; and beckoning, reflective water surfaces – are still found today in the river vistas up and down the Hudson, from the Adirondacks to the Upper West Side.

As Manhattan glass and concrete reach ever skyward and civilization ripples further out into the wilderness, the cache of Hudson River School landscapes conjure a contrasting pastoral mood. Today, as time and technology charge quickly on, the works of Hudson River School artists present an important collective document that helps mark the fundamental shift in our engagement with nature caused by the Industrial Revolution.

Fortunately, from certain vantage points in Manhattan such as the rooftops of luxury residences in the city, this fulcrum is still visible. One such building, The Chatsworth, was originally built in 1904 in an ideal riverside location and now expertly renovated to suit those with modern needs who still value the aesthetics of old New York. It’s a happy irony that highrise buildings—unknown in Thomas Cole’s day—offer residents the sorts of unimpeded views of the Hudson that inspired painters to capture its color and movement. You certainly won’t see whaling vessels from your windows as you drink your morning coffee, but you will catch a glimpse of the inspiring sights that have helped give New York City its well-earned place in the history of art.

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