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Sara Foss's Thinking It Through
by Sara Foss

Thinking It Through

A Daily Gazette life blog
Her column and blog rolled into one

American art at the Albany Institute

My parents visited last weekend, and I decided that we would probably enjoy a trip to the Albany Institute of History and Art.

The museum is currently hosting two very good exhibits, one on Currier & Ives, and one on the landscapes produced by artists associated with the Hudson River School. We visited the Hudson River School exhibit first, which features a plethora of paintings and drawings by the movement’s leading lights, such as Thomas Cole and Frederic Church, and lesser known (at least to me) figures such as Troy native Dewitt Clinton Boutelle.

The Hudson River School was a group of artists who lived and worked in the Hudson Valley, not a formal school. (If you’re really interested in the Hudson River School, the Thomas Cole Historic Site in Catskill and Olana, the Hudson mansion where Church lived and worked, are both worth a trip.) Part of the exhibit’s charm is that it showcases work that features regional and local scenery, such as the Catskills, the Adirondacks and the White Mountains of New Hampshire. There are depictions of Niagara Falls, but also of the Cohoes Falls, which inspired me to take my parents to the Cohoes Falls after we got out of the museum. (My mother is wild about waterfalls.)

Many of the landscapes present an idealized vision of nature — as a place of spirituality and peace — which might explain why I found some of the darker paintings, with their depictions of turbulent, storm-tossed landscapes, particularly intriguing. Also interesting are the paintings that depict nature and industry: the peaceful countryside, with smokestacks in the distance. I didn’t get the impression that the painters were especially troubled by the growth around them — the factories and mills aren’t presented in a particularly ominous way, and there appears to be little sense that they have the potential to despoil the natural world the painters have grown to cherish.

I learned quite a bit from the Currier & Ives exhibit. I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I guess I thought that Nathaniel Currier and James Merritt Ives actually created the images for which they are known. But Currier & Ives were printmakers, and the prints they produced were created by artists as lithographs, and then hand colored.

The exhibit showcases the wide variety of images and themes these prints explored: There are prints depicting disasters, such as the Chicago fire of 1871, and prints depicting American pastimes, such as ice skating, and simple scenes from American family life, such as a soldier’s homecoming. What struck me most about the prints of Currier & Ives was their unabashed patriotism and moralism — one print, which depicts an impoverished family wandering through a desolate landscape, serves as a warning against leading a dissolute lifestyle. One of the more interesting prints is actually vaguely erotic, depicting a husband kissing his wife as she covers up her children’s eyes; the museum blurbage suggests that Currier & Ives created a number of erotic prints before deciding that such images might not be good for their wholesome brand.

Anyway, both the Hudson River School and Currier & Ives exhibits are worthwhile. The art is good, and you’ll learn a lot.

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