Art historians are guessing when they tell you it was New York Times critic Clarence Cook who first made up the term “Hudson River School.”
What they are much more certain of is that Cook, or perhaps it was painter Homer D. Martin, used the phrase sometime in the 1870s. And when they used it, they meant it in a disparaging way.
“It’s a term that had a pejorative connotation, and it wasn’t evened coined until the popular style of painting was changing,” said Doug McCombs, curator at the Albany Institute of History & Art, who will introduce the institute’s new exhibit, “The Making of the Hudson River School: More Than the Eye Beholds,” with a special presentation on Saturday.
“It denoted an old-fashioned style of landscape painting that was being replaced by European influences coming from Barbizon and Dusseldorf.”
Thomas Cole is generally recognized as the founder of the Hudson River School because it was he who in 1825 first started traveling from New York City up the Hudson River into the Catskills to paint large and sweeping romanticized landscapes of the region.
‘The Making of the Hudson River School: More Than the Eye Beholds’
WHERE: Albany Institute of History & Art, 125 Washington Ave., Albany
WHEN: 2 to 3 p.m. Saturday
HOW MUCH: Free with $10 admission, $8 for students and seniors
MORE INFO: 463-4478 or www.albanyinstitute.org
“The term generally refers to a group of artists who were living or had studios in New York City and were working in the Hudson Valley painting landscapes,” said McCombs.
“Thomas Cole certainly played a huge role, but there were other talented painters working with landscapes around that same time in that area. Thomas Doughty and Dewitt Clinton Boutelle, a Troy native, did some wonderful work but they seemed to have passed from the great canon of American art. Everyone knows Thomas Cole, but today only art historians remember names like Boutelle and Doughty.”
There were a number of others as well, and all of them were swept up in the march of progress that was taking place in a young and expanding United States of America.
“All these paintings were showing the influences of the new studies in geology and the Earth’s evolution,” said McCombs. “There was very important science coming into its own during that time period, and our exhibit is also going to address the school’s effect on tourism. Tourism and landscape painting went hand in hand. Each one was driving the other.”
The institute’s exhibit will display more than 120 objects related to the Hudson River School. Many will be large paintings, some from outside the institute’s collection, but McCombs is also including drawings, sketchbooks, letters, prints and photographs.
“We have about 15 private lenders who are contributing to this exhibit,” he said. “Many of them are people who live here in the Hudson Valley, but there are some from the Boston area, Connecticut and throughout the whole Northeast.”
One of the highlights of the exhibit is an early Cole painting of the Featherstonhaugh estate in Duanesburg painted in 1826. George William Featherstonhaugh was one of the first settlers in the Duanesburg area. He married into the Duane family and was one of the primary individuals responsible for the formation of the Albany to Schenectady Railroad in 1831.
Featherstonhaugh was also the first official geologist of the U.S. government, hired to help survey the Louisiana Purchase. Some of his descendants still live in the Duanesburg area.
“It’s a very pastoral scene with sheep in the foreground along with the Featherstonhaugh estate and the surrounding landscape,” said McCombs, who added that the painting is in its original tiger maple frame. “Featherstonhaugh was an early patron of Cole’s, this painting is one of several Cole did for him, and it has remained in the family’s hands. We have it for this exhibit, and it’s a painting that probably hasn’t been on display for 40 or 50 years, perhaps longer.”
Some of the other painters whose images will make up the exhibit include James Hope, John Frederick Kensett, Thomas Moran, William Mason Brown and Asher Durand. While not all of those artists who were inspired by the Hudson River School actually lived and worked in the region, many of them did.
“There were many artists who were born in Europe, mostly England, but then came to America through New York City as young men,” said McCombs.
“And, there were also French artists who were looking at prints of what the Hudson River School artists were doing and then would do their own paintings and ship them to America to be sold. There was a big nondescriminating audience for these paintings, and it was a status symbol to have one of these paintings in your home.”
Some American artists, including Cole in 1829, journeyed back across the Atlantic Ocean to see what they could learn from the European art world. William Cullen Bryant, a famous poet and a big fan of Cole’s work, was concerned that his friend was going to be unduly influenced by the foreigners.
The last two lines of Bryant’s poem “Sonnet — to Cole, the Painter Departing for Europe” read:
“Gaze on them, til the tears shall dim thy sight;
But keep that earlier, wilder image bright.”
“If you were an artist back then, Europe was the place you wanted to go to and learn from the masters,” said McCombs.
“But Bryant was so fearful that Cole’s visit to Europe was going to corrupt his American style, he wrote a sonnet about it warning Cole. He loved Cole’s work and how it gave us these large wonderful images of the American wilderness.”