Here’s One From the Heart

In their day, the Hudson River School landscape artists were so popular with
the public that people would line up and pay a fair amount of money just to
view a single painting. Our plein air blogger Jennifer King shares her insights
on why the works of these painters were worth waiting in line for back then—and
what they can teach artists in the here and now. Enjoy!

I think it's safe to say that the Hudson River School is the group of
artists who put America on the map of the art world. Starting in the 1830s,
their exquisitely detailed, richly colored, often very large landscape
attracted worldwide attention. People were fascinated by the
world-class abilities of the artists and by the beauty of the American
landscape, but I think there was more to it than that.


 Lake Tahoe by Albert Bierstadt, 1868.
 Lake Tahoe by Albert Bierstadt, 1868.

The first wave of the Hudson River painters was led by Thomas Cole and later
by his good friend Asher B. Durand. They tended to paint in the wilderness of
the Northeast, such as the Hudson River Valley, the Catskills, the Adirondacks,
and the White Mountains. A second generation of Hudson River artists who shared
their passions and interests expanded their range of landscape painting
subjects to include scenes of the western United States and beyond. This group
included Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Edwin Church, Sanford Robinson Gifford,
Thomas Moran, Jasper Francis Cropsey, and John Frederick Kensett.

Given the very precise and detailed way in which they painted, we might
assume that Hudson River painters were intent on replicating the landscape
around them. But documentation was not at all what their work was about. In
fact, many of them often painted idealized versions of their subjects,
modifying aspects of their scenes to make them more beautiful. To understand
the significance of these artists and their works, we have to look at what was
happening in society at large.


Shroon Mountain by Thomas Cole, 1838. Manchester Beach by Sanford Robinson Gifford, 1865.
Shroon Mountain by Thomas Cole, 1838. Manchester Beach by Sanford Robinson Gifford, 1865.

We had great thinkers like Emerson and Thoreau encouraging people to think
about nature and our relationship to it. We had American politicians talking
about the young country's Manifest Destiny to expand westward and
"civilize" the wilderness—and the people—found there. And we had the
public at large questioning the existence of God, and wondering if nature was
the true religion. These weighty, provocative, evocative themes—not the
physical attributes of the land—were the true subjects of the Hudson River
paintings. And that is why I think they were so popular in their day and even
in ours. These paintings ask important questions and make powerful statements
about the most important issues in life.


Autumn by Frederic Edwin Church, 1845.
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
by Thomas Moran, 1872.

by Frederic Edwin Church, 1845.

My friends, I think that if we want to make Art, we have to think like the
Hudson River painters. Not paint like them, but think like them. We should be
asking ourselves, what is important in our society today? What are the issues,
both personal and social, that are significant? And how can we, as artists,
encourage people to address these issues through our work? Whoa. Tall order.
But let's aim high. Are you with me?


I second Jennifer's call to action 100 percent. And so does American Artist magazine, which
continues to promote artists who are thinking through the big questions in
their work and instructors who educate and share tried and true techniques to
students of all levels of painting ability. Certainly it is a long road to
paint like the Hudson River School, but American Artist is certainly thinking
like them. If you are committed to the same kind of artistic practice, consider
a subscription to American Artist.


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