RAYMOND J. STEINER
THERE WAS A time that it was something of a put-down to be called a “Hudson River Painter” — as if traipsing around the wilds of upstate New York was somehow undignified, an activity beneath the artist who took his craft seriously. After all, hadn’t all the successful artists — the “good” artists — studied in Europe at the Academies of Munich, Düsseldorf, and London, at the great Salons of France? Wasn’t it all about the highly varnished, “licked” surfaces of tightly composed, meticulously detailed, studio- contrived “machines”? Oh sure, there were sketching tours, the romps into the French forest of Fontainebleau or the Bavarian village of Polling, but only to get a taste of nature — not to immerse oneself in it, and especially not in the unkempt landscapes that skirted the Hudson River or were tucked away in the Catskill Mountains. Painting was a gentleman’s pursuit, and not only the artist, but the buyer knew what “art” was all about and that it had little to do with the uncouth business of tramping through the forests like some rough backwoodsman.
Still, under Cole’s persistence and a growing belief that God might just really speak through nature, the New York City clique began to take a closer look at their more hardy brethren, those “wild men” who sought their inspiration and motifs directly from the source. Especially after the canvases of men like Church and Bierstadt were beginning to draw larger and larger crowds at their impromptu exhibitions at such restaurants as Delmonico’s. Not only did they charge a fee for people to see them, but the visitors paid. Perhaps there was something to this “Hudson River” group, after all.
Well, the rest — as we know — is history. It was not long before they were called a “School” — even though — and not withstanding that Cole was nominated as its “father” — there was never any concerted effort made or manifesto written by the artists themselves that might justify lumping together these landscape painters as members of any formal organization. The truth is, that even among those groups that did come up with a manifesto — like the futurists, Dadaists, surrealists, or other such pretentious “movements” — artists by nature and by necessity marched largely to their own drums — else they would not be worthy of the name “artist.”
So, whether they came to “discover God’s sublimity” or just to uncover a cracking good scene, the landscape painters indeed found a goldmine of motifs that in fact continues to draw serious painters to the Catskill Region/Hudson River environs, and whether they associate with a “School” or not, their fruits continue to delight and enchant art lovers the world over. Surely, it was what these upstate New York views yielded to the sensitive landscape painter’s eye and not any particular theory or art historian “package” that initially drew and managed to captivate the anonymous collector from whom this exhibit* has been borrowed. Some 116 works representing the output of seventy-one different artists comprise “American Scenery” — and there is no such artificial theory or package that can water down the remarkable power of their combined impression. When one considers that the exhibit actually represents less than half of the original collection, the impact is only deepened and one can only yearn to see it in its entirety. Granted that the collecting has been going on for some fifty years, where did the owner come upon so many who might rightly be viewed as bona fide practitioners of a “Hudson River School”? Over the years, I’ve had some knowledge of the major players — have had my personal influences from both past and modern painters in my own amateur landscape efforts — but I was delighted to find so many new names to add to the “clan”. Especially revelatory for me was to see that women such as Eliza Greatorex, Laura Woodward, and Edith Wilkinson Cook had joined in such countryside treks, undoubtedly another mitigating factor in making those early citified painters take another look at the “Hudson River” painters — if women were setting their easels up alongside their male counterparts, perhaps such plein air painting was a bit more genteel then they had assumed and not the roughneck activity they had so lightly dismissed.
Although arranged thematically to satisfy the curator’s concept of order — “Pairs”, “Times of Day”, “Weather Conditions”, etc. — “American Scenery” actually falls into a larger pattern, an order that follows a broader art-historical path that — whatever individual painters might have intended — subtly guided their eyes and hands. Step back a bit and allow the paintings to draw you in on their own terms, and you note a gradual move from grand vista to intimate motif. Accepting Cole as the “father” of the Hudson River School of Painting, we readily see that his “American Scenery” is a far cry from that of, say, Eliza Greatorex (“Landscape Near Cragsmoor, NY”) or James McDougal Hart (“Mountain Falls”) or Gottlieb Daniel Paul Weber (“Haying Scene”) or Daniel Charles Grose (“Autumn on the Whissahickon”) or Charles Linford (“Woodland Interior with Stream”) or Asher Brown Durand (“Woodland Interior”) —all but the last of these, incidentally, new discoveries for me. Viewing all of these paintings on their own terms, what we see is a gradual but marked move from painting what the European “Schools” had decreed was a “landscape” to a real-life, actual view of a particular piece of nature. To put it another way, we see a move from painting “landscape” to painting American “landscape”.
This is not to say that the curator, Judith Hansen O’Toole, obfuscates or misleads in any way by imposing a bit of order on an extremely unwieldy number of paintings to make for easy (or easier) viewing, only that, given a chance, the paintings — either singly or en masse — speak loudly and clearly for themselves. As O’Toole rightly notes in the admirable catalogue that accompanies the exhibition**, American landscape painters were seeking their own authentic voice, striving to break from the traditions and conventions of the European art academies and schools. And, notwithstanding the much-touted “Ashcan School” that grew up in the city claiming first-place as genuine “American” art, these landscape artists had already found an unmistakably powerful national voice. As the exhibit reveals, their landscapes slowly change from the slick and polished vistas that are reminiscent of the manicured lands of Europe, to a hands-on rendition of what actually lay before their eyes. They began to see the rough and untidy parcels of land that characterized the wilderness that America had to offer and found that it was not only paintable, but also worthy of being painted. Rather than turn their back on the sublimity of a Cole or a Church or a Bierstadt, they saw it in the true hand of God directly guiding them to a vision of raw nature that had so far escaped the intervention of human cultivation. God, they discovered, revealed Himself in the unkempt copse as well as in the vast vista with misty mountain backdrop. All you had to do was look — and surely this exhibit shows that is just what they did.
And, contemporary landscape painters — comprised nowadays of an equal number of men and women — are still looking — and managing to find that hint of something “beyond” that manages to elude direct replication — no matter how many times renditions of trees and ponds and streams and rocks and mountains are put on canvas. What makes this exhibit so exciting, in fact, is that there is not a single canvas in the show that palls. Each has its own power to attract, each tries to tell us, you and me, also to look — we don’t need theories or handles or rationalizations — we don’t need environmentalist alarmists to frighten us — we don’t need justification to appreciate that we are surrounded by the hand of some Divinity if only we took the time to really look. At bottom, that’s all these painters are trying to get you to do — see nature as they see it and to recognize that the only “school” they belong to is that of the elite circle of visionaries who have tried to teach us how to really see since time immemorial.
Landscape painting has come under some rough times since the advent of what we like to call “modernism” — passed off as passé, retro, traditional, academic, even “dead” by some, but the odd thing is that it still is practiced and still draws a crowd of viewers. “American Scenery” tells you why. Kudos to Neil Trager, Director of the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art, for bringing this exhibit to its rightful home here in the Hudson Valley; to Judith Hansen O’Toole for taking the time to select this particular viewing and to write the catalogue; and, finally, to the anonymous collector who has so lovingly preserved this precious piece of American heritage. Surely art historians tracing the meandering course of American art owe this far-sighted and knowledgeable art lover a very special debt, indeed.
I highly recommend that you not miss this rare opportunity to view some of America’s finest art — and while you’re traveling up or down or across to New Paltz, be sure to take the time to note the surrounding landscape.
*“American Scenery: Different Views in Hudson River School Painting (thru May 14): Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art, SUNY New Paltz, 75 S. Manheim Blvd., New Paltz, NY (845) 257-3844. Catalogue available.
**Different Views in Hudson River School Painting, by Judith Hansen O’Toole, 160 pp.; 9 7/8 x 11 ¼; Color Illus.; Endnotes; Selected Bibliography; List of Paintings. $35.00 Hardcover.
American Scenery: Different Views in Hudson River School Painting
is organized and toured by Westmoreland Museum of American Art, Greensburg,