Online Presentation: Hudson River School--Part 2

George Inness (1825-1894)

The artist George Inness pursued similar themes in his work.  As with other Hudson River School artists, nature predominates in many of his paintings.  A good example is "Peace and Plenty" (1865), with its sublime background and is more pastoral foreground.  But in "Lackawanna Valley" (1855), depicted here, Inness seems more ambivalent.  The foreground is dominated by tree stumps and a young man gazing down into the valley.  One or two trees in this part of the painting remain standing.  In the top half of the painting is the bustling town of Scranton, Pennsylvania, and the complex of the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad Company, the business enterprise that commissioned this particular work.  The distant mountains seem to be shrouded in a smoky haze that will be quite familiar to anyone who has spent time in this part of the country (and for the same reasons--whether you realize it or not, much of the haze we see around here is due to air pollution!).  In between are some remants of wild nature, which seem increasingly in danger as the town expands in the valley and land is cleared for agriculture in the countryside.  Inness may be saying he prefers the human touch on the landscape.  He may also be warning how modern industrial society threatens wild lands.  Either reading seems plausible.

Jasper Cropsey (1823-1900)

The HRS artist Jasper Cropsey also seems ambivalent about progress.  In some of his paintings, like "Catskill Mountain House" (1855), the natural world and the sublime clearly predominante.  But even here, in the very center of the painting, there is a human habitation, the hotel where urban New Yorkers came to temporarily escape into the wilds of the Catskill Mountains to be renewed and invigorated by the sublime scenery.

Cropsey's "Starrucca Viaduct" (1865), on the right, is a view of the most famous bridge on the route of the New York and Erie Railroad, a stucture that was once touted at the Eighth Wonder of the World.  The bridge was gigantic--some 1,200 feet long and 114 high--and made of hewn stone.  It convincingly demonstrated how railroads might safely overcome natural obstacles, like mountainsides and rivers.  Yet this collosal human structure seems dwarfed by the wilderness it cuts through.  Sublime mountains and threatening skies predominate in the top half of the picture, while a quiet body of water and beautifully colored foliage occupy the foreground.  From a quick glance of the picture it is easy to miss its ostensible subject--the railroad bridge--almost entirely.  Notice also the way the railroad is moving from the right side of the painting to the left.  This is analogous to moving from east to west on most maps, and many HRS paintings including some suggestion of this kind of westward movement.

Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902)

Several HRS painters began specializing in scenes of the American West.  They are sometimes talked about as a separate "Rocky Mountain School," but many of the themes they explore and the approaches to landscape painting they pursue are quite similar to other HRS artists.  One of this period's best-known artists who specialized in western scenes was Albert Bierstadt, who was born in Germany but raised in Massachusetts.  He received formal training at the Dusseldorf Academy back in his native Germany, and then, like Church and Cole, established a studio along the Hudson River.  He traveled repeatedly to the West to paint.  His "Rocky Mountains, Lander's Peak" (1863) is a marvelous example of his work.  Dramatic mountains and sweeping cloud formations form the backdrop for the work.  Through a careful use of light and shadow, the artists draws the viewer into the center of the painting, which depicts a sublime waterfall.  And the foreground includes a pastoral scene, but in this case it's of a native American encampment, complete with teepees, herds of horses, and tribal members milling about.  Paintings like this one brought realistic (though carefully chosen) views of the American West to eastern viewers at a time when long distance travel was difficult, expensive, and uncertain.  This particular painting was quite large (ca. 6 feet by 10 feet) and quite popular.  It sold for $25,000, the most anyone had paid for an American painting up to that point.

One of Bierstadt's favorite places to depict was Yosemite.  His "Domes of the Yosemite" (1863) played a role in convincing Congress to give the Yosemite Valley to the State of California to be set aside as a park "for public use, resort, and recreation" (See Nash, pp. 106-07).  Later (in 1890) Congress would establish the second national park in Yosemite.  As we shall we later in the course,  at the turn of the century site became the center of a controversy when the city of San Francisco tried to build a dam inside the boundaries of the Yosemite National Park. Notice how various manifestations of the sublime predominate in the painting.  You should also realize that this painting is huge, 10 feet by 15 feet.  "Looking of the Yosemite Valley" (ca. 1865-67) is a later version of this same general area.  Notice here the dramtic rock outcroppings, the sun bursting forth through the clouds, and the waterfall, all suggestions of the sublime.  As in many paintings, there are also a few humans in the foreground to give the viewer more of a sense of the immense scale of the background.  A final example from this series, "Yosemite Valley" (1868) is also a really gorgeous image and explores similar themes.

Thomas Moran (1837-1926)

Thomas Moran was also known primarily for his western landscapes, but he also painted scenes in the East.  An example of one of the latter views is "Under the Trees" (1865).  Notice the marvelous use of light, the human figure giving the painting a sense of scale, and the incredibly beautiful foliage.  When paintings like these were first exhibited in Europe, some viewers thought they were frauds because they had never seen trees with such brilliant colored leaves.  At one point Jasper Cropsey even attached dried leaves to one of his paintings to prove he was not a fraud.

In addition to being a painter, Moran was also an explorer.  He accompanied Ferdinand Hayden's 1871 Yellowstone Expedition and produced a number of sketches and paintings of the area.  Hayden's expedition eventually led to Congress's decision to established the first true national park at Yellowstone in 1872 (see Nash, chapter 7).  Two years later Congress paid $10,000 to purchase one of Moran's paintings of the region, "The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone" (1872), which was hung in the Capitol Building (and is pictured here).  Jagged mountains and strange rock formation surround a waterfall, which is in the center (You guessed it--more sublime elements, clearly designed to enchant and impress the viewer).  And if you look carefully in the center of the picture you will see two tiny human figures standing on a rock in the foreground.  Moran produced numerous other paintings of Yellowstone, including the famous geyser, "Old Faithful" (1873), which is yet another representation of the sublime that we have not encountered before.


As the nineteenth century drew to a close, the Hudson River School fell into disfavor.  Realistic landscape painting was increasingly viewed as old fashioned and quaint with the emergence of new styles (like Impressionism) coming out of Europe.  Galleries began refusing to show HRS artists, and art museums often hid them away.  Albert Bierstadt, who had once received record-breaking prices for his landscape paintings, died in poverty.  Interest in the style was finally revived in the 1940s.  Today you can view paintings by Hudson River School artists at many major art museums across the country.

Hudson River School artists encouraged Americans to think about nature in new and different ways.  Their realistic landscapes were widely displayed and widely copied.  Clearly the HRS promoted a more sympathetic view of wild nature.  Sublime scenes provoked the reader to see the divine in nature and to want to experience the actual sites firsthand.  As Nash has tried to argue, sometimes the paintings even contributed to the preservation of particular wild sites.  But, like other Romantics, HRSers also seemed quite attracted to the middle ground between civilization and wilderness--the pastoral, the arcadian, the rural.  Some even seemed to celebrate progress and western expansion.

Please Note:

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