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5. Masculine Heroes   

5. Masculine

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Activities: Context Activities

Picturing America: The Hudson River School Painters

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Progress (The Advance of Civilization)

[7404] Asher B. Durand, Progress (The Advance of Civilization) (1853), courtesy of Gulf States Paper Corporation, Warner Collection.
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In 1816 Governor Clinton of New York addressed the American Academy of Fine Arts, urging artists to create new movements and styles that would reflect the superiority of American morals and the grandeur of American scenery:
For can there be a country in the world better calculated than ours to exercise and to exalt the imagination--to call into activity the creative powers of the mind, and to afford just views of the beautiful, the wonderful, and the sublime? Here Nature has conducted her operations on a magnificent scale: extensive and elevated mountains, ... rivers of prodigious magnitude ..., and boundless forests filled with wild beasts and savage men, and covered with the towering oak.
By the 1820s, artists had responded to his call. Thomas Cole caused a sensation in the New York art world with his large-scale paintings of the vast panoramas, rugged peaks, steep precipices, rushing waters, and dramatic light effects of the Hudson River Valley. Cole celebrated the primeval, unspoiled quality of the American wilderness, believing that it represented a perfect spiritual state and was a direct reflection of the divine work of the Creator. Cole's powerful landscapes and innovative ideas soon influenced other artists, including Asher Durand, Frederic Church, Albert Bierstadt, and Martin Johnson Heade. Originally known as simply "American" or "Native" painters, this group of artists is usually referred to as the Hudson River School today, in reference to their early focus on the landscape of the Hudson River Valley, which was the "frontier" of the late eighteenth century.

The Hudson River School artists were interested in highlighting the awesome, monumental quality of the American wilderness by juxtaposing it against the minuteness of the human body: many of their paintings feature tiny human figures who are dwarfed by the vastness of the landscapes that surround them. But rather than conveying a sense of alienation or human insignificance, these pictures instead celebrate an ideal of harmony between people and nature. Fundamentally optimistic in their view of American expansion and the promise of democracy, the Hudson River School artists presented images of human industry coexisting in and even complementing the beauty of nature. In Asher Durand's Progress (1853), for example, a small city nestles within a stunning landscape, sending rail lines, telegraph poles, roads, and steamboats out into the wilderness. A group of Native Americans looks out over the scene in awe-struck admiration and happiness. This romanticized vision of industrialization was part of the Hudson River School's aesthetic philosophy, which saw beauty in the contrast between primeval landscapes and pastoral scenes of towns and farms--an attitude in keeping with much of the prose and poetry of nineteenth-century America, from James Fenimore Cooper to Walt Whitman.

The Hudson River School was also noted for its commitment to an almost scientific attention to detail and clarity in the presentation of natural landscapes. Artists usually did their preliminary sketching out of doors, in the midst of the dramatic scenery that inspired them, then returned to their studios to paint the final canvas. While they were intent on faithfully reproducing the natural effects they observed, the Hudson River artists were not afraid to literally move mountains when it suited their sense of aesthetics. "Composing" landscapes by combining elements from different geographical locations, exaggerating heights and expanses, and playing with lighting, these artists created dramatic panoramas that they believed were faithful to the spirit, if not the reality, of the American landscape. After reading Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans, Cole even painted fictional scenes from the novel because it accorded so closely with his sense of America's identity and character. In their quest for new and spectacular effects, the Hudson River artists had journeyed far beyond the Hudson River by the mid-nineteenth century, traveling to Niagara Falls, the Rocky Mountains, California, and even South America to record the expanse and grandeur of the continent.

  1. Comprehension: How do the Hudson River artists usually depict human figures? What is the significance of the figures' size in relation to the vast landscapes?

  2. Comprehension: How does Asher B. Durand portray Native Americans in his 1853 painting Progress? What assumptions underwrite his treatment of their response to "progress"? Why are they situated on a precipice overlooking the town?

  3. Context: Read some of Cooper's descriptions of the view from the overlook he calls "Mt. Vision" in The Pioneers. How do these literary descriptions of the upstate New York landscape compare with the Hudson River School paintings? Why do you think Hudson River School paintings are frequently chosen as the cover illustrations for editions of Cooper's novels?

  4. Context: How do Whitman's celebrations of the diversity--the "multitudes"--that make up the American body politic compare with the Hudson River School aesthetic? Which of Whitman's descriptions of American landscapes and cityscapes might fit within the ideals of the Hudson River School? What parts of America does Whitman celebrate that would probably fall outside of the scope of the Hudson River aesthetic?

  5. Exploration: Many Hudson River School paintings present an idealized vision of harmony between humans and nature, between industrialization and the wilderness. Do you think Americans still subscribe to this optimistic view of the relationship between people and nature? How has the environmentalist movement complicated our understanding of "progress"?

  6. Exploration: Art historians have pointed out that the Hudson River School painters developed a very "masculine" aesthetic. By picturing rugged, remote terrain, these artists interpolate the viewer as an active and intrepid explorer of the wilderness. How might the Hudson River artists compare to the figure of the explorer/hero in the literature of exploration?

[1181] Albert Bierstadt, Valley of the Yosemite (1864),
courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; gift of Martha C. Karolik for the M. and M. Karolik Collection of American Paintings, 1815-1865.
The romantic grandeur and luminism of Albert Bierstadt's western landscapes reflect Hudson River School influences. Realist writers like Bret Harte sought to imbue the same landscapes with the gritty realities of frontier life.

[1616] Albert Bierstadt, Thunderstorm in the Rocky Mountains (1859),
courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
American painter Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) created some of the most famous landscapes in American painting, presenting the West as a pristine and idyllic wilderness.

[1695] Albert Bierstadt, Sunrise in the Sierras (c.1872),
courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Bierstadt's peaceful and idyllic landscapes belied the indelible mark that railroads, ranches, mines, and settlements were leaving on the West.

[2061] Asher B. Durand, Kindred Spirits (1849),
courtesy of the New York Public Library.
Durand's painting depicts Hudson River School founder Thomas Cole, left, and poet William Cullen Bryant in the Kaaterskill Clove. Both Cole and Bryant used the interaction between humans and nature as the primary theme for their work.

[2068] Albert Bierstadt, Emigrants Crossing the Plains (1867),
courtesy of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, Oklahoma City.
The romantic and spiritual tones of this painting by Bierstadt mirror the concept of Manifest Destiny, which held that American expansion across the continent was both inevitable and divinely sanctioned.

[3694] Thomas Cole, The Falls of the Kaaterskill (1826),
courtesy of Warner Collection of the Gulf States Paper Corporation.
Thomas Cole (1801-1848) was one of the first American landscape artists and a founder of the Hudson River School of painting. Romantic depictions of wilderness became popular as the United States continued its westward expansion.

[5931] Worthington Whittredge, The Old Hunting Grounds (1864),
courtesy of Reynolda House, Museum of American Art.
The decaying Indian canoe among birch trees symbolizes the sentimental death of Native American culture found in James Fenimore Cooper's work and other frontier literature. After ten years of artistic training in Europe, Worthington Whittredge returned to America in 1859, impressed with the vast wilderness that still existed in his homeland.

[7404] Asher B. Durand, Progress (The Advance of Civilization) (1853),
courtesy of Gulf States Paper Corporation, Warner Collection.
The Native Americans in the lower left-hand corner of this painting observe the steady approach of American progress and settlement. Depictions of westward expansion such as this one helped publicize and legitimize what was seen as American progress, an ideology that began to be questioned only in the twentieth century.

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