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American Fine Art

Hudson River School 

The beginnings of art in America were confined almost exclusively to portrait painting.Probably no artist devoted himself entirely to landscape until 1820, when Thomas Doughty, who was already twenty-seven years old, gave up his leather trade and took to painting American views in delicate gray and violet tones. Soon after came Thomas Cole, the real founder of the Hudson River School, who emigrated to America with his father’s family when he was nineteen. 

Hudson River School Influential Painter_Artwork by John Ferguson Weir_Grand panoramic

Grand Panoramic Autumnal View of the Hudson Highlands,
Crow's Nest from West Point.

Hudson River School: The First Native School of Painting in the United States

The Hudson River School was America’s first true artistic fraternity. Its name was coined to identify a group of New York City-based landscape painters that emerged about 1850 under the influence of the English émigré Thomas Cole (1801–1848) and flourished until about the time of the Centennial. Because of the inspiration exerted by his work, Cole is usually regarded as the “father” or “founder” of the school, though he himself played no special organizational or fostering role except that he was the teacher of Frederic Edwin Church (1826–1900). Along with Albert Bierstadt (1830–1902), Church was the most successful painter of the school until its decline. After Cole’s death in 1848, his older contemporary Asher B. Durand (1796–1886) became the acknowledged leader of the New York landscape painters; in 1845, he rose to the presidency of the National Academy of Design, the reigning art institution of the period, and, in 1855–56, published a series of “Letters on Landscape Painting” which codified the standard of idealized naturalism that marked the school’s production. The New York landscape painters were not only stylistically but socially coherent. Most belonged to the National Academy, were members of the same clubs, especially the Century, and, by 1858, many of them even worked at the same address, the Studio Building on West Tenth Street, the first purpose-built artist workspace in the city. Eventually, several of the artists built homes on the Hudson River. Though the earliest references to the term “Hudson River School” in the 1870s were disparagingly aimed, the label has never been supplanted and fairly characterizes the artistic body, its New York headquarters, its landscape subject matter, and often literally its subject.


Hudson River School painters revered nature as the embodiment of the universal spirit. At first glance their paintings seem to represent only beauty and repose. But it is upon reflection that the viewer recognizes how these images evoke a philosophical ideal that places man’s internal harmony in relation to the vastness of nature, transcending literal description to a more mystical mood. Their innovative approach was very different from that of many of their contemporaries who thought of nature as a hostile entity to be subdued or a bonanza to be exploited. Hudson River School artists celebrated the immense nation that lay before them with a sense of awe for its majestic wilderness and a feeling of optimism for the future of civilization in this new world. They gloried in depicting a vast wilderness in which diminutive man retained the intellectual spark that completed the mystical circle of internal harmony. Hudson River School artists believed art to be an agent of moral and spiritual transformation and as Emerson suggested in his 1841 essay Thoughts On Art, painting should become a vehicle through which the intellectual mind could reach the universal mind of mankind. The distinctive disposition of these paintings—gracefully lyrical with discerning philosophical intensity—has led many to champion their significant contributions to the history and development of American art.

The Hudson River School encompassed two generations of artists inspired by images of America’s unspoiled wilderness that they found in the Hudson River Valley areas of New York from 1825 to 1915 and also at the edge of the expanding frontier in the newly opened West. Though the following generation of these artists departed from Cole's philosophical emphasis and depicted scenery beyond the Hudson River Valley, most of them lived and worked near New York City, and belonged to the same social and cultural milieu. They all painted nature in different seasons and weather conditions: bright autumn views (Jasper Cropsey, Autumn—On the Hudson River), stormy seascapes (Martin Johnston Heade, Thunderstorm over Narragansett Bay), verdant interior woodland scenes (Arthur Parton, A Mountain Brook), and tranquil, luminous paintings (Sanford Gifford, The Wilderness and John Kensett, Lake George)

As the country expanded westward, these artists sought dramatic subject matter in various parts of the United States and beyond. David Johnson painted the Landmark in Virginia known as Natural Bridge, while both Frederic Church and George Innes Depicted Niagara Falls. Trips to Ecuador provided exotic, tropical terrain for Church's Heart of the Andes and Louis Mignot's Lagoon of the Guayaquil River. Both Worthington Whittredge and Albert Bierstadt captured the romantic scenic grandeur of the remote Far West. Collectively their paintings reflected a growing pride in the beauty of the American wilderness where human beings and nature coexisted peacefully. Their paintings combined a poet’s romantic sense of nature with a geographer’s sense of place and reflected a new outlook on wilderness—one in which nature was more beautiful than terrifying and where one could find internal harmony with the universe.They were a loosely formed group and the ideas raised in their landscapes were also expressed by American writers of the period.

Following the success of his early career as a painter, John Ferguson Weir became an influential art educator. He grew up at West Point, where his father, Robert W. Weir was drawing instructor at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. He received his art training from his father, beginning at an early age, and through his father was introduced to leading artists. In1866 he exhibited The Gun Foundry, 1866 (Putnam County Historical Society, Cold Spring, New York), a dramatic representation of an industrial subject. Forging the Shaft, 1868 (destroyed; repetition of 1874-77, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), another heroic industrial subject, established his reputation as one of the most promising young artists. Most of Weir’s time and energy was taken up in teaching, the administration of the Yale University School of Fine Arts, and expansion of the art collection, most notably in the acquisition of the Jarves collection of early Italian paintings. 

Hudson River School  Landscape Painting_Grand panoramic autumnal view of the Hudson Highla
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