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December 09, 2002

Hudson River School, Part I


I assume you remember a few weeks ago one of our devoted readers, Felix Salmon, dismissed the Hudson River School as:

…a derivative and parochial set of painters taken seriously by almost nobody outside the NE of the US and who have shown their lasting influence precisely nowhere.

Not content with that blast, he described the accomplishment of the primary founder of the Hudson River School, Thomas Cole, as being limited to:

…taking Netherlandish landscape painting, blowing it up a bit in size, and painting medium-sized mountains instead of fields with cows.

I’d like to thank Felix for his comment, because it resulted in my spending a lot of time looking at, and reading about, the Hudson River School painters, which I found extremely rewarding. Nonetheless, while Felix will have to make up his own mind about the Hudson River School, I’m not sure his comments constitute the last word on the accomplishments of this group of artists.

If Felix had confined his remarks solely to the eldest and least inspired of the Hudson River painters, Thomas Doughty (1793-1856), there wouldn’t be a great deal for me to take issue with. While I would be rather slow to dismiss the human accomplishment involved in making a career as a self-taught painter in America in the first few decades of the nineteenth century—especially as a pioneer in what was at the time a virtually nonexistent genre, landscape—it must be admitted that Doughty was a derivative painter. His work utilizes formulas developed by the Dutch--such as low, rounded hills near water surmounted by large, clear skies--although it owes even more to the works of Claude Lorrain, as the following example will make fairly clear. (As always, these are thumbnails and I would urge you to click on them to see the "big picture.")

T. Doughty, Farmstead in the Valley, 1820; Claude,Idyllic Landscape, c. 1663

However, when we get to Thomas Cole (1801-1848), Felix’s description simply won’t do: we’re dealing with a far more ambitious and inventive artist. Cole was born in the English Midlands, in a well-to-do family of textile manufacturers, but his father’s business failed. Cole had to leave school, and was apprenticed to a calico designer and wood engraver in a textile factory, a humiliating and terrifying experience that left him with a life-long horror of sliding into the working class. He migrated to the United States with his family in 1818, where he settled in Philadelphia and worked as an engraver. As Robert Hughes notes:

[Cole] saw, in Philadelphia, works by portraitists Gilbert Stuart and Thomas Sully, whose names “came to my ears like the titles of great conquerors.”…Without formal training, he learned the rudiments of oil painting from a traveling portrait limner. But they were only rudiments. Without access to life classes or any intensive advice, he never learned to draw the human face or body competently. (Neither could his hero, Claude Lorrain.)

Nonetheless, Cole found in landscape painting an arena for his artistic energies. At the age of 24 he moved to New York City, found a dealer and, as a result of the friendly intervention of John Trumbull (then president of the American Academy) connected with his first patrons, chiefly wealthy men of the Federalist elite. Cole’s sensitivity to the artistic currents of his time—as well as to the cultural and political preoccupations of his clients—far outstripped that of an artist like Doughty. The next year, 1826, Cole painted a view of a recently opened tourist site in the Catskills:

T. Cole, The Falls of Kaaterskill, 1826; C. D. Friedrich, Frau am Fenster, 1822; J. L. David, Marat Assassine, 1793

Formally, this is quite a departure from either the Dutch or Claude Lorrain. As Jean Clay documents in his excellent book, “Romanticism,” many if not all of the formal pre-occupations of Modernism were in fact originally raised in Romantic painting, in some cases as early as the last quarter of the 18th century. (Of course, this invites the question of whether it would be more sensible to treat Neoclassicism, Romanticism and Modernism as merely chapters of what might be called “The Art of the Industrial Revolution,” but that’s the subject of another posting). Among these formal pre-occupations is what Clay refers to as “the rediscovery of the picture plane.” The blocked recession and utter frontality of Cole’s picture, which is extended to the very top of the canvas by the threatening storm clouds, coupled with the complete absence of a horizon line, reflect the contemporary neoclassical aesthetic of J.L. David and Caspar David Friedrich, not 150-year-old Dutch or French models.

Cole has edited the image, removing the handrails, steps and the viewing tower of the tourist trade to emphasize the now-historical “natural” state of the site, which he also highlights by one significant addition. As Robert Hughes notes:

On the remote rock ledge, a solitary Indian is hallooing into space. He is, presumably, the last of the Mohicans. By the time (1826) Cole returned him to the landscape, the native peoples of the Hudson Valley and Long Island were all but wiped out, but as an emblem of vanishing wildness Cole thought him indispensable.

This melancholic preoccupation with decline and extinction remains a touchstone for Cole throughout his career, rather paradoxically for the founder of a school that has become associated in the public mind with the optimism and Manifest Destiny. Cole’s melancholy existed, of course, alongside his boundless ambition, which led him two years later to make an extended trip to Europe. There he met J.M.W. Turner, toured European art galleries and museums and spent a couple years painting in Italy. Cole synthesized all these forces by creating a series of paintings beginning in 1831 entitled “The Course of Empire.” They are a set of images—deliberately blurring the distinction between landscape and history painting—which sequentially trace the rise and fall of a Classical civilization. They are plainly meant as a precautionary demonstration of the dangers facing America, the “New Rome.” These dangers, in Cole’s opinion (and in the opinion of his Federalist patrons) were personified in the ascendancy of popular democracy in the person of Andrew Jackson, elected President in 1828. Stylistically, Cole’s European sojourn has clearly put him “under the spell” of Claude and his contemporary, Poussin:

T. Cole, The Course of Empire: Arcadian or Pastoral State, 1836; N. Poussin, Landscape with Orpheus and Eurydice, 1650-1

While these paintings are a bit of a step backwards for Cole in their spatial conception, painting in series is an element that he could not have found in his Baroque models. Moreover, in these paintings Cole—no doubt rendered indiscreet by the urgency of his political opinions—taps a rather terrific vein of pure American nuttiness. His depictions of idyllic innocence and imperial decadence influenced generations of Hollywood filmmakers. (Of course, many of American film’s most iconic visual themes derive quite directly from the Hudson River painters.) One can see why he befriended and was inspired by “Mad” John Martin, the British painter of vast apocalyptic landscape canvases.

T. Cole, The Course of Empire: Destruction, 1836; T. Cole, The Course of Empire: Desolation, 1836

Later Cole went on to paint another series, entitled “The Voyage of Life.” While the content of this four-painting set has been accurately described as unalloyed Victorian kitsch, in formal terms it highlights how far beyond Felix’s Dutch models Cole had gone. In the painting “Manhood” the action takes place in an underground river, with the dimly lit walls effectively substituting for the picture plane. Two holes are blasted into this stygian picture plane; one shows a distant (and rather hopeful) landscape prospect—assuming that our hero successfully rides the rapids he is just entering--and the second is created by the halo surrounding the guardian angel. The formal tension between the anxiety-ridden frontality and planarity of the cave (against which the hero is quite plausibly portrayed as engaged in prayer, seeing what lies before him) and the hopeful elements of the painting, which are recessed deeply behind the picture plane, clearly reflect the tensions between Cole’s religion and his natural pessimism.

T. Cole, The Voyage of Life: Manhood, 1842

I can't close without pointing out a little-known canvas in which Cole achieved a virtual burst of "futurity." It seems to have incorporated material from his European adventures that he couldn’t work into “The Course of Empire.”

T. Cole, The Architect's Dream, 1840

This painting could virtually illustrate another of the formal preoccupations common to both Romantic and Modern painting catalogued by Jean Clay, which he terms “Construction by Assemblage.” Here Cole creates such an incongruous mix of different architectural styles, assembled from different times and places, all politely existing in rigorous perspective that it serves as a dream-parody of rationalism. Not only could this painting have been exhibited with the Surrealists, I would offer that it could be exhibited today.

Cole is many, many, many things. Some of them don’t go down well with today’s dominant cultural class: he was a nostalgic conservative suspicious of populism, an anxious social climber, a sentimental Christian. Simultaneously, of course, he was also an autodidact “outsider” artist, a voice for environmentalism and a critic of industrial capitalism. One suspects that he had so many agendas that contemporary spectators probably discount him on that basis alone. I’m sure most people can hardly deal with his paintings that aren’t relatively traditional landscapes. But while he was hardly the most skilled of painters, his driving ambition, obvious intelligence and genuine love of beauty somehow found ways to give all of his obsessions form. Thus he would seem to speak most eloquently to the present generation of artists and spectators—especially if they prize conceptual content over suavity of execution.

In my next posting on this topic I’ll take up some of Cole’s “disciples” from the Hudson River School.



posted by Friedrich at December 9, 2002


Thanks, Friedrich, for a most enlightening piece: as I'm sure you suspected, I had no idea that Cole had done all that other stuff as well as his Hudson River views. I hereby unreservedly take back anything I might have said about Netherlandish landscape painting (a school which in my kind of circles is used more as a metonym for "boring old brown paintings" than it is taken particularly seriously as a movement) as having anything whatsoever to do with the Hudson River School.

Cole, indeed, seems, as you say, to be much more interesting: an autodidact with lots of crazy ideas. I have to say I'm not completely sold on your interpretation of the Kaaterskill Falls painting: try as I might, I can't see any J-L David or C. D. Friedrich in it. And I think that Indian is more symptomatic of your "Victorian kitsch" than he is emblematic of a "melancholic preoccupation with decline and extinction". I think that Cole, like many painters of the wilderness, simply wanted to Photoshop out any signs of humanity, bar the native/savage.

I'm sure that the other paintings you show are very big (where are, they, by the way? have the series been kept together?) but they're obviously simply bad as well. Comparing Cole to Poussin just isn't fair to either of them. And I fear to think what Turner would have said had he learned what Cole had wrought in the wake of their meeting.

That said, I'm happy to place Cole into the catgory of slightly mad historical curiosities, rather than the category of overrated landscape artists. I'm sure we both prefer the former to the latter, so in a sense you've upgraded my view of him, I guess. Thanks!

Posted by: Felix on December 9, 2002 01:26 PM

I appreciate your thanks, Felix. In response to your comment, I added a couple of pictures, one from J. L. David and one from Caspar David Friedrich; perhaps they illustrate the formal obsession with frontality and restricting depth common to many Neoclassicist/Romantics. If these two examples don't convince you, I suggest you take a look at Jean Clay's "Romanticism"--a study of late 18th to mid 19th century painting organized by formal patterns. It's a very interesting book. However, I must add a question for you: what exactly do you mean by the term "bad"? One of the reasons I'm using this blog to do my little art-historical pieces is a reaction against the conventional notions of art history, with its clearly defined pantheon of geniuses at the top and its vast numbers of artists and art works thrown into the trash heap of obscurity. While I have no bad words for the geniuses, whom I often adore, this system seems to often gloss over the genuine human oddities of the great (think of Turner's poetry, or of Constable buying his own paintings back)and also unfairly stigmatizes the "obscure" or "unfashionable" artists, many of whom have lots of interesting things to say. Also, just for my own development as an art appreciator (and occasional artist) I like to look at paintings that repel me and figure out, if I can, what is bothering me about them--it's often not so far removed from something that excites me in other works.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on December 9, 2002 08:16 PM

Well, umm, that is...

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on December 9, 2002 08:20 PM

Caveman like pictures from Cole guy.
Caveman thank Fred for analysis, too.

PS Caveman appreciate autodidact loonies in most endeavours.

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on December 9, 2002 08:21 PM

Fine article. I can't wait 'til you get to Thomas Eakins.

Posted by: Brian on December 10, 2002 02:26 AM

Hey Friedrich --

Thanks for the JLD and CDF, both of which I love. Still don't see it. Yes, I agree that TC's painting is frontal and emphasises the picture plane. Yes, I agree that when JLD and CDF did it, they had a "formal obsession with frontality". But no, I don't think that TC had any such formal obsession, and I don't think that the flatness of his painting is in any way a deliberate neoclassical statement. Sometimes, a flat painting is just a flat painting.

Shall respond to your bad art question in a comment on Michael's posting today.

Posted by: Felix on December 10, 2002 11:42 AM

Ah, Felix, there you go again. You're working awfully hard to miss my point, which is simply that Cole was very alert to the artistic issues of his day, far more than you seem willing to grant him (remember, he worked as an engraver, and was probably far more acquainted with European painting of his era than you might think even prior to his "Grand Tour.") It strains credibility to say that "sometimes a flat painting is just a flat painting" when (1) that flat painting is produced at the same time as paintings that you admit evince a formal interest in frontality and (2) when such an interest has never shown up in landscape painting previously in the entire history of art. Looking forward to your discussion of bad art.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on December 11, 2002 01:18 AM

Hallo ihr armen Schweine!
Ihr wurdet sogar ausserhalb Deutschlands mit Caspar David Friedrich gefoltert.Herzliches Beileid !
Bonnie und Clyde

Posted by: Bonnie and Clyde on January 27, 2003 03:17 AM

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