How Green Was Their Valley: Dreaming America With the Hudson River School
January 12, 1988
The intoxication of the Hudson River School derives in part from the quantity of its output — a quantity amply indulged by the Met’s retrospective American Paradise and by the book that meticulously commemorates it. This is an art with no fear of exhausting its resources, no fear that there could ever be too many depictions of Lake George or the Kaaterskill Clove. Nor does it insist on originality. John Kensett, Sanford R. Gifford, Worthington Whittredge, and their lesser-known colleagues set out to transmit a vision that is no one’s personal property; if their work becomes indistinguishable, it’s a sign they were on the right track. They had found a formula for sublimity, and their duty was to repeat it as often as possible. At the Met, their enormous productions rolled on through gallery after gallery, yet the show was still only a fraction of what it might have been: the curators could have filled the whole museum with it, creating a crystal palace where crowds might glide buoyantly past a succession of falls and bays and hooks and necks and gorges, extending outward from the Hudson and the Catskills to the fords of the Platte and the sequoias of California, Arctic icebergs and Andean volcanos.
The Hudson River painters present the world as a smoothly functioning machine whose byproduct is dizzying volumes of space. The painting is a fulcrum lifting an impossible load of sky. No clouds ever weighed more: the aim was not grace but the force of the real. The artists and those for whom they worked craved vistas so badly that every painting contains as many vantage points as possible. It must be possible for the viewer to leap from valley to mountain tip, to circle the forest and emerge on the far side of the lake, to navigate from rock to rock, to linger over the veins in each leaf. A roomful of such works is a form of delirious excess, a profusion of a profusion, since in theory a single one ought to be enough. How many panoramas of infinity does one person need? By the light of Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, and Asher B. Durand the only answer becomes: More and more and more.
American Paradise celebrates a return to the source: for the Met a literal return, since the museums founders included Kensett and Church, and its first special exhibition featured Kensett and Cole. The collaborative text of the book charts (in sometimes daunting detail) the process by which the School emerged in the 1820s out of the work of Thomas Cole and achieved public triumph and institutional dominance in the ’40s and ’50s, only to lose ground after the Civil War to foreign styles and theories. By the 1870s, the Hudson River School (the name itself was derisive) had become a reminder of provincial awkwardness in an era enamored of cosmopolitanism. Sabbath bells on the Hudson were out; Ruskin, the Pre-Raphaelites, and the Barbizon painters were in. In 1883, a leading critic inscribed the school’s epitaph: “Nothing more alien to what is recognized as art everywhere… has ever existed anywhere, than the now defunct or moribund school of landscape once so much delighted in as the American school, but now so slightingly spoken of as the Hudson River School.… Historical value of a certain mild sort it may be allowed these pictures have; but artistic value they never had.”
The paintings dethroned by an impatience for progress have now been reinstated by a longing for origins. Having lost the idea that we are headed for anywhere very delightful, we crave the assurance that once, at least, everything was all right. The Hudson River painters craved a similar assurance, but they seem to have found it with less difficulty. Through the myth we make of them, we return not to the source but to their own myth of a return to the source. “We are still in Eden,” wrote Thomas Cole; “the wall that shuts us out of the garden is our own ignorance and folly.” He was not alone in having Paradise on the brain. A generation of writers and artists grounded themselves in a sort of methodical ecstasy, a transfiguration of the real so casually accepted as to be almost humdrum. God was in the wilderness, but the wilderness was next door. A sacred aura lingered over the environs of Hoboken. The varied moods of the Creator were displayed as in a monumental diorama: He roared at Niagara and soothed along the Susquehanna. To take a walk was to enter God’s picture book. In Durand’s words: “The Great Designer of these glorious pictures has placed them before us as types of the Divine attributes.” Durand contributed his share to a chorale that included William Cullen Bryant (“The groves were God’s first temples.… Here is continual worship”) and James Fenimore Cooper (“God created the woods, and the themes bestowed by his bounty are inexhaustible”).
These oceanic sentiments emanated from a cozily underpopulated artistic milieu. Durand adapted themes from Bryant’s poems; Cole based one of his best-known paintings on The Last of the Mohicans; Cooper borrowed an image from Cole’s Course of Empire to close out his novel The Crater; while Bryant worked tirelessly at promoting American painting, extolling the depiction of native landscapes as virtually a patriotic duty. In his sonnet “To Cole, the Painter, Departing for Europe” Bryant pleads with him to keep alive within himself
A living image of our own bright
Such as upon thy glorious canvas
Lone lakes — savannahs where the
bison roves —
Rocks rich with summer
garlands — solemn streams —
Skies where the desert eagle wheels
and screams —
Spring bloom and autumn blaze of
With absolute self-consciousness, and the efficiency of homesteaders, they went about manufacturing a culture of morning, of virgin country. They carried with them tools of European make — stanzas, plot structures, ratios, perspectives — but the process of applying them to indigenous materials generated, almost automatically, a new aesthetic. The writers had a relatively harder time of it, since words dragged so much of the old world along with them. For the painters, however, the place made possible a direct tracing of God’s handiwork unstained by history. It was like being privileged to witness some rare eclipse or planetary transit, and they made the most of the chance — especially since they had few others, least of all to ape European painters whose work they had hardly seen at first hand. Cole, surveying the wilderness of possibilities in the American landscape, rejoiced above all in that absence of history: “You see no ruined tower to tell of outrage — no gorgeous temple to speak of ostentation; but freedom’s offspring — peace, security and happiness dwell there, the spirits of the scene.” Landscape painting provided the perfect medium for a Jeffersonian pastoral republic.
So at least ran the theory: a free, contented nation would make a happy and morally healthy art, devoid of violence as of luxury. From such notions sprang one aspect of the painters’ iconography: the praise of settlement and habitation; the reassuring presence of cattle, dogs, plows, buckets, small boats; smoke issuing from virtuous huts, symbolic not of poverty but equality. The world that was to be brought into being by the return of Christ appeared to be materializing already among the hills and fluvial valleys of the border country. Such images became more popular as they became more unreal. By the 1850s, war and industry were encroaching on those outward settlements, but in the late productions of the Hudsonites the same solitary dwellings continue to enjoy the air of paradise. Cole’s stark wilderness was smoothed out into a rural serenity suitable for reproduction in cheap prints and engravings.
It all changed so quickly. In its beginning, American landscape painting already discovers its end, and in the work of its first and greatest figure, Thomas Cole, a hymn of praise takes on the accents of a lament. Cole’s complexity has been ill-served by his being stuck in the role of founding father, yet even his closest disciples were careful to adopt only certain of his aspects, and the “School of Thomas Cole” projected an optimism at odds with the troubled temper of its namesake. The gallery of photographic portraits in American Paradise presents a series of hearty and self-reliant types, outdoorsy Bohemians seemingly unfazed by the world as they find it. The lone exception is the classically haunted daguerreotype of Cole, the face of a stranger here below.
Cole’s career illustrates beautifully the advantages of starting from scratch. In the casualness of his artistic training he typified the artists of his generation. Coming over from England at 17, a journeyman engraver who made prints for calico, he picked up whatever he knew of painting in piecemeal fashion. The product of an enterprising mercantile family (his father founded a wallpaper factory in Ohio), Cole developed a method for landscape painting that was industrial in its logic. The minutiae of nature were to be sketched on the spot and recombined in the studio into massive artificial views. These separate natural elements — elaborately detailed close-ups of leaves, branches, rock forms — were spliced together somewhat in the spirit of a film editor, except that the editing took place in the painter’s eye and mind.
To make a painting became an act with two almost antithetical phases. There was the confrontation with the real, the meticulous sketching of an actual place; here Cole worked with an ardor and discipline that prevailed over his technical shortcomings. But this immersion in the visible was followed by an interlude of voluntary oblivion: “I never succeed in painting scenes, however beautiful, immediately on returning from them. I must wait for time to draw a veil over the common details, the unessential parts, which shall leave the great features… dominant in the mind.” Sense impressions had to be processed inwardly and modified according to the dictates of imagination: “If the imagination is shackled, and nothing is described but what we see, seldom will anything truly great be produced either in Painting or Poetry.”
This manufactured super-reality struck Cole’s contemporaries as overpoweringly authentic. “Here… is a young man,” wrote Bryant, “who does not paint nature at second hand.… Here is the physiognomy of our own woods and fields.” But to see the 1826 Falls of Kaaterskill as a picture of a real place is to see with eyes different from ours. The eyes that could see that as real could also accept Prometheus chained among the Catskills or angels materializing along the cliffs of the Hudson. Cole’s vistas demand to be populated by mythological figures.
However much Cole might praise the absence of history, we could not help inventing histories to fill the gap. Wearying of the landscapes that remained his surest commercial bet, he embarked on the allegorical sequences The Course of Empire (1836) and The Voyage of Life (1840). The patenter of the purely American landscape now offered a counter-world constructed out of European fragments. Freely rearranging the debris of the old world, he created a kind of science of fiction: a history of the future, an alternate past. In The Course of Empire we pass from wilderness to pastoral republic to luxurious civilization, before sliding into violent decline and barbarian invasion, and ending up (in the incredible Desolation) with an uninhabited tract of lush wreckage, as if the Mediterranean had been abandoned to rot in the sun. The four-part Voyage of Life presents a similar schematic progression, in which the seasons of life are the stages of a solitary boat trip downriver, from the luminous headwaters of childhood through the apocalyptic rapids of man’s estate.
These works are far removed in spirit from the main development of the Hudson River School, yet the difference between them and Cole’s landscapes seems immaterial. Every phase of these remarkable frozen operas is staged in extreme long shot; the titanic scale of the Catskill views persists from first to last. With Cole it is a short leap from direct observation to religio-political allegory. The shape of a rock or cloud is as much a spiritual vision as the shape of a celestial messenger. No geographical location is without its disturbing suggestions of unwritten histories and hitherto unrevealed scriptures. The “sublimity of untamed wildness” represented by Schroon Mountain, Adirondacks — its peak isolated in a bowl of light, a needle point rising out of an ocean of storm colors and splintered branches — is an occasion for awe which might change at any moment into terror. This is not a world that humans can hope to control; they can only accept their own tininess in the face of it.
From Cole his followers took practically everything: the scope, the details, the theory, the unwavering ambition, and (as far as they were able) the commercial flair. While they went about replicating Cole’s approach on a grand scale, however, the darker and quirkier elements fell away. Cole’s greatest landscapes seem at once cosmic events and mental projections, unstable, hollow, ghost-ridden, as if the rocks were playacting. In the work of those who followed, the world becomes altogether more solid, more comforting, more normal.
The wilderness is still there, but it no longer threatens the happy valley of the settlers: instead it functions as a benign backdrop, an eternal light show imparting to human existence a sense of form and proportion. Leaf by leaf and pebble by pebble, the painters build up a canvas that laboriously imitates the permanence of the natural world, creating an illusion not merely of depth but of duration. In Whittredge’s The Old Hunting Grounds, an abandoned Indian canoe decays in the shadowy foreground, half-sunk in a listless tam, while around it crowd the sunlit birches of the indifferent present: the human past goes under, but the forest endures. Whittredge could hardly have foreseen that the birches would be the next to go.
Of the many American attempts to suspend history and time, the Hudson River paintings are perhaps the most sustained. Their fixed monumentality denies the transience of the scenes they depict, even though the signs of change crop up on all sides. Industrial incursions and the environmental ravages of the rail companies are paralleled by the gradual extirpation of the Indian. The painters celebrate a brief interval between the removal of the savages in order to secure the forests, and the removal of the forests themselves. The tiny symbolic Red Man in the dead center of Cole’s Falls of Kaaterskill marks a vanishing point: the noble past salutes the present age to which it has bequeathed its haunts.
Cole was still of a young enough generation to wonder what was to be done with the space thus inherited. He lived sufficiently long to find out the answer: it was to be annihilated. His 1837 View on the Catskill — Early Autumn depicts a vista that no longer existed; it is a reconstruction, from earlier sketches, of a stretch of low-lying forest flattened to accommodate the Catskill and Canajoharie Railroad. “The copper-hearted barbarians,” wrote the painter to his industrialist patron Lumen Reed, “are cutting all the trees down in the beautiful valley on which I have looked so often with a loving eye… Tell this to Durand, not that I wish to give him pain, but that I want him to join with me in maledictions on all dollar-godded utilitarians.” As Oswald Rodriguez Roque recounts in American Paradise, Cole subsequently felt obliged to apologize for the intensity of this outburst, “probably fearing that Reed, a successful capitalist, might think him too radical.” But in a private journal Cole gave full vent to his feelings: “This was once a favourite walk but the charm of quietness and solitude is gone… If men were not blind and insensible to the beauty of nature the great works necessary for the purpose of commerce might be carried on without destroying it… But it is not so — they desecrate whatever they touch — they cut down the forest with a wantonness for which there is no excuse, even gain, and leave the herbless rocks to glimmer in the burning sun.”
That Cole should have felt the need to tone down his protest pinpoints the ambiguous social role he and his colleagues played. They specialized in memorializing enclaves of wildness, yet they themselves were a prominent feature of the process by which those enclaves were being cleared away. Traveling in the wake of the pioneers, the landscapists functioned as advance men for the realtors and travel agents. The Catskill views popularized by Cole and Durand provided a basis for tourist hotels and short rail journeys, while the souvenir shops that today clog Lake George can be traced back to the tantalizing empty vistas of Kensett and Heade. The Hudson River painters created, among other things, one of the most successful advertising campaigns in American history. Bierstadt’s glistening peaks brought the desolate otherness of the Rockies under control by converting them into objects for sightseeing.
It was all part of the 19th century project of universal colonization, the conversion of the world into a vast encyclopedia. No one was more at home in that atmosphere than Cole’s pupil Frederic Church. In Church the dreamy aura of Cole’s paintings changes, Faustlike, into a determination to make dream reality. Church’s embrace of the world is also an appropriation of it: the point of view described by Above the Clouds at Sunrise (1849) would almost have to be that of a god, an explorer-god bearing a compass, a telescope, and the writings of Humboldt. The immense South American views that crowds lined up to see in the 1860s can still overwhelm, if only at the shock of discovering that Cinemascope was invented in the 19th century. Chimborazo aspires to be nothing less than the world, microscopic and macrocosmic, relying finally on size as if desperate that it would not otherwise be understood.
Church, the most imperial of American artists, combined the roles of philosopher and self-promoter, contemplative poet and rugged adventurer. His enormous financial success made him the most visible of a generation of painters who, by and large, had a pretty good time of it. Shuttling between the edge of the wilderness and the heart of New York society, summering among the crags and crevices to soak up views that would be unveiled on East 10th Street, the artists had an enviable ability to be both marginal and central. They could enjoy a prosperous relationship with their patrons and the public, while remaining free to indulge the prerogatives of roving Bohemians.
No matter how far they went for raw material, their center was Manhattan. The pattern of their working life involved a ceaseless foraging for vistas that could compete with all the others at the seasonal shows. American Paradise reproduces an amusing series of Thomas Nast cartoons in which they clamber across mountains and through woods, trailed by bands of devoted day-trippers and art fanciers. The August 1859 issue of The Crayon informed its readers where the painters were working that summer, much as New York might do a rundown of upcoming shows and movies: “Beginning at Newfoundland, coasting along the shore to Sandy Hook, we hear of Church, Gifford, the Harts, and Boughton… Colman and Shattuck are on the Androscoggin; Kensett is at Nahant; Strother is somewhere in the vicinity of Boston,” and so on, through a list of several dozen practitioners.
Starting from a core of largely self-educated individuals, the Hudson River painters made themselves into indispensable presences, visionary entertainers for an expanding middle-class audience. In the process, they became the establishment, setting up the National Academy of Design and the Met, and comfortably serving as arbiters of aesthetic taste. It is hardly surprising that the school’s inherited gestures stiffened gradually into ineffectual rituals, or that its familiar subject matter acquired more than a touch of pomposity.
In response came the revolution within the revolution now known as Luminism. The term, a recent art-historical coinage, suggests an organized movement, but it seems to have been a spontaneous scaling down on the part of artists long associated with the Cole tradition, such as Kensett and Gifford. Faced with an endless diet of ostentatious bigness and busyness, the Luminists began to produce drab, small-scale landscapes more concerned with mere air and light and flat expanse than with the convolutions of the picturesque or the heavy freight of literary allusion. This stripping away of geographic and symbolic furniture culminates in the frozen clarity of Martin Johnson Reade’s The Approaching Storm or in Kensett’s extraordinarily austere Eaton’s Neck, Long Island, a rendering of a bare cove composed of a few nearly monochrome blocks of shape, a painting which is to Church’s work as a Zen garden is to Notre Dame.
The world conspired to erode the dominance of the Hudson School. The invention of photography did more than anything else to expose the blatant unreality of the supposedly lifelike paintings in the Cole tradition. Albert Bierstadt, once renowned for the unearthly loveliness of his Rocky Mountain scenes, found himself taken to task for his loyalty to the Cole aesthetic. The intentionally imaginative sublimities of his lighting effects were now deemed “the glare of a Bengal blue light… a theatrical scene.”
Emblematic of the shift was the work of George Inness, the emerging master of dusks and mists, as pure a visionary as Cole but in an oddly diminished mode. With Inness we approach the alternately wistful and paranoid beauties of the fin de siècle, under the sign of a homegrown mysticism that finds God not on the mountaintops but in the backyard with the laundry. This God, however, is not so much revealed as latent: He is an undertone, a running motif. Inness wanted landscapes on a human rather than cosmic scale, bearing the mark of human presence, and his characteristic tonality suggests a pervasive air of heartbreaking reminiscence. Sorrow floats among the fogbound branches and renders them lovely. He maps a turning inward: discarding the scientific leaf-painting of Cole and Church, he makes the trees as vague as they really look.
The wilderness has by now virtually disappeared. Those who seek the sublime must find it in places set aside for respite from the machines. Eden becomes a private nature preserve, an estate carefully maintained by a patron with a flair for japonaiserie. Ambling along Inness’s dim lanes and fields, we might expect to run across Henry James and Edith Wharton, rapt (at the tail end of a country weekend) in a sort of genteel satori. The nature into which Cole set out as an explorer — ready to risk everything, ready to start everything over again — had by the end of the century become the carefully chosen setting for an after-dinner stroll.