The first time I ever visited the New-York Historical Society, its vast collection of Hudson River School paintings immediately caught my eye. The details and use of light and color in all of the paintings blew me away. When I found out what the Student Historian project would be this year, I knew I wanted to write about the Hudson River School. However, before I began my project I found out, to my dismay, that the New-York Historical Society’s collection of Hudson River School paintings had been temporarily moved. As I explored the museum in search of other objects to write about, I stumbled upon four Hudson River School paintings in the back of the museum. The one that stood out to me the most was “Landscape, Sunset” by Asher Brown Durand. Despite its rather bland title, the painting is incredibly bright and colorful, with meticulous attention paid to the brush strokes and details. With a dark, solemn foreground and a bright, flowing background, Durand perfectly captures the delicate balance between dark and light when the sun retreats behind the horizon.
Instead of focusing specifically on the painting and artist, I decided to center my project around the Hudson River School in general and the historical context from which it emerged. In what seemed like no time at all, I had pages and pages of information on the school; so much that I don’t think I’ll be able to fit everything I’d like to include in the three page limit, never mind this tumblr post. To summarize, the Hudson River School is a group of landscape painters that originated in New York. It was also the dominant art school in the U.S. for the majority of the 19th century. The earliest artists like Thomas Cole and Asher Brown Durand focused on depictions of the Catskill Mountains and the Hudson River Valley. A product of their times, the philosophy and art of the Hudson River School painters were very much influenced by the U.S. Age of Expansion. Starting with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, U.S. landholdings began to increase exponentially. With the newly acquired open wilderness of the West, Americans grew fiercely nationalistic. They were awed by the seemingly endless vastness of the American wilderness and sought to glorify it in any way possible. Among the pioneers of this nationalistic sentiment were, of course, the Hudson River School painters. The painters began to expand their subject matter and painted Western landscapes as well as Northeastern ones. Regardless of what they were painting, the Hudson River School painters always depicted their landscapes with great splendor and beauty, capturing the allure of the American landscape for future generations to appreciate.
To me, the Hudson River School painters were more than just a group of artists; they represent everything that New York, and the United States, is. They made up the first authentically American school of art, forever marking New York as the country’s forerunner in creativity and artistry. They carved out an identity for this country with their depictions of the American wilderness, proclaiming to the world that this is American Art; this is what our country is all about.