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The Hudson River School - Thomas Cole and His Followers

Updated on June 19, 2013

Home in the Woods-1847 - Thomas Cole

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Mountain Sunrise Catskill - 1826 -Thomas Cole

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New York's Hudson River Valley is striking in its beauty. The area includes the Adirondack, the Catskill and the White mountains. In the mid-nineteenth century the beauty of the area saw its fulfillment with a unique American genre of art. The Hudson River School, as it came to be known, put to canvas the profound beauty of this natural area. The term Hudson River School describes a romantic vision of a group of landscape artists. The paintings are not limited to the Hudson River Valley but depict landscapes around the world, sometimes from the imagination of the artist alone.

Like many movements, whether artistic or historical, it's difficult to pin down just how it was named. Some attribute it to the landscape painter Homer D. Martin (Howat, John K (1987) American Paradise: The World of the Hudson River School. New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. Harry N. Abrams, Inc. P. 34.)

The works of the Hudson River School artists are at once beautiful and stirring. They remind us of scenes that we've witnessed, but they have a drama that we can't get from a photograph, or even from a firsthand view. These romantic artists were not after a simple photographic image of their subjects. They sought to improve on what they saw, as any romantic would. Some of the paintings do not just depict the scene that is painted. The artists of the Hudson River School would travel the world and sketch scenes that were later included in a painting, a synthesis of different places and views.

The Hudson River School paintings are recognizable for a certain American quality, just as Norman Rockwell, Winslow Homer or Edward Hopper.

The Beginning of the Hudson River School

Thomas Cole (1801-1848) iscommonly acknowledged as the founder of the school. An Englishman by birth, Cole's family emigrated to the United States in 1818 when he was seventeen years old. (Ferber, Linda S. The Hudson River School: Nature and the American Vision. New -York Historical Society, 2009). Cole began his art career doing portraits, but was not successful. He turned to landscape painting, and a school was born. His paintings depict pastoral scenes in various light. His works caught the attention of numerous wealthy benefactors enabling him to travel extensively in Europe studying great landscape artists as well as the Great Masters. He opened a studio on a farm called Cedar Grove in the Town of Catskill, New York in 1827. Most of his greatest paintings were don in that studio. He died at the relatively young age of 47 in the town where he worked. Thomas Cole Mountain, the fourth highest peak in the Catskills, is named in his honor. Cedar Grove is also known as the Thomas Cole House. It became a National Historic Site in 1999. Besides his famous landscape paintings the prolific Cole also drew thousands of sketches on various subjects. 2,500 of these sketches are on view at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Another excellent locale for seeing the works of the Hudson River School is the 250 acre estate of the great artist Frederic Edwin Church in There is an excellent article on Frederic Church and his beloved Olana.

The Course of Empire

Cole brought the techniques of his landscape paintings of the Hudson River School to a pastoral series of works depicting an imaginary place from its primordial beginnings to its time as a thriving civilization to its collapse. The Course of Empire shows some of Cole's most famous works. In the paintings you can see a small mountain or rock outcropping toward the middle of each painting, which anchors the location throughout its long depicted history. These paintings are on exhibit at the New-York Historical Society.

Course of Empire - The Savage State

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Course of Empire - The Arcadian or Pastoral State

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Course of Empire - Consummation of Empire

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Course of Empire - Destruction

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Course of Empite - Desolation

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The Second Generation of the Hudson River School

After Cole's death in 1848, some of his most prominent pupils and followers continued the work of the Hudson River School. Among his followers were Frederic Church, Sanford Gifford and John Kensett. These men were also some of the founders of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The work of this later period is sometimes referred to as luminism, the effect of light on the landscape and the hiding of brushstrokes. The term luminism was never used by the artists themselves, but came into use in the mid-20th Century by some art critics. Its use is often derided by the art community. Whatever you call these paintings, they are beautiful.

Frederic Edwin Church - Niagra Falls

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John Frederick Kensett - Lake George

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Sanford Robinson Gifford - A Gorge in the Mountains

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Albert Bierstadt Mt.Corcoran

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The Hudson River School was a unique time in American art. The paintings' pastoral landscapes and calming images are still vibrant today as they were in the 19th Century.

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    • rfmoran profile image
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      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      I just added a comment about an "excellent article" on Church and linked to your hub on Frederic Church and Olana. Hey, we shouldn't be embarrassed about providing a link in a comment. Your hub adds power to my hub.

    • shiningirisheyes profile image

      Shining Irish Eyes 4 years ago from Upstate, New York

      I list some info on Olana in my profile. Not trying to get a "mention" for myself, just letting you know. It was probably one of the first hubs I ever wrote. It really is an awesome experience to walk the beautiful acreage where he found so much inspiration. You can also tour his home - equally as grand. He actually "positioned" many gardened, lakes, ponds and the like as a living portrait for future generations to come. Each and every building, pathway, garden....all was carefully planned to provide the optimal vantage point of the region. He certainly was ahead of his time. Thank you for writing this as it was a superb article. I tip my hat to you.

    • rfmoran profile image
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      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Wow. Thanks for sharing that. I've added a mention of the Church estate at Olana and a link to its website at the end of the paragraph on the Beginning of the Hudson River School. Thanks so much!

    • shiningirisheyes profile image

      Shining Irish Eyes 4 years ago from Upstate, New York

      I am thoroughly impressed with this hub. I am a direct descendant of Frederic Church and was born, raised and still live not far from his Olana homestead. This homestead is a living rendition of his creative and artistic mind. My family and I visit Olana each summer and it is always breathtaking.

    • rfmoran profile image
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      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      James - Thank you so much for your visit and especially for pointing out my typos, which have been corrected. The beauty and serenity of these works have been with me all my life.

    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 4 years ago from Chicago

      Thank you for this magnificent Hub. I love this School of Art! I have seen the two Thomas Cole paintings at the Art Institute of Chicago, several times, in fact, and "Distant View of Niagara Falls" is a favorite of mine. (The other there is "New England Scenery.")

      The "Empire" series you highlighted is sublime. I especially adore the "Consummation" and the "Destruction." Awesome!

      (By the way, you have a couple of small typos in your picture headings, one before and one after the two paintings I just mentioned.)

      I enjoyed the journey!

      james :D

    • rfmoran profile image
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      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      thanks for visiting penofone

    • penofone profile image

      Anish Patel 4 years ago

      Really enjoyed the look of Sanford Robinsons painting

      Anish

    • rfmoran profile image
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      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thanks Bill.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Loved this, Russ! I have always loved Cole and that style of painting. Thanks for the education; really very interesting.