“Yes! Go first to Nature and learn to paint landscape, and when you have learnt to imitate her, you may then study the pictures of great artists with benefit. Why should not the American landscape painter, in accordance with the principle of self-government, boldly originate a high and independent style, based on his native resources?”
– Asher B. Durand, a founder of the Hudson River School
This quote, by one of the founders of the Hudson River School, is among many greeting viewers on the walls of the museum gallery. Make no mistake: nature is not merely the subject of the painters of this period, but also muse and often-deified raison d’être.
For the American Romantic artist of the early 19th century, nature was abundant, exuberant and unfathomable. Artists of this time and place went to unprecedented lengths to document the landscape, becoming adventurers as well as visionaries.
In some respects, the ideals of the Romantics – which included writers and philosophers as well as artists – can seem quaint in contemporary circumstances. In 2016, what do we make of the Hudson River School artists? Are these paintings of a vanishing American landscape mere historical curiosity? Or do they still have something to say to us today?
The paintings of this period are of first homegrown artist movement in the still-young republic, says curator Brandon Ruud, who led a tour of the exhibit. The artists helped create a national identity based on their vision. The subject itself—a wild landscape of seemingly boundless abundance that distinguished the New World from its European roots—leant the movement its originality.
The idea of “imitating” nature, encouraged by Durand, one of the founders of the movement, is anathema to many contemporary artists. But despite his advice, painters didn’t so much imitate nature as use it as a platform from which to leap. Great liberties often were taken with the physical places in the landscape that inspired them. This is seldom evident when viewing the actual paintings, which, for all the imbued drama, are executed in a convincingly naturalistic style and with an eye to intimately rendered detail.
I recently picked up a volume of essays by Paul Shepard on this very topic. Shepard, a 20th century philosopher and ecologist, did more than write extensively about the Hudson River School. He went to great lengths to demonstrate how different the paintings are from the very places they depict by taking photographs from the vantage points of particular paintings. The artists freely interposed imagined foreground elements on recognizable scenes and the topography itself is often exaggerated in terms of contour and scale.
In an example from the exhibit, Louisa Davis Minot dramatized the pristine power of Niagara Falls in part by omitting the burgeoning commercial establishments that even then threatened to diminish the purity of the experience.
The artists did this because the landscape was more than a subject. It represented ideals embodied in the new republic—a land of irrepressible freedom and limitless opportunity. It was also a land of unimaginable natural wonders, which dazzled audiences who flocked to see the canvases.
Even today, the relevance of the Hudson River School goes beyond historical importance. In a very real sense, our lasting perception of nature and wilderness was a creation of the Romantic idealists. Before that time the landscape was set decoration and wilderness a place to be feared and conquered. And while Modernism has come and gone, their vision of nature lingers in the popular imagination.
Durand inquired, with grand rhetoric characteristic of the period, “Why should not the American landscape painter, in accordance with the principle of self-government, boldly originate a high and independent style, based on his native resources?”
He was echoing the temper of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s own exhortation in his transcendentalist masterpiece, Nature, to “enjoy an original relation to the universe.”
Both are saying that people ought to get outdoors and experience nature for themselves, in all its visceral power and glory. This idea stood in revolutionary opposition to common practice wherein a “grand tour” of Europe and the work of Classical and neo-Classical predecessors dictated the tenor and style of painting.
The exhibit wisely includes a section of paintings derivative of European antecedents in order to drive this point home. The neo-Classical elements—Greek or Roman ruins in the landscape, for example—and contemplative moods contrast the wilder character of more typical Hudson River School compositions.
By the end of the 19th century, the Romantic style had fallen out of favor, supplanted by Impressionism and subsequent Modernist movements. The world was rapidly changing. The landscape was increasingly exploited. And although the Romantic style waned, it left a lasting mark on American culture. Along with contemporaries like Thoreau and Muir, the artists of the Hudson River School had tapped a deeply rooted need to protect dwindling wild places that prefigured an embryonic conservation movement.
It is in this impulse, to protect and save nature as well as to marvel at it, that the Hudson River School retains its cogency today. We are in a similar age when there is growing global realization that for too long the Modernist ideals of progress and technology have obscured our interdependence with the natural world.
The exhibit reaches a crescendo in its final gallery, which is devoted entirely to the suite of five paintings by Thomas Cole entitled The Course of Empire. Although I’d seen them before, they lose none of their emotional or intellectual power with repeated viewing. The sequence depicts the rise and fall of a civilization supposed to be mythical, but clearly recognizable in its Classical architectural and stylistic detail. The scenes proceed from an untamed wilderness through imperialistic excess and on to destruction and desolation.
According to Ruud, the paintings (from the 1830s) were Cole’s deliberate attempt to warn and admonish the leaders of the new nation not to succumb to historical precedent, to protect the extraordinary landscape that made America exceptional. There was no lack of hubris in Andrew Jackson’s land of manifest destiny. The substance may have shifted, but a similar tone can be heard today on the presidential campaign trail.
A visit to the Milwaukee Art Museum to see Nature and the American Vision: The Hudson River School may be just the antidote. I recommend it. It runs through May 8, 2016.