Art Guide Northwest

Features of Beauty and Magnificence:
The Hudson River School at SAM

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By Matthew Kangas

Thanks to Tacoma Art Museum's new chief curator Patricia McDonnell's extensive connections in the art museum world, an extraordinary survey of 19th-century American landscape paintings, "Hudson River School: Masterworks from the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art" (to Jan. 16, 2005) is sure to draw huge crowds to the museum's brilliant new building designed by Antoine Predock.

"Hudson River School" is at least two shows in one. The first is a selection of two generations of artists: Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Church, Thomas Cole, Asher Durand, John Trumbull, and a few other, less well-known men, like the African-American painter Robert Duncanson. The second is a grouping just as important and beautiful, if not more so: the American Luminists who paralleled and followed the first group: Martin Johnson Heade, John Kensett, and Sanford Gifford.

They epitomized what Gifford wrote: "The really important matter is not the natural object itself but the veil or medium through which we see it." While following the first group's fidelity to nature and dedication to American scenery, the Luminists favored maritime views, too, and added a German- rather than English- or French-inspired appreciation of light and atmosphere.

A few years after the Revolutionary War, American culture as a whole was dismissed or despised by the English and Europeans. All that was to change once the Hudson River School artists began exhibiting in New York, London, Paris and Munich. Trained in a variety of ways, from lowly apprenticeship to the haughty art schools of England and Germany, the first-generation figures like Cole, Bierstadt and Durand flourished in the early and mid-19th-century, dovetailing the expansion of the nation, noticing the invention of photography (which they sometimes used as an aide-mémoire), and accompanying the new sense of national pride that fueled the markets for their work among wealthy railroad magnates, robber barons and arms manufacturers.

Cole was British-born and trained in Philadelphia and New York. Bierstadt came from Prussia with his parents in 1832 and returned to train in Düsseldorf, Germany at the age of 50. Church's father was a successful Hartford banker and silversmith who sent his son to work with Cole. Trumbull was the oldest (1756 - 1843) and had been an assistant to George Washington during the War of Independence.

While we associate the group with New England scenery and, later, Yosemite Valley and the Rocky Mountains, it's important to stress the international character of their vistas: Canada, Ecuador, Mexico, Panama, Jamaica, Italy and Spain were all given the new American treatment as well as locales in New York, Wyoming, Pennsylvania, and Florida. These sojourns also matched the growing stretch of American empire and commercial interests at home and abroad.

Frederic Church: Vale of St. Thomas, Jamaica (1871), oil on canvas, 48 5/16" x 84 5/8". Photo: Wadsworth Atheneum

Albert Bierstadt: Toward the Setting Sun (1862), oil on paper mounted on canvas, 7" x 14". Photo: Wadsworth Atheneum

John Kensett: Coast Scene with Figures (Beverly Shore) (1869), oil on canvas, 36" x 60 3/8". Photo: Wadsworth Atheneum

Thomas Chambers: Niagara Falls (c. 1835), oil on canvas, 22" x 30 1/16". Photo: Wadsworth Atheneum


Cole was a prolific author, poet, journalist and letter-writer, deeply cultured and in tune with the emerging classic American writers of the day, like James Fenimore Cooper, whose Last of the Mohicans (1826) was an inspiration for one of the paintings in Tacoma. A pair of 3-by-4-foot works, Evening in Arcady and Roman Campagna (both 1843) perfectly captures dawn and dusk in the Italian countryside.

Wilderness became the new "cutting edge" topic for American artists like Cole, Church and Bierstadt. It had been feared and loathed in the 18th century, was rediscovered by the Romantic poets like Wordsworth, taken up by the Hudson River School, and was eventually rejected by the Luminists and, of course, the French Impressionists. Before that, however, Bierstadt, especially, embraced and conquered the new American wilderness -- exactly what was occurring politically as the Old West (Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee) gave way to the Far West (California, the Pacific Northwest, and the Rockies). Bierstadt's 1862 Toward the Setting Sun is a potent, controversial scene of two wigwams and four Indians. Its sunset symbolizes what was widely believed to be happening, the extinction of Native Americans.

J. M. W. Turner, the greatest of all English landscape artists, admired Church's art. Church's travels to South America and Mexico, as well as northeast Canada, led to some of the most extraordinary and mystical of American paintings. The huge Vale of St. Thomas, Jamaica (1867) was painted after the death of Church's two young children from diphtheria; its simultaneous darkened sun and shining skies might be seen as a symbolic attempt to reconcile a personal tragedy with professional success.

Another show-within-a-show is constituted by the six views of Niagara Falls by John Trumbull (1807 and 1808), Alvan Fisher (1823), Thomas Chambers (1835), Kensett (1855), and Church (1856). There was nothing like Niagara in Europe. Its fame may have led the English art critic John Ruskin to note that water was "to all human minds the best emblem of unwearied, unconquerable power."

Another of Ruskin's comments about nature, that "God is not in the earthquake but in the still, small voice," soon found analogies in the more intimate scale and goals of the Luminists. Gifford's Sunset on the Hudson is not that different from the Seattle Art Museum's Gifford, a sunset on Astoria Harbor in Oregon (It would have been nice to see that, and Gifford's Mt. Rainier, hanging near their counterparts in Tacoma.).

One historian's description of George Inness's "asymmetrical composition, subdued tonal palette, and emphasis on light and atmosphere" can also be applied to the Luminists. Kensett's Coast Scene with Figures (1869) captured the steel gray waves of the Atlantic Ocean on a Massachusetts beach. A quieter clarity and tranquility characterize these artists as well as their masterly treatment of water.

Several pictures will be of special interest to residents of the Pacific Northwest. William Beard's Mountain Stream and Deer (1865) evokes an autumn scene with two bucks surprising one another. Bierstadt's In the Mountains (1867) may capture the Sierra Nevada Mountains, but it definitely resembles the Cascades and Olympics of Washington State. Finally, Jacob Ward's Wolf in the Glen (1833) is more timely than ever, suggesting how the Hudson River School expressed interests that are part of our region's core beliefs today, however assaulted by industry and development they may be: ecology, endangered species, the sanctity of wilderness, and the magical and mystical beauty of unspoiled nature. All this is still conveyed in their art.

MATTHEW KANGAS, frequent contributor to Art Guide Northwest, co-wrote the American entries for the permanent collection catalog of the Frye Art Museum. He is also the author of Paul Heald and Late Luminism. Copyright Matthew Kangas, 2004

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