The Course of an Empire at the New-York Historical Society

I told you there’d be more!

The centerpiece of The Hudson River School at the New-York Historical Society: Nature and the American Vision is rightfully reserved for Thomas Cole’s epic masterpiece: The Course of an Empire (1833-1836).  The five paintings traces the rise, destructive fall and eventual decay of an imaginary city. The set so powerfully tells a story of decadence to desolation stood as a warning to society of the day…and still today. The warning was much Cole’s intention, who feared industrialization and the ‘copper-hearted barbarians’ behind the railroad would destroy his Hudson Valley.

These pieces alone are well worth the price of admission, so it’s a delight to see them included in the show. Go take a look for yourself!

Go take a look for yourself!

New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West (at 77th Street)
New York, NY 10024
Phone (212) 873-3400

Tuesday-Thursday, Saturday – 10am-6pm
Friday – 10am-8pm
Sunday – 11am-5pm
Monday – CLOSED

The Hudson River School at the New-York Historical Society

September 21, 2012 – February 21, 2013
New-York Historical Society

Entering the New-York Historical Society’s The Hudson River School at the New-York Historical Society: Nature and the American Vision exhibit, I was at first a bit confused. I had never seeing canyons, volcanoes or tundra on drive from New York to Albany, yet there they were lining the walls.

But of course, I soon realized, the Hudson River School wasn’t confined to New York. Manifest Destiny was the buzzword of the day. And as the painter’s traveled West (and South and North and East) they captured majestic, romantic landscapes, feeding other’s imaginations, inspiring more exploration.

The N-YHS’s exhibit is laid out along the Hudson River School painters’ trail they left the Hudson Valley to explore new landscapes. Traveling up the Hudson River, past the Catskills and Albany, north to the Adirondacks and west to Niagara Falls. Leaving New York, to New England, west to the frontier and abroad.

The Hudson Valley

Catskill Creek, 1845
Thomas Cole

Where else to begin my exhibit highlights, but with the founder of the Hudson River School, Thomas Cole. An English expatriate Cole settled in the village of Catskill, New York after traveling as a portrait artist around the East and Midwest.

Catskill Creek, 1845

Catskill Creek, 1845
Thomas Cole

Catskill Creek was painted near Cole’s home, Cedar Grove. The romantic scene shows a reverence for natural beauty characteristic to the School with a small boy with a boat in middle ground of the painting. The small human element is common in many Hudson River School paintings. This touch grounds the painting in reality, allowing the viewer to see the scenery as more than a mystical, mythical landscape, but as place inhabited and real.

The Thomas Cole National Historic Site has two great websites to learn more about the artist, his works and his travels, including an interactive map of his Hudson Valley landscapes. There’ll definitely be some Cole inspired hikes in my future.

Fun Fact: Cole was actually introduced to the beauty of Hudson Valley thanks to the landscape painting of friend, and future Hudson River School-er, Asher B. Durand. So does that make Durand the grandfather of the School?

Upstate New York

Winter Twilight near Albany, New York, 1858
George Henry Boughton (1833-1905)

Winter Twilight near Albany, New York, Boughton

Winter Twilight near Albany, New York, 1858
George Henry Boughton

Standing in front of Boughton’s painting, I couldn’t help but shiver with the work’s palpable chill. Perhaps because Boughton painted en plein aire (in open air), setting up his supplies outside, in front of the scene near Albany, New York.  The cold wind he —  and the boy carrying wood —  must have felt resonates through the canvas.

Fun Fact: Hudson River School artists and their 19th century contemporaries embraced plein air painting thanks to the advent of pre-mixed oil paints and transportable easels or porchade (quick sketch) boxes (source).

Westward Ho!

Donner Lake from the Summit, 1873
Albert Bierstadt

Donner Lake from the Summit, 1873 Alfred Bierstadt

Donner Lake from the Summit, 1873
Albert Bierstadt

The name Donner stirs images of a harsh winter, a doomed clan of pioneers, and well you know the rest.  The story behind the scene adds a macabre, eerie note to its beauty.  The Donner Party would have recognized the scene.  Donner Pass lies just on the other side of the lake.  I imagine it felt strange for Bierstadt, comfortably travelling by train through an area where not 30 years ago such a twisted tragedy had taken place.  A nod to the progress, if nothing else.

The work was in fact commissioned by Collis P. Huntington, the railroad magnate behind the Central Railroad. A scene from outside the window of his train as it cuts through the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the western leg of the transcontinental railroad.

The European Tour

Lake Maggiore, Italy, 1858
Sanford Robinson Gifford

Gifford dropped out Brown University in 1844 to become a painter. He first began as an itinerant portrait artist, but he longed to join the group of artists influenced by Thomas Cole’s breathtaking landscapes. To that end he began studying at the National Academy of Design on Fifth Avenue and 89th street and by 1847 exhibited his first landscape.

Lake Maggiore, Italy, 1858 Sandford Robinson Gifford

Lake Maggiore, Italy, 1858
Sandford Robinson Gifford

Embarking on his first European tour in 1855, Gifford found inspiration for Lake Maggiore in the Italy’s Northern region of Piedmont. The second largest Italian lake, several inhabited islands dot the water, including Iosla Bella, featured in this work.  Again you’ll notice the trademark human element as gondolier fisherman prepare for the catch of the day in the foreground.

Tenth Street Studio Building

Tenth Street Studio Building where many Hudson River School painters lived and worked

Upon returning to New York, Gifford moved into the newly built Studio building on West 10th street, designed for artists to work and live. His neighbors included notable Hudson River School painters Alfred Bierstadt and Frederic Church.

The Studio building began the long tradition of Greenwich Village as the City’s culture capital. Sadly, the building was destroyed in 1956 to make room for an apartment building…One where Julia Roberts now occupies the penthouse.

Tune in for More

I’m going to be writing a few more posts on this exhibit over the next few weeks because, well, there are more things I’d like to talk about, but this post is running long.

I sincerely recommend you make a trip up to the New-York Historical Society and check this one out. And please report back on your thoughts and favorite pieces.

Plan Your Trip

Head uptown and see the show for yourself. I promise, it doesn’t disappoint.

New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West (at 77th Street)
New York, NY 10024
Phone (212) 873-3400

Tuesday-Thursday, Saturday – 10am-6pm
Friday – 10am-8pm
Sunday – 11am-5pm
Monday – CLOSED

Up Next: The Hudson River School

I’ve taken the Amtrak between Albany and New York a few times a year since I was a kid, always sure to sit on the West side of the train to catch the view of the Hudson and the Catskills speeding by. So the New-York Historical Society’s exhibit of the Hudson River School appealed to my nostalgic side and jumped to the top of my schedule. The group of 19th century painters featured captured the some of the region’s most breathtakingly beautiful vistas.

‘Nature and the American Vision: The Hudson River School’ is the on the agenda for the weekend, so check back next week for my impression and to learn a few fun facts about the boys of the Hudson River School. Better yet subscribe (just enter your e-mail in that cute little box over there –>) and I’ll send you an e-mail when the post is ready.

An Amtrak View

My own unworthy interpretation of a Hudson River School scene. Seen from a train window along the Hudson. Shot on an iPhone. Doesn’t quite measure up, but imagine what the pros could do with a view like that.