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Art Imitating Life to Preserve It: The Hudson River School

We teeter on a delicate line between what we perceive as necessities in our tech-infused lives and what we recognize as degradations of the land around us in pursuit of said requisites.

We turn to artists for edification as well as entertainment. In the debate between nature versus progress, we depend on them to filter and interpret this great philosophical quandary – and give us a great show to boot.

These days, artists either enthusiastically embrace technology (think James Turrell’s radical experiments with light, recently exhibited at the Guggenheim) or issue screeds that warn (in sometimes apocalyptic terms) against the perils of our genetically engineered universe (think Margaret Atwood’s terrifying dystopia in “Oryx and Crake,” see below).

The origins of this very modern conundrum bears a precedent in the Industrial Revolution, particularly in relation to projects like the Erie Canal’s construction, which connected the Hudson River and the Great Lakes and was built between 1817 and 1825. The response to what artists and writers perceived as the threat of modernity was immediate and visceral, and was eventually epitomized by the Transcendentalist movement and the Hudson River School of Art, the first official artistic movement in America.

The Hudson River School was founded by Thomas Cole, who escaped from the urban pressures of New York City to the Hudson Valley for the first time in the summer of 1825, at the behest (and courtesy) of merchant and art patron George W. Bruen. Bruen would eventually purchase five of the landscape paintings produced on Cole’s summer sojourn, including “Two Views of Coldspring,” “The Catskill Mountain House,” “The View of Fort Putnam” and a rendition of “The Kaaterskill Falls.” The first five paintings, painted that summer and the following autumn, were exhibited in New York City in 1826 and immediately caused a sensation, garnering Cole critical praise and important patrons, including Robert Gilmor of Baltimore and Daniel Wadsworth of Hartford, who helped bankroll Cole’s allegorical explorations of naturalism, romanticism and the depredations of over-industrialization.

Cole didn’t consciously grow a movement, but one did emerge, quite organically from the seeds planted by Cole’s five-part “The Course of Empire,” (1833-1836), inspired in turn by Byron’s poem, “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” (1812-1818), a verse of which Cole quoted in ads for the series:

There is the moral of all human tales; 'Tis but the same rehearsal of the past. First freedom and then Glory - when that fails, Wealth, vice, corruption - barbarism at last. And History, with all her volumes vast, Hath but one page.

Cole’s 1826 exhibit in New York was spotted by three contemporary artists who would come to know Cole and join the nascent Hudson River School with their own creations – Asher Durand, John Trumbell and the playwright William Dunlap. The two most towering figures in the movement are Frederic Edwin Church (not coincidentally, Cole’s student from 1844-46) and Albert Bierstadt.

In addition to sharing ideological, philosophical and aesthetic aims, the Hudson River School formed a social clique. In 1858, many worked together at the Studio Building on West Tenth street, one of the country’s first artist squats. Most joined the National Academy of Design; in 1845, Durand became president of the academy and published a series called “Letters on Landscape Painting” (1855-56), which set out the philosophy of the Hudson River School.

As we pointed out in a recent article, the reach of Hudson River School of art splashed way beyond the banks of the Hudson River Valley and even beyond the state, to New Hampshire, Maine, the West – even Europe and Asia.

Though examples of the School’s output can be found around the globe, New York States of Mind thinks the best way to fully appreciate the masterpieces is in the very places that inspired them, where the artists brought out sketch pads to record the sprawling vistas en plein air, to be repainted late in NYC studios – often with added flourishes that accentuated the ominous hand of human interference. Below, find our guide to inspiring vistas in the mid-Hudson Valley. (Other stops on the official Hudson River School trail can be found online here.)

1) Start out at Hasbrouck Park, site of Joseph Tubby’s “Hudson River from Ponckhockie” (1850s, The Friends of Historic Kingston Collection). Tubby was sketching partner to Hudson River School painter and diarist’s Jervis McEntee’s, and he often depicted wild scenes in his work. His perspective for the painting was south-facing, with Sturgeon Point on the east bank and Port Owen on the western shore, accessible via Route 9W east on Delaware Avenue in Kingston. Park near the pavilion and hit the trail to the top of the bluff looking out over the river. MAP IT: We recommend plugging these site coordinates into Google Maps: 41.922038 Lat., -73.980442 Long.

2) Next, hit Mohonk Lake, site of Thomas Cole’s “Lake Mohonk” (1846, Collection of Questroyal Fine Art, LLC). Left unfinished, it is his view of the Shawangunks, currently the location of the Mohonk Mountain House, a resort that welcomes Hudson River School art visitors; inquire at the gatehouse of the resort for a map of notable spots. Access Cole’s view from the boat dock, looking southeast toward the lake’s rock walls and Sky Top Ridge. The resort is six miles west of the New York State Thruway at Exit 18. MAP IT: Plug these site coordinates into Google Maps: 41.76814 Lat., -74.15532 Long.

3) Also at the Mohonk Mountain House is Eagle Cliff, near Artist’s Rock. Thomas Worthington Whittredge’s “Twilight of the Shawangunks” (1865, The Manoogian Collection) is probably the most famous example of his breathtaking depictions of the ‘Gunks. Whittredge’s vantage point can be found on the western loop of Eagle Cliff Road at Huntington’s Lookout. Inquire at the resort’s gatehouse for a map of the location. MAP IT: Plug these site coordinates into Google Maps: 41.761765 Lat., -74.161781 Long.

4) Finally, view the Shawangunk Mountains from Sky Top. Sanford Robinson Gifford’s “The Shawangunk Mountains” (1864, private collection) shows the Trapps, the Near Trapps and Millbrook Mountain, west of the Hudson River. Gifford and Whittredge often painted the ‘Gunks together. Gifford’s vantage point can be seen via a short trail leading from the Mohonk Mountain House to the Sky Top Path; turn right on the first carriage road at the top and peak out from the Armstrong Seat gazebo. Inquire at the resort’s gatehouse for a map of the location. MAP IT: Plug these site coordinates into Google Maps: 41.76419 Lat., -74.15637 Long.

Next month, we will explore some of the other Hudson Valley sites frequented by the movement’s leading lights, and recommend the best galleries and historic houses for in-person viewings of the artistic interpretations of these gorgeous vistas.


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