Neither the originator of the term Hudson River School nor its first published use has been fixed with certainty. The term is thought to have originated with the New York Tribune art critic Clarence Cook or the landscape painter Homer D. Martin As originally used, the term was meant disparagingly, as the work so labelled had gone out of favor when the plein-air Barbizon School had came into vogue among American patrons and collectors.
Hudson River School paintings reflect three themes of America in the 19th century: discovery, exploration, and settlement. The paintings also depict the American landscape as a pastoral setting, where human beings and nature coexist peacefully. Hudson River School landscape are characterized by their realistic, detailed, and sometimes idealized portrayal of nature, often juxtaposing peaceful agriculture and the remaining wilderness, fast disappearing from the Hudson Valley just as it was coming to be appreciated for its qualities of ruggedness and sublimity. In general, Hudson River School artists believed that nature in the form of the American landscape was an ineffable manifestation of God, though the artists varied in the depth of their religious conviction. They took as their inspiration such European masters as Claude Lorrain, John Constable and J.M.W. Turner, and shared a reverence for America's natural beauty with contemporary American writers such as Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
While the elements of the paintings are rendered very realistically, many of the actual scenes are the synthesized compositions of multiple scenes or natural images observed by the artists. In gathering the visual data for their paintings, the artists would travel to rather extraordinary and extreme environments, the likes of which would not permit the act of painting. During these expeditions, sketches and memories would be recorded and the paintings would be rendered later, upon the artists' safe return home.
The artist Thomas Cole is generally acknowledged as the founder of the Hudson River School. Cole took a steamship up the Hudson in the autumn of 1825, the same year the Erie Canal opened, stopping first at West Point, then at Catskill landing where he ventured west high up into the eastern Catskill Mountains of New York State to paint the first landscapes of the area. The first review of his work appeared in the New York Evening Post on Nov. 22, 1825. At that time, only the English native Cole, born in a landscape where autumnal tints were of browns and yellows, found the brilliant autumn hues of the area inspirational. Cole's close friend, Asher Durand, became a prominent figure in the school as well, particularly when the banknote-engraving business evaporated in the Panic of 1837.
The second generation of Hudson River school artists emerged to prominence after Thomas Cole's premature death in 1848, including Cole's prize pupil Frederic Edwin Church, John Frederick Kensett, and Sanford Robinson Gifford. Works by artists of this second generation are often described as examples of Luminism. In addition to pursuing their art, many of the artists, including Kensett, Gifford and Church, were founders of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City (1869).
Most of the finest works of the Hudson River school were painted between 1855 and 1875. During that time, artists like Frederic Edwin Church and Albert Bierstadt were celebrities. When Church exhibited paintings like Niagara or Icebergs of the North, thousands of people would line up around the block and pay fifty cents a head to view the solitary work. The epic size of the landscapes in these paintings, unexampled in earlier American painting, reminded Americans of the vast, untamed, but magnificent wilderness areas in their country, and their works helped build upon movements to settle the American West, preserve national parks, and create city parks.
One of the largest collections of paintings by artists of the Hudson River School is at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut. Some of the most notable works in the Atheneum's collection are 13 landscapes by Thomas Cole, and 11 by Hartford native Frederic Edwin Church, both of whom were personal friends of the museum's founder, Daniel Wadsworth. Other important collections of Hudson River School art can be seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New-York Historical Society, both in Manhattan, NY, the Brooklyn Museum in Brooklyn, NY, the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, NY, the Olana State Historic Site (Frederic E. Church's home) near Hudson, NY, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, the Detroit Institute of Arts in Detroit, MI, the Albany Institute of History & Art in Albany, New York, the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the Newark Museum in Newark, NJ, and the Westervelt Warner Museum of American Art in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.