The Hudson River School began during the 1850’s in New York City and was a fraternity for landscape painters. The artists of this group had an academic background, attended the same places, as well as they all worked in Studio Building, the first place designated for artists to work in New York.
The British artist Thomas Cole is considered the founding father of the school, as he migrates to the big apple to become a painter, and after painting portraits, during his career, he decides to focus on landscapes. Cole was very inspired by Thomas Doughty and his take on landscapes, just as he was by J. M. W. Turner’s and John Martin’s historical and romantic take on landscapes. With great effort and a bit of luck, the painter makes a big break as one of his illustration is spotted in a store showcase by some artists of the time. During his studies, he leaves for Europe to engage in Academies, leaving his friend William Cullen Bryant to write a goodbye sonnet for him.
The travels of Cole are visible in his work, for he brings a more Classic view to the historical and mythical landscapes, like in the series The Course of the Empire, in which he painted Destruction. He also depicted another series Entitled the Voyage of Life, in which he portrayed a beautiful scene for each period of life, like Childhood, Youth, Manhood, and Old Age – each with an entirely different feeling. Religious and historical subjects begin to be represented more frequently in the American scenery of Cole’s work. His firmly based technique and dramatic paintings were reflected from the theory of the Sublime, which originated in Great Britain, thus bringing him closer to nature and its idealized representation. Cole also illustrates scenes from “Leatherstocking,” written by James Fenimore Cooper.
Later on, Cole’s works were analyzed by other artists that end up following in his footsteps. In 1825, Asher Brown Durand discovered the British landscape painter and progressively starts working in his influence. More than twenty years later, after Cole’s death, Durand is named the head of the group of New York Painters, as well as rising in the National Academy of Design to the post of President – the most important American art academy of the time. Inspired by the naturalist plein-air painting of John Constable – meaning he painted outside – Durand writes “Letters on Landscape Painting” and sets the tone for the Hudson River School’s production. Although he based his work on Cole’s earlier production, he did not like historical subjects portrayed in his paintings.
Also, profoundly influenced by Cole, Albert Bierstadt and Frederic Church deliberately portrayed heroic type landscapes and are the standout painters from this movement. In his work, Church uses expeditionary and scientific ideas instead of historical one, as did the naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, who he also looked upon for work inspiration. This can be seen in his painting from 1859, The Heart of the Andes. Bierstadt brings an atmosphere of peace to his landscapes, just as he does in Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains California, where he depicts an almost divine light shining down on the water of an idealized nature. He exaggerates certain aspects of nature to provoke an appealing aesthetic, like in On The Saco.
During the American Civil war, the art patrons start to acquire new aesthetic tastes in landscapes, as they start attending refined resorts with the intention of fleeing the chaos of urban life. With this, many landscape artists arise to meet the new standards. Martin Johnson Heade’s work is more romantic and exotic than the precedent artists. He portrays far-away lands with detailed flowers and vegetation, as seen in Cattelya Orchid and Three Brazilian Hummingbirds. He also incorporated flowers in still-life paintings, like in A Magnolia On Red Velvet. Sanford Robinson Gifford still remotes to historic landscapes in his work Study of Windsor Castle – in which he probably referenced the architecture from Gothic art from the XIV century. Another influential painter of this period of the movement was Jasper Francis Cropsey with his inspired landscapes. He balances the naturalistic colors with the dream-like violet in his work Boat Caulking on Greenwood Lake.
After the American Civil war ends, the European artistic influence was no longer coming from Great Britain, but mostly from France, marking the end of the Hudson River School. By the time Church passed away, in 1900, the movement was no longer a relevant subject in the art world, but today it is seen as Academic landscape painting at its finest.