Hudson River School.
In the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution had deepened its roots. From Britain (James Watt and the steam engine), it had spread to other European countries as France, Belgium, and Germany…, and to the United States in America. At the same time, the political revolutions of the now independent United States as well as the French Revolution of 1789 had brought a new society, able to gain a voice. What will it say? This new society will claim for feelings, for great emotions, for dreams and freedom: it was the Romanticism, a fantastic time for literature and arts.
A new economy would be able to create wealth in the future but (there is always a “but”) the new factories and the large industrial cities were ruining a marvelous previous nature in several places: Barbizon. Where is Barbizon? Near the forest of Fontainebleau, in France. There, a group of Romantic artists from different countries refuged themselves from the industrial civilization to paint the peaceful agricultural past, free of stress and rush: John Constable, Jean-François Millet, Camille Corot… It was a new way of painting, in plain-air, away from their studios for the first time in the art history. Afterwards, Impressionists will follow their teachings.
Was the school of Barbizon an exceptional rebellion? What was it happening in the other industrial part of the Earth with; what was it happening in the young United States of America? Same feelings, enlarged by the wild grandeur of its immense landscape.
Thomas Cole (1801 – 1848) was an English-born American artist. He is regarded as the founder of the Hudson River School, an American art movement that flourished in the 1850’s with important followers as Asher B. Durand (1796-1886) and Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900) who studied with Thomas Cole from 1844 to 1846.
Thomas Cole started his career in Ohio, as an unsuccessful portrait painter. Then, he moved to New York, where George W. Bruen financed him a Summer trip to the Hudson Valley. He painted two Views of Coldspring, the Catskill Mountain House, the famous Kaaterskill Falls and the ruins of Fort Putnam. The exhibition of them impressed the new generation of American artists and different wealthy people who became patrons of the artist.
Thomas Cole’s love for the American nature and for the threaten surroundings of the Hudson River, in course of industrialization, is still more evident in the five-part series, “The Course of Empire”, which depict the same landscape over generations, from a near state of nature to consummation of empire, and then decline and desolation. These paintings are now in the collection of the New York Historical Society.
After the premature death of Thomas Cole in 1848, a second generation emerged. It was formed by his pupils Asher B.
Durand and Edwin Church, but also by John Frederick Kensett, and Sanford Robinson Gifford. Important personalities because they were among the founders of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City (1869) and they are the first true generation of American artists.
All of them were really realistic and painted with a lot of details and a Romantic atmosphere. They depicted the American landscape as a pastoral setting, where people and nature could coexist peacefully because, in fact and in spite of their different religious convictions, they believed that nature was an ineffable manifestation of God and we should share a reverence for America natural beauty.