Albert Bierstadt and the Hudson River School Buy Art Prints Now
from Amazon

* As an Amazon Associate, and partner with Google Adsense and Ezoic, I earn from qualifying purchases.

Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
Email: [email protected] / Phone: +44 7429 011000

"Art is the perfection of nature." This quote by Thomas Cole, acknowledged founder of the Hudson River School, encapsulates the ideal of this American art movement.

Inspired originally by the majestic landscape of the Hudson Valley, the artists of the movement turned to nature for inspiration and spiritual refreshment. Defined as "America's first homegrown, coherent and sizable group of landscape artists", the work of the Hudson River School expresses the awe-inspiring vastness of America while celebrating the place of humans within its landscape when they live in harmony with nature.

Thomas Cole and his Vision

Thomas Cole (1801 - 1848) arrived in America in 1818 with his family. They came from Bolton-le-Moors near Manchester in the north of England, a place of stark contrasts between rich and poor that the Industrial Revolution had magnified. Working in the local textile mill as a boy after the failure of his father's business, Cole would also have witnessed daily the contrast between the wild landscape of the moors so close to his home and the smoky, ever-growing mill streets of his town. There, families lived in terraced housing and spent their lives in service to the textile machines that were now producing cloth for the world.

Cole trained as an engraver before his arrival in America, moving from Philadelphia to the rural beauty of Catskill. The effect of his arrival appears to have been an opening up of potential in him, a potential not to "develop" or "exploit" the land for its perceived wealth, but to recreate its beauty in art: to exploit the potential of the natural landscape to inspire him. His work has therefore been described as "a kind of prospecting after the sublime", in contrast to the real prospecting for resources that was beginning in earnest at this time.

In 1836 Cole wrote an influential article, "American Scenery" in which he described his own personal and intellectual connection to the landscape of America. His work was prolific; over 2,500 of his sketches are in the Detroit Institute of Arts, while many of his best-known paintings can be found in major American museums and galleries such as the Brooklyn Museum, The Smithsonian Art Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago and Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Though his own life was brief, it enabled him to capture the freshness and wonder of a moment in the history of America.

Cole's Work - The Voyage of Life

Cole produced both pure landscapes and allegorical paintings. Among his most famous allegorical works were the Titan's Goblet, the Garden of Eden, Expulsion from the Garden of Eden and the sequence of paintings known as The Voyage of Life. The Titan's Goblet is a remarkable image, dreamlike and surreal, with vague hints of Hieronymus Bosch. A giant goblet sits at the edge of a cliff, the water falling from its edge caught on the breeze and blowing back towards the land. The Lilliputian society that inhabits the cup is not immediately apparent to the observer; once the perspective becomes clear, the vast scale of it is revealed.

At the foot of the goblet, on the shores of a sea, or lake, there is another civilisation with the domes and columns of its buildings appearing only partially visible within the vast shadow cast by the goblet. Two societies living apart from each other, yet harmoniously; is this an image of diversity within the abundance of the overflowing cup of America? Or rather, does it hint at ancient beliefs and thoughts overshadowing the new? Cole’s vision, described as "an oddity" and "cryptic", stands in a category of its own.

The Voyage of Life series uses more obvious allegorical themes and ideas, yet even in this sequence the landscape of America is thematically important. The land into which the child emerges on the vessel of life, accompanied by the angel, is clearly America. The colours of rock and sky, the blooms and leaves of the exotic plants on the shore, all recall the sense of youthfulness and primordiality experienced by those who came to settle there. The storm clouds of life slowly block out the original fresh and unsullied vision, until at the end there is darkness lit only by divine light.

The Visual and the Literary arts in Harmony

Just as the Romantic movement in Britain and Europe had its artists who recreated scenes from literary works, and writers who gave life to what they saw through vivid and memorable descriptions, for the Hudson River School literature, poetry and painting were complementary activities. In Britain, the romantic, Gothic tales of Walter Scott were recreated in atmospheric artworks by painters as diverse as Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre and Edward Blore. For the Hudson Valley School too, poetry and art were activities that flowered from the same divine source.

Cole was an accomplished poet whose works almost demand his readers turn to nature for inspiration, as these lines from his work The Wild show:

Friends of my heart, lovers of nature’s works,
Let me transport you to those wild, blue mountains
That rear their summits near the Hudson’s wave.
Though not the loftiest that begirt the land,
They yet sublimely rise, and on their heights
Your souls may have a sweet foretaste of heaven,
And traverse wide the boundless.

On visiting Niagara Falls, Cole saw this wonder of the world as like the waters of the infernal regions as described in Dante's work. Implacable Nature could terrify as well as inspire. There is a strong sense of the primordial in Frederick Edwin Church’s famous painting of Niagara, which captures the mesmeric flow, the relentlessness of the weight of water. Church was Cole's student, the only person to study with him directly, and so in a sense he was heir to Cole's vision. In order to understand the later legacy of the school, it is important to follow the thread of Church’s career.

Frederic Church: Embracing the Universe

The leitmotif of the work of Frederic Edwin Church (1826 – 1900) is embodied in Emerson's phrase to "embrace the universe". Nearly a century and half later, his paintings still arrest the observer with their technical brilliance and remarkable vision. Cotopaxi, Church's interpretation of the eruption of the volcano, looks as though it might have inspired a thousand illustrations in science fiction and fantasy novels. Smoke stretching across the sun turns the waters of the lake beneath to molten red, like metal in a crucible, recalling again Dante's infernal waters. Yet the mind that produced the image is still enquiring, rather than over-awed; much of Church's work reflected his experiences on his travels, particularly in South America, and he records with the motivation of the scientist and geologist as much as the artist.

During his lifetime, Church achieved extraordinary success, being one of the most successful artists financially as well as in terms of acclaim. His travels permitted him to explore the elements in new ways that took him beyond the work of the Hudson River School. Journeying also enabled him to experiment with different forms of light, such as the translucence of the ice floes he saw on his visit to Labrador. These, and his exceptional creation of the rainbows in his Niagara painting, mark him out as an elemental painter, drawing parallels with Turner.

Luminism: The Description of Light

The term Luminism to describe the effect of the treatment of light by artists inspired by the Hudson School was first applied to the seascapes of some of the New England artists such as Fitz Hugh Lane, and was later extended to the work of others such as Albert Bierstadt. However, the term was not used until the 1950s and is often seen as problematic by art commentators.

Luminism is used specifically to describe the creation of light by invisible brush strokes, creating a sense of eternity in which the artist's own personality is reduced or absent. Used more generally, the glowing light effects of luminism can also be applied to the contemplation of nature, an objective view that again transcends the personality of the artist. Thus in a more general sense, luminism has also been considered to represent a contemplative perception of nature, and linked to the transcendentalist movement.

There would appear to be clear parallels with the philosophy of Emerson and Thoreau. However, analogies have also been drawn historically between the Hudson River School and the work of Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving. The landscape work of the Hudson River School could be seen to walk a fine line between texts expressing a more colonialist view and those of transcendentalism.

Issues relating to the complexity of the relationship between the original inhabitants of the land and those of the new arrivals are touched on, but little more. The observer is drawn to look at the landscape, the seascape and the sky, not to explore concepts emotionally. If anything, emotional complexities are to be avoided. In particular, Albert Bierstadt's handling of light is one that is much discussed, prompting very divergent reactions to his work.

Albert Bierstadt: Into the West

A graduate of the Hudson River School, Albert Bierstadt (1830 – 1902) would take his artistic skills westwards to the Rockies with land surveyor Frederick W. Lander. Like Cole, Bierstadt, who was of German origin, had arrived in America with his family. He returned to Germany to study painting, exhibiting an Alpine landscape at the National Academy of Design with great success.

The influence of his time with the Düsseldorf School is visible in his paintings of American landscapes, but they capture the immense scale of the Rocky Mountains in a way that is reminiscent of Cole's gigantic chalice. These are gigantic mountains, mountains where Titans might dwell, and the light simply pours down the sides of them as if its power would overflow the painting.

For range and variation in the expression of light, Bierstadt is an outstanding painter. Light in his landscapes has an almost physical presence, light with its own personality. His skill is also visible in his handling of water, whether depicting the smooth cobalt and verdigris-coloured depths of a mountain lake, or the cold translucent green of a wave about to crash onto the rocks.

Bierstadt was a successful artist, frequently criticised for the grandiosity and drama of his work. It was not unusual for members of the Hudson School to be criticised in this way, particularly towards the latter part of the 19th century when the movement had lost favour. However, reassessment of his work in the late 20th century restored him to favour, and there are many today who admire the expansive feel and powerful light effects of his landscapes. His works are displayed at many museums, including the Brooklyn Museum, Museum of Fine Art, Boston, Newark Museum and Cornell University.

Jasper Francis Cropsey: the Architecture of the Landscape

A native of Staten Island, still a rural landscape in the early 1800s, Jasper Francis Cropsey (1823 – 1900) was a self-taught artist who went on to study as an architect. He is viewed as a founding member of the Hudson River School. His understanding of architectural principles underlies his work, meaning they are compositionally well-constructed and draw the eye from feature to feature with skill. However, it is the confident and appealing use of colour and light that is immediately apparent, marking him out clearly as a Hudson School artist.

Some of his later work featured outstanding autumn scenes, inspired not only by American landscapes but also by the time he spent abroad. Like many other members of the movement, Cropsey spent time in Europe and he lived in London for several years. His paintings were exhibited at the Royal Academy and the International Exhibition of 1862. Cropsey was also a founding member of the American Society of Painters in Water Colors.

Like his colleagues in the Hudson River School, his paintings are on display in many leading American museums. These include the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Detroit Institute of Arts, the Denver Art Museum, Museum of Fine Arts Boston and the Princeton University Art Museum. It is a fine tribute to a painter who fell from public view in the latter half of his life and who, like his compatriots, felt a strong and personal connection to the spirit of nature that he experienced through the landscapes he painted.

Other Luminaries of the Hudson River School

After the premature death of Thomas Cole, the ethos and approach of the School continued with what has been called "the second generation"; these included Church, Bierstadt and also John Frederick Kensett and Sanford Robinson Gifford. Church, Gifford and Kensett were founder members of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, thus disseminating the precepts of the School to new generations and locations.

Gifford (1823 – 1880), a native of Greenfield, New York, was the son of an iron foundry owner. He is unusual in that he studied art formally, unlike Cole and Cropsey. His teacher was John Rubens Smith, a watercolourist and master of perspective and anatomy. Gifford attended additional anatomy classes at a medical college. He exhibited at the National Academy, becoming an academy member by 1854. Despite his early interest in human anatomy, it was to landscapes that he dedicated his artistic career, later being recognised as a leading exponent of luminism.

John Frederick Kensett (1816 - 1872) achieved recognition for his landscape and seascape works of New York and New England, but he also drew inspiration from his travels in northwest America and the Rockies. Like others of the second generation, he also made several journeys to Europe. Identified by later generations as one of the luminist artists, Kensett's work shows evidence of Transcendentalist inspiration and the spiritual connection that had been part of Cole's original vision. Kensett has become particularly well-known for his massive canvas of Mount Washington, thus forming part of the White Mountain Art group. This proved to be a popular illustration, resulting in massive subscriptions for engravings and prints.

The work of Kensett and Gifford can be found in museums and galleries throughout America including of course, the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Kensett's work "Lake George" has been described as a culminating work, thus identifying it as a mature piece of the Hudson River School Art Movement. It dates from 1896, and in its more realistic approach it is perhaps possible to see the influence of photography on landscape paintings of the latter half of the 19th century. Yet there is still the glow of colour that is so typical of the Hudson River artists, that sense of the sublime in nature and the need to acknowledge it.

The Legacy of the Hudson River School Artists

Like the landscapes they grew to recognise almost as parts of their own being, the artists of the Hudson River School were at times eclipsed or almost invisible, yet there has always been periodic interest in their work. Despite criticism of their motives and style, accusations of elitism and lack of connection from reality, for many today their works still speak to the spirit. While some contemporary artists have drawn inspiration from the Hudson River School, their work tends to be side-lined in favour of more realistic imagery, often that of urban landscapes. Yet simultaneously, movements to protect the earth, raise awareness of climate change and the extinction of species have gained momentum and even power.

It could be argued that the Hudson River artists attempted to paint landscapes for their own sake, not for the sake of human exploitation; still a noble endeavour, surely. In some of the paintings the world of humans encroaches inevitably on nature. Here, the perspectives of the artists are of interest; often it is as if they are secreted in nature, observing what is happening. Figures, when they appear, are small and frequently placed in remote spots where they can view what is happening below. It might be argued that their work still has authority, for it is a reminder of what once was, and what could be again; figures in the landscape in harmony with nature, seeing the divine and eternal, but not necessarily the religious, in nature's forms.