Times & Places

Hudson River School

The Hudson River School was an landscape that dominated American art in the mid-19th century. Not an institution of artistic training, the Hudson River School was a group of like-minded landscape painters in New York City and New England. Though their styles varied, the Hudson River School painters all sought to capture the grandeur of nature in America. It existed as a visual analog to the contemporary literary and philosophical movement of Transcendentalism. Like authors Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Herman Melville, the Hudson River School painters contemplated god, nature, and morality through the American landscape.

Thomas Cole is widely considered the founder of the Hudson River School. An émigré from England, he applied the concept of the Sublime to the American landscape. Cole came to the United States in 1818, but it wasn’t until his 1825 trip up the Hudson River to the Catskill Mountains that his dramatic, realistic landscapes captured the attention of John Trumbull, then president of the American Academy of Fine Arts. After his debut Romantic landscapes, Cole turned to literary, biblical, and historical subjects such as The Last of the Mohicans, Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, and historic allegories like The Course of Empire.

Before Cole’s sudden death in 1848, he had begun teaching the young Frederic Edwin Church. Church, alongside Albert Bierstadt, would be the most famous of the second generation of Hudson River School painters. This second wave was overseen by Cole’s close friend and president of the National Academy of Design, Asher B. Durand. In 1855, Durand published a series of “Letters on Landscape Painting” in which he espoused painting from nature. This second wave, which also included John Frederick Kensett and Sanford Robinson Gifford, focused largely on landscapes without the allegorical and historical trappings of the previous generation.

At its peak in the late 1850s and 1860s, the Hudson River School was wildly popular. Church and Bierstadt traveled to South America and the West, respectively, to paint enormous, detailed landscapes for their east coast viewers. Twelve thousand spectators in New York City paid a quarter to see Church’s The Heart of the Andes, spotlit and framed with a curtain. The popularity of the Hudson River School waned after the Civil War, as Americans felt less idealistically about their own land. By the Centennial in 1876, American taste had shifted from the British sublime landscapes of the Hudson River School, to softer, more French style works and a popular return to figure painting.

Rebecca Singerman, 2018-2019 McDermott Graduate Intern for American Art

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Fun Facts

  • At the height of the Hudson River School’s popularity, Albert Bierstadt toured with Native Americans to set the scene for his paintings and create events around his exhibitions.

  • Many of the Hudson River School painters were trained in the Dusseldorf School.

  • Thomas Cole, Frederic Edwin Church, and Albert Bierstadt all built lavish house-studios along the Hudson River.

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